Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Oriental Trading Company was a staple name in my household. My mom would eagerly await the catalogs in the mail, circling all the items she wanted to order for my next birthday party or school event. As a kid, I loved flipping through the colorful pages filled with toys, crafts, decorations and novelties – it was better than any toy store! Little did I know then about the rich history and community impact of this Omaha-based company.

Oriental Trading Company (OTC) was founded in 1932 by Harry Watanabe after he purchased the Midwestern Import Company in downtown Omaha. Harry recognized the growing market for imported novelty items and rebranded the company to Oriental Trading Company with a focus on wholesale imports and party supplies. In those early days, OTC carried traditional Japanese items like kites, Kimonos and fans. The first catalogs produced were simple, text-only lists printed on 8.5×11 sheets.

Business steadily grew and in 1940, Harry moved OTC to a larger warehouse on Farnam Street where they remained for over 40 years. His wife Teru helped run the business and came up with the idea to add a color photo on the cover of the catalog. This was a hit with customers and helped grow the mailing list substantially over the years.

Omaha locals may remember visiting the retail store OTC opened in the 1950s at their Farnam Street location. It offered customers a chance to browse the vast selection of imported novelties in person versus ordering from the catalog. At its peak, this store brought in over $1 million in annual sales!

A Staple of Omaha’s Economy

In 1977, Harry Watanabe passed the family business to his son Terry who ran OTC for the next 30 years. The 80s and 90s brought incredible growth as the catalog mailing list grew from 200,000 to over 10 million households. OTC expanded its product line to over 40,000 items, everything from party supplies, teaching materials, gifts, decorations and more.

Oriental Trading Company headquarters remained in Omaha where they steadily expanded operations. A larger warehouse was built on 93rd and L Street in 1987 to accommodate the booming catalog orders and inventory.

At this time, OTC employed over 1,000 people, many Omaha locals. I reminisce on the times my mom would chat with our mailman who also worked the evening shift at OTC’s warehouse to supplement his income. This was a common story for many living in Omaha.

Bringing Jobs and Economic Growth to Omaha

In 2000, OTC moved their headquarters just outside of Omaha to the village of La Vista while keeping their distribution center in Omaha. As the Internet age boomed, OTC launched an e-commerce website to keep up with changing consumer shopping habits.

Even with competition from big box retailers, OTC held its own in the party and craft supply market. In 2003, OTC was purchased by Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffet’s holding company, in a nearly $500 million deal. This investment allowed OTC to expand its facilities and workforce in Omaha.

OTC built a brand new 780,000 square foot warehouse and distribution center in 2007 in southwest Omaha. The $150 million project brought even more jobs and economic growth to the area. At its peak, OTC employed over 2,000 people in Omaha across multiple shifts.

Many Omahans remember applying for seasonal work at OTC in high school or college. The company offered flexible evening and overnight shifts to accommodate students. They also hired disabled workers through partnerships with local organizations, providing meaningful employment.

Giving Back to the Omaha Community

Beyond jobs, Oriental Trading Company has given back to the community through local partnerships and charity programs. They routinely hired artists and craftmakers from Omaha’s Old Market district to develop new products for the catalogs.

OTC also sourced many products from local Omaha businesses and vendors which helped small retail shops across the city. Terry Watanabe was highly involved in Omaha charities over the years, focusing on youth and family services. He donated $12 million to the University of Nebraska Medical Center for a new research tower named the Suzanne and Walter Scott Specialty Care Pavilion.

In the 2000s, OTC ran an annual charity golf event with proceeds supporting the Completely Kids organization which serves abused and neglected children. Employees could volunteer with projects like collecting school supplies, books and art materials to donate to Completely Kids programs.

OTC also partnered with Omaha Public Schools on educational initiatives like donating art materials or offering product discounts for teachers. You would often see their logo and booths at local school festivals and teacher appreciation events. They worked to make crafting and hands-on learning more accessible for schools in the community.

Offering Creativity and Fun for All Ages

Beyond the jobs and economic impact, Oriental Trading Company sparked creativity and joy for multiple generations in Omaha through their products. For over 80 years, OTC has helped Omaha families celebrate holidays, birthdays, school events and more.

Parents could always rely on OTC for last-minute school project supplies, discounts on party decorations and novelties, and fun stocking stuffers. The ubiquitous catalogs that filled our mailboxes made OTC a household name.

I have fond memories digging through the craft supplies and filling goodie bags for my friends at birthday parties with things like bouncy balls, plastic animals, stickers and more all ordered from OTC. Their products brought fun and playfulness to our childhoods in Omaha that shaped so many cherished memories.

What’s Available for Omaha Residents Today

These days, the Oriental Trading Company name lives on beyond Omaha. They were purchased by private equity in 2012 and moved their headquarters to Dallas while keeping distribution and operations in Omaha. In 2017, OTC was sold again, this time to Berkshire Hathaway who also owns companies like Fruit of the Loom.

While the catalog has been discontinued, you can still shop online and find all your favorite toys, novelties, craft supplies and more at OrientalTrading.com. With distribution still running from Omaha, shipping is quick for local customers.

Omaha residents can also take advantage of exclusive discounts and promotions by signing up on their website with a zip code. For corporate customers, OTC has dedicated account managers to help non-profits, schools, churches and businesses in Omaha source products easily.

While the retail store is gone, the Oriental Trading Company warehouse and distribution center still employs hundreds of local workers. So you’re supporting jobs in Omaha even when shopping online. Products are also available through major retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and Amazon.

Continuing a Legacy in Omaha

Oriental Trading Company has come a long way from its humble origins selling imported novelties in downtown Omaha. Over nearly a century, OTC brought jobs, economic growth and community impact to Omaha while sparking creativity for families and schools through their ever-evolving product lines.

For Omaha natives, it’s impossible not to feel a hint of nostalgia when we see those familiar red and yellow banners. OTC delivered childhood fun in the form of bouncy balls and glow sticks for parties. They supplied craft materials and school activities that helped us learn and grow.

While the future of brick-and-mortar retail remains uncertain, the OTC name lives on in Omaha. Their legacy and community involvement created a cherished local brand that will not be forgotten soon. OTC brought people together in Omaha through celebrations big and small. Their products allowed our imaginations to shine brightly through crafts and play.

Here’s hoping OTC will continue supplying joy and creativity to Omaha families for another 80+ years, even if the warehouses look a bit different. There is something special about OTC being Omaha-grown that we can all take pride in today.

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