Hospitality Personified: Celebrating the legacy of the late Greg Cutchall

By the time Greg Cutchall was inducted in to the Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame in 2018 and named Omaha Restaurant Association’s Restauranteur of the Year in 2019, he had opened more than 120 restaurants and franchises since entering the sector as a Kentucky Fried Chicken manager in the 1970s. Cutchall Management Co., which he founded in 1989, currently owns and operates 44 restaurants in five states including JAMS American Grill, First Watch Daytime Cafe, Paradise Bakery, River City Star/Dam Bar & Grill, Mouth of the South and more. Cutchall and his wife, Molly, are also co-founders of the Omaha Design Center.

Willy Theisen and Greg Cutchall (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)
Willy Theisen and Greg Cutchall (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)

By all counts, Cutchall was an extraordinary businessman. As they reflected on his life and legacy since his death from cancer on May 16 at the age of 69, his friends and family said Cutchall was also a remarkable person.

“He truly had a life well lived, and a life completed. Every day that he was on this earth, he made a difference… He was truly an American success story,” Cutchall’s brother Michael Cutchall said. “He had an amazing capacity to honor and develop friendships. You might have five close friends; Greg has 50 close friends. He’s as close to his 50 as I am to my five, and the relationships he developed with each one of those people and each one of those people is different.”

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“From the day I met him he was polite, kind and energetic,” John Hoich of Hoich Enterprises said, referring to Cutchall as his buddy. “Greg was always humble to me, treated me with integrity, always made me feel an equal.”

Hoich and Cutchall met in 1978. Hoich did residential and commercial landscaping work for Cutchall over the years, but the two men formed a lasting friendship early on. “I will never forget the memories of the last few years he’s come to my home on Timber Shores Lake in Valley; we would fish together often.”

“You couldn’t meet a more optimistic guy,” Rob Denning said. “Always a big smile. Always welcoming.”

Cutchall Management Co. Team (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)
Cutchall Management Co. Team (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)

Denning and Cutchall met over 20 years ago, Denning said. A few years later he invited Cutchall to speak to his team at the bank he was working for at the time.
“He talked about never giving up, and walked through his story,” Denning said. “He talked about the fact that you have to keep pushing forward and keep envisioning something and modifying it and making it happen. It was almost like he expected obstacles… he talked about, basically, the will to keep going.”

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Dan Williams, who described Cutchall as a friend, business partner and mentor, agreed that Cutchall had a notable tenacity, a “positive outlook on life and ‘never say quit’ attitude” that served him well both personally and professionally.

Greg Cutchall with wife Molly and Family (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)
Greg Cutchall with wife Molly and Family (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)

“Greg always had a ‘can do’ attitude with every venture he had,” Williams said. “In business there are many obstacles, but he always seemed to find a way to overcome them. He never looked at a restaurant that did not work as a failure, but just one concept that did not work.”

Restaurant entrepreneur Willy Theisen had a relationship with Cutchall that spanned both business and friendship. “I don’t know the exact moment we met, but our paths crossed and it’s been 45 years,” Theisen said. “He cared. He made a difference. He created opportunities for an enormous amount of people. And he was quite an example.”

(Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)
(Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)

“He seemed like he was always on the right side,” Theisen continued. “Not afraid to put up a fight and challenge, but always on the team that was doing the right things. Hiring the right people, promoting them, making them part of the team, identifying them. He was a true leader.”

Fellow restauranteur Darren Taylor said he and Cutchall became friends in the late 1970s through their work in the industry.

“In 1986, Rigel Corp and Greg put together a buyout of the Omaha-area KFCs from his uncle, Bob Cutchall. Greg and I worked out of the same Rigel Office for three years until he left Rigel and began to open restaurants on his own. We continued to be friends and I’d see him at restaurant functions and media events. Numerous happy hours, too,” Taylor said. “Greg loved to do ‘deals’; he never met a deal he didn’t try to put together. He was the ultimate media-savvy guy; he loved to promote and be involved in events and charities. You knew where he was coming from, he loved to talk business and he’d lay everything out on the table on how he felt things should get done. We were competitors, but that never got in the way of our relationship. We both had houses in Scottsdale and would get together there numerous times. We also went to many restaurant conferences together.”

(Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)
(Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)

Rod Kestel was in the advertising business when he first connected with Cutchall professionally, and a friendship soon followed. Years later, he said he had never heard Cutchall lose his temper or even raise his voice, and that Cutchall was respectful to the people who worked for him.

“He was calm as could be. What a leader to have that type of quality!” Kestel said. “He didn’t have much turnover among his managers.”

Hoich agreed. “I appreciated always how he treated his employees as peers,” he said. “He never spoke of them as employees, he spoke to them as the team.”

“He really thought about people and he cared so much,” Theisen said. “He’d build a staff and he’d build a company and he’d build a culture.”

Good Business Instincts

Friends and industry colleagues alike remarked that Cutchall possessed good business sense.

“He had a knack for knowing food concepts that would work in Omaha,” Kestel said, adding that Cutchall also did things “on his terms” and was decisive. “He knew best. He did what was right in his industry.”

“He was very, very intuitive,” Theisen said.
Michael Cutchall said his brother was good at facilitating connections. “He loved the thrill of the deal and making things happen and putting people together…and most of his deals started with a handshake.“

Rob Rhoden, Greg Cutchall and Rod Denning on last trip to Phoenix (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)
Rob Rhoden, Greg Cutchall and Rod Denning on last trip to Phoenix (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)

Relentless Resilience

Cutchall gave generously to local nonprofits.

“He really loved Omaha, and he really liked making a difference there. Certainly, his path and expertise was entertainment and dining experiences and creating new concepts and new things to improve the quality of life in Omaha. That was really his passion and his mission,” Michael Cutchall said. “In that process, he was able to support charitable organizations in Omaha. He was really just a ‘homeboy for Omaha.’”

On a personal level, Cutchall was also a “very caring and loving person,” Kestel said, and served as a source of support when he lost his wife to cancer 11 years ago. “He was right there for me. He cared about my family.”

(Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)
(Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)

Michael Cutchall said he remembers his brother’s “relentless resilience and passion for life.”

“It probably started with our parents. Our father instilled the belief in us that all things were possible and our mother would express to us that to have a successful path forward, it required knowledge and fearlessness. I think that was the foundation that Greg built upon,” he said. “The thought was, if we had a good idea and worked hard enough—and not that that’s always easy—we could find a way to make that happen. And certainly he proved that throughout his entire life.”

Michael (two years older) and Greg Cutchall had another brother and a sister, but the two were especially close growing up.

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or Maverick and Goose,” Michael Cutchall said. “We were just buddies. We grew and experienced life together.”

John Hoich and Greg Cutchall (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)
John Hoich and Greg Cutchall (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)

The brothers, whose parents divorced when they were young, spent most of the year with their mother in Tucson, Arizona. They spent summers in Nebraska. There, Greg discovered both his love for the restaurant business and his knack for entrepreneurship.

“Our dad and uncles owned the A & W Root Beer drive-ins in Omaha in the ‘50s. We started working every day in the summer; probably from the time Greg was 7 he was working daily inside the drive-in,” Michael Cutchall said. “When he was 8, he and I went into the popcorn business. We leased a popcorn machine from our father and then we’d buy our popcorn and oil and cook our popcorn and then we’d go around to the cars in the parking lot and sell them popcorn. So entrepreneurially, Greg started when he was 8 years old.”

Rod Kestel and Greg Cutchall, Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.
Rod Kestel and Greg Cutchall (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)

The brothers both attended the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Around that time, they started another entrepreneurial venture, selling Native American jewelry. “We ended up having stores in three states,” Michael Cutchall said.

Ultimately, they went in different directions professionally, Greg in the restaurant business and Michael entering a long career in the media business.

“It was, I think, a time for us to break and go our separate ways,” Michael Cutchall said. “And we both flourished.”

But the two talked regularly, he added, often frankly discussing business.

