Recently I posted a story I did on Godfather’s Pizza founder Willy Theisen, and here’s a piece on a friend of Theisen’s, Greg Cutchall, who’s made his own mark in the restaurant field in Omaha and beyond.
Entrepreneur and Dealmaker Greg Cutchall
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in B2B Magazine
As a boy working in his father’s South Omaha A&W drive-in Greg Cutchall couldn’t imagine anything else besides being a restauranteur. His dad, Ray Cutchall, and uncle, Bob Cutchall, owned several A&Ws and Kentucky Fried Chickens.
Helping out at his father’s A&W in the summers became a rite of summer for young Greg, who lived the rest of the year in Tucson, Arizona with his mother and siblings. His folks divorced when he was small. He recalls working trash cleanup and dish washing details at the restaurant. He wanted to be just like his dad when he grew up and run his own fast food joint.
By his late teens though he found a new passion in photography. He enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Omaha fully intent on staying one year and then furthering his photo training in Calif. But his studies took a back seat to earning money from the portraits he shot and from an Indian jewelry shop he and a brother opened at the Westroads Mall.
The lure of restaurants changed his plans as he ended up managing one of his dad’s KFC stores. A catering program Cutchall developed there caught the attention of KFC big-wigs and he soon became a rising star in the national chain.
“We were doing catering but pretty haphazardly. There were no systems in place. Nobody had really gone after the budget or economy niche. I saw the opportunity. I redeveloped the packaging, came up with a marketing plan, and it just took off like gangbusters,” says Greg. “It went from $20,000 to a half million dollars a year in like three years.”
That success led KFC corporate to hire the college drop-out to consult executives and franchisors, many of them twice his age, on how to exploit this untapped market. He also presented at the National Restaurant Association convention.
He was only 23. Such early affirmation confirmed for Cutchall his future lay in food.
“That gave me credibility. Confidence is important in this business. You’ve got to have faith in yourself and then work really hard to prove you can do it.”
After his father’s death, his uncle and partners looked to retire and in 1986 Cutchall purchased KFC’s Omaha franchise. He raised $1 million from investors to secure $4 million from RJ Reynolds Tobacco, who owned KFC at the time. He says “it was unheard of” for someone his age — then 35 — and with limited assets to land a loan of such size. “Only because of my track record in the industry was I able to organize a $5 million leveraged buyout. That’s how I was able to put that deal together. I was actually the youngest KFC franchisee in the country. It felt like the fast food version of a rock star.”
When, in 1989, he was bought out by his then-partners, he found himself starting over.
“I was a little bitter the way I was pushed out.” But he’s friends today with those ex-partners, who he now views as doing him a favor. “I look back at it as they really gave me an opportunity to have my own company.”
He formed Cutchall Management Co. and quickly built a portfolio of properties. Today, as president and CEO, he has 55 restaurants in six states, with Sonic, Famous Dave’s, Paradise Bakery & Cafe, Domino’s Pizza, Tin Star sand Twin Peaks stores.
“I’ve opened a multitude of different concepts, but I’ve always had at least one or two restaurants or franchises in my portfolio that were my own creations and right now its Burger Star.”
For Cutchall to invest in a concept, he says, it must be “best-in-class.”
CMC’s restaurants and catering division do combined sales in excess of $1million per week. His restaurants are strategically placed around the metro. His cateringomaha.com caters several of his concepts’ product lines at everything from weddings to air shows and at many popular venues, including TD Ameritrade Park, CenturyLink Center and Werner Park. Catering corporate events is a big segment and one way CMC feeds the demand is with Progressive Park, an 18-acre corporate picnic facility on the Missouri River.
A dozen employees work in the headquarters offices overlooking Champions Golf Club and dozens more are in the field as area managers. CMC made Inc. Magazine’s fastest growing companies list and has been named MONG Omaha’s best employers.
Cutchall’s success is not surprising given how long he’s been steeped in the industry. By the time he was 13, he says, “I was fully trained on line to cook everything” on the A&W menu. Besides, the business was in his blood. His dad and uncle are both Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame inductees. Greg may end up there, too. “I am in no hurry for that honor,” he says.”I still have more things I want to accomplish first, but it would be a great honor.”
