…And One Under 80: Willy Theisen, Godfather of Entrepreneurship

When Willy Theisen launched Godfather’s Pizza in 1973, Midlands Business Journal’s inaugural  40 Under 40 awards were still 29 years away. The publication itself wasn’t even established until 1975. But if 40 Under 40 had existed 50 years ago, Willy Theisen surely would have been one of the first nominees. Now 78, he gets a kick out of the suggestion that this year’s awards should be re-designated as “40 Under 40 … and One under 80” to accommodate him, adding that he’s always been able to dish out — and take — a joke.

“I throw a few,” he said. “And, yeah, you gotta take ‘em,” he said.

He’s always been serious about the hard work behind his success, however, and Theisen was well under 40 when he first delved into entrepreneurship. As a 20-something still working full-time as an apartment complex manager, he opened a bar called Wild Willy’s south of 99th and Q streets. The bar was adjacent to a small pizzeria, and an opening between the two establishments made it easy for bar customers to order pizza from next door. The shared wall came down when Theisen joined the pizzeria’s owner, Gregg Johnson, to create Godfather’s Pizza in 1973. The restaurant’s name was inspired by the hugely popular movie “The Godfather” released the year before. (Coincidentally, the don of the Corleone family was played by Omaha-born Marlon Brando.)

Within a year, Theisen bought out the pizzeria and its name, and a legend was born.

“My goal was to figure out how we successfully put beer and pizza together,” Theisen said. “We hit the ground running.”

The first Godfather’s included video games and a pool table held over from Wild Willy’s. Among Theisen’s innovations was an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

“It was on wheels …We rolled it in full of ice,” he said, adding that offering salad as a pizza accompaniment was an instant success. “It was a very good combination.”

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Franchising began in 1974, spurred by a trio of Sunday regulars from Columbus, Nebraska). Although Theisen initially declined their suggestion to expand to their hometown, the men persisted and eventually Theisen agreed to take a look at the location they had in mind — with no promises and a lot of cautioning about the enormous commitment and hours involved in running a restaurant; it was an effort to deter them. To Theisen’s surprise, he said, a Columbus location turned out to be an offer that he couldn’t refuse.

“We opened a couple of months later … That was it. If they had not found me, I never would have found them,” Theisen said. “They picked me and I almost didn’t do it. But that stroke of luck was the start of it.”

Godfather’s quickly became a booming franchise, with Theisen targeting Nebraska and adjacent states to effectively manage distribution and quality control. The National Restaurant Association called out Godfather’s for top growth nationally in 1977, 1978 and 1979.

“I opened 450 restaurants, the fastest-growing food chain in the United States,” Theisen said. “That’s one every 60 hours.”

At its peak, Godfather’s had close to 1,000 locations nationwide and was the third-largest of its kind in the country. Theisen sold the business in 1983. Godfather’s Pizza is still around today.

“Three, four years ago, I’m coming through Fremont and I’m not paying attention to my speed. I get pulled over,” Theisen said. “I get my license and registration, get my window down. The policeman says, ‘I want to see your license.’”

The officer then recognized his last name and asked if he knew Willy Theisen, Theisen said.

“I said, ‘I know Willy pretty well,’” Theisen said, chuckling at the memory and adding that it dawned on the officer who William Theisen was at that point. “He goes, ‘You gotta be kidding me. Well, I’m going to tell you something. I worked at Godfather’s in Fremont for three and a half years … I delivered pizzas when I was in high school.’ he said, ‘Can I share one thing with you? Best job I ever had.’”

Theisen said that although it’s only spared him from a speeding ticket once, he’s still often recognized around town and at virtually every event he attends. He hears stories from many former Godfather’s employees with fond memories of working at one of the locations as a teen, and from past patrons who reminisce about the atmosphere and, of course, the pizza. People still remember details like the refillable soft drink jug, evocative of a classic Coke glass, from a promotion that “was a limited-time offer but it just kept going.” Past Godfather’s Pizza scholarship winners have thanked Theisen for the opportunity “that made a difference.” Theisen has even been amused by the number of people over the years confessing that they believed the longstanding ‘godfather’ character in Godfather’s television commercials (played by actors J. William Koll originally and Dale O’Brien presently) was him.

Theisen also shares plenty of his own Godfather’s stories, from paying for his first small supply orders via cash on delivery, to workers delivering pizzas on foot when most of the city was closed down and un-navigable during the 1975 blizzard. Theisen’s recollections include handshake deals and a business plan written on a napkin.

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he explained, adding that times and methods are different today. However, he said, the fundamentals of entrepreneurship are the same.

“The power of work and hard work — don’t sell either one of those short … I didn’t even know what the word ‘entrepreneur’ meant, it wasn’t even in the vocabulary,” he said. “Entrepreneurs see things clearly that other people just don’t see.”

Luck plays a part, too, he said. Theisen, who was born in Chicago but grew up in Clinton, Iowa, originally intended to make his fortune in California after graduating from high school and trying — and leaving — college. During what started as Theisen’s relocation trip to the West Coast, the transmission in his 1961 Ford Falcon failed on the Mormon Bridge. An Omaha friend came to the rescue and the young man’s family offered Theisen a place to stay temporarily in exchange for some work around the house. Theisen quickly found a job and his own place, and chose to make his home in Omaha. He’s been here ever since.

Post-Godfather’s, Theisen has had a number of other successful business ventures. He’s also been active in the community including serving multiple stints on the board of the Omaha Airport Authority and playing a key role in establishing services of several airlines. He has served on the boards of directors or advisory boards for Creighton University, University of Nebraska’s Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Franchising, Metropolitan Entertainment Convention Authority (MECA), Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Business Ethics Alliance. Theisen has also received numerous accolades such as an honorary doctorate degree from University of Nebraska at Omaha and a Better Business Bureau Award of Distinction as well as induction into the Nebraska Business & Commerce Hall of Fame, Greater Omaha Chamber Business Hall of Fame, and Omaha Restaurant Association Hospitality Hall of Fame.

Theisen said he’s also still a bell-ringer for the annual Salvation Army holiday campaign, continues to regularly speak to student groups as he’s done for decades, and is even quick to help secure food donations for special causes. He’s also volunteered time with RISE, a character development and job readiness program for incarcerated individuals.

“I try to take the time I spend with people that need some help and direction, to try to make a difference,” he said. “I do as much as I can.”