“I think that was something we both valued,” he said. “(Siblings) know everything about you from your whole life, so you can’t slide by on those things. We were equal in providing accountability as well as supporting in challenging times.”

Restaurateur Greg Cutchall (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)
Restaurateur Greg Cutchall (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)

Greg Stories

Both Theisen and Denning said Cutchall was known for attending to several things at once.

“He was a guy who could get the job done; what a multitasker!” Theisen said.

“He was constantly doing two or three things,” Denning said. “But I couldn’t cite an instance when he didn’t greet people with a big smile.”

He was also a lot of fun, his friends said, or as Denning put it, “Everyone will have their Greg story…and everyone seems to have a great connection.”

Theisen has many, from the Nebraska Cornhuskers tailgate parties with abundant food and drink to fishing trips and motorcycle expeditions.

About a year ago, Cutchall was standing on a dock when he pulled out a new set of wireless earbuds. Theisen cautioned his friend that the earbuds could be easily lost. Cutchall put them in his ears, anyway, telling Theisen, “You worry too much.” Then he cast his fishing rod.

Greg Catchall doing some fishing (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)
Greg Catchall doing some fishing (Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)

“The right earbud comes flying out of his ear, bounces two times off two different boards and ‘boink!’—right in the water. He looks at me and says, ‘don’t even say anything’ and he called me a name,” Theisen said, chuckling at the memory. Amazingly, Kestel, who was with them at the time, found the earbud underwater. Cutchall’s response was nonchalant: “Still works.”

“That was our guy!” Theisen said.

Several of Cutchall’s friends mentioned his perpetual tardiness.

“He…showed up late once in a while. There was daylight savings time, standard time and Cutchall time,” Theisen said. On one years-ago flight, Theisen recalled anxiously awaiting Cutchall to join him as the flight was getting ready to depart.

“He comes running down the ramp, he has all this paperwork and a laptop,” Theisen said. “I say, ‘You have got to be kidding. He says, ‘Willy, you want to drink coffee with the pilots.’ I said, ‘No, I get here at the proper time, okay?’”

(Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)
(Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)

The two men had a good laugh, Theisen said.

Denning said Cutchall was usually undaunted by challenges. One of his favorite “Greg stories” is from the early 2000s when he and Cutchall decided they would ride motorcycles back to Omaha from Arizona. When they arrived in Arizona, Cutchall discovered he had forgotten the keys to his condominium, so he hoisted Denning onto his shoulders to get into an unlocked second-story window.

“I climbed in the house. Pitch black—I fell down. Let him into the house and we went to get the car he kept there and the battery was dead. When we finally got the motorcycle packed up, his had a flat tire… All of those things that happened? He didn’t care. We just kept on and had a great time,” Denning said. “Those curveballs, whether they were business or personal, I think he looked at them with a different perspective than all of us.”
Cutchall even faced cancer with courage. He passed away 10 days before what would have been his 70th birthday. In addition to his siblings, he leaves behind wife Molly; children Cory Cutchall, Cydney Martzahl and Chase Cutchall; and five grandchildren.

“He didn’t complain. He was hurting. All us guys would go over and sit with him and we’d talk about old times and get him up and get what he needed. He was very dignified in his last few weeks and months,” Theisen said. “He was surrounded by people and he touched every one of us.”

(Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)
(Photo Courtesy of Cutchall Managment Co.)

“Even in his last days with cancer, he was still talking about opening new restaurants and fought ‘til the end, never admitting defeat,” Williams said. “I feel Greg managed a business that is in a very tough space. Through his great business skills, he provided Omaha and other cities around the country a great dining experience and unique atmospheres to enjoy dinner, lunch or breakfast. We were very fortunate to have him in our town… If there are restaurants in Heaven, I would guarantee Greg is planning to open that next ‘Paradise Bakery.’”

“It’s still hard for me to believe he is gone,” Kestel said. “He went away way too quickly and way too young.”

“I miss him already,” Denning said. “Whether we hadn’t seen each other for two days or two months, it was one of those friendships where you picked up right where you left off.”

“I was there when he came into the world and I was there when he left it,” Michael Cutchall said. “I just really miss him.”