Just as his dad and uncle experienced ups and downs, so has Greg. Through it all, he’s learned what it takes to realize a vision.
“Having the right idea, having the right product, having a great business plan and sticking to it,” he says. “Not being afraid of putting everything on the line. My first 10 business deals when I went on my own I put my own house on the line.
“Now I’m a little smarter about it, but when I first got going I was really stretching, opening too many restaurants too fast, undercapitalized, but that’s how you learn, and the motivation was there not to lose my house. Sometimes my entrepreneurial spirit (still) does get ahead of my business sense.”
Good people are vital, too — in the office, the field, the kitchen, behind the counter. He says as CMC’s diversified the importance of the right people in the right jobs has only increased. “I am fortunate to have surrounded myself with great people that go the extra mile when needed to make things happen.” His vice president/COO, Tim Griggs, is also his managing partner in Sonic.
“He is probably the best deal maker I have ever seen,” Griggs of Cutchall. “He’s the kind of guy that just never slows down. He looks at more deals in probably a month than I do in a lifetime. When he sees opportunities it’s amazing how he can get it done and bring it to reality.”
As a “pretty hands-on” owner Cutchall stays abreast of his divisions’ performance via real-time, on-line monitoring and nightly reports.
“I’m not as technically sophisticated as I should be for the size of my company,” says Cutchall, “but I have people who are and I know where to find them. But in the big picture, I understand all the moving parts of the business.”
He says his experience in so many facets, from food quality and customer satisfaction to location development and marketing to securing financing, “has helped us be successful.”
He has a knack for finding the right location and turning around under-performing sites.
“If your basics are there, if you’ve got a good product, a good name, good service, the thing that takes you from a $2 million restaurant to a $3 million restaurant is location. We get calls every week from franchisors who want us to develop their brand or from somebody who wants to take over their restaurant that’s not making it.”
With four locations under progress to open in 2012, Cutchall is plenty busy. As CMC evolves and adapts, he says, more new locations may arise but for now “our real focus is how can we improve what we have.” When not in the office or traveling on business he enjoys golfing and spending time with his wife Molly and their son. The family has a winter home in Arizona.
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The inner city awakening that’s happened in South Omaha may or may not be a model for the long overdue revitalization of North Omaha, but there’s no doubt that the momentum that’s transformed large tracts of land once occupied by packing houses and the stockyards and the resurgence of a business district that was long in decline continues moving forward. The following piece looks at some of what has already been done in South O and projects ahead to what may follow as part of the South Omaha Development Plan.
A South Omaha Renaissance
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
The festive streets, high traffic flow, brisk business and diverse people of South 24th Street are a microcosm of the economic engine and cultural melting pot that South Omaha’s always been. Today, mariachi music plays instead of polka, tamales rule over dumplings and mixed use developments stand where the stockyards and packing plants once stood, but that rich past survives, mixing with a robust present, to keep South O growing.
Now, a Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce initiative called the South Omaha Development Project envisions a new slate of quality of life improvements to make the area even more desirable for residents, employers, workers and visitors.
Project coordinator Karen Mavropoulos and her board are charged with implementing a master plan two years in the making. Architecture, engineering, consulting firm HDR led the study that informed the plan, unveiled in April to mostly positive reviews.
The 178-page report, which earned Omaha Planning Board approval and awaits City Council endorsement, contains recommendations for transformation.
Before Mavropoulos took the post, she headed micro business training development for Catholic Charities, a job that sold the Venezuela native on South Omaha’s potential.
She said, “There’s a lot of good things the area has to offer. I see the passion of the community, I see all the opportunities that are there.”
Chief among South O’s assets, she said, is its energy. “It’s a vibrant place with a lot of activity. The people are very entrepreneurial.”
“The South Omaha community has a pull-yourself-up-from-the-bootstraps mentality. That is going to happen with this project, even in a recession,” said State Sen. Heath Mello, a project board member.
The area’s already seen a resurgence. The busy South 24th business district features row upon row of small businesses that attract shoppers and diners amid a colorful, carefully designed streetscape.
“There’s been some great things done,” said HDR’s Doug Bisson, who led the SODP design team. “There’s vibrancy on South 24 Street — that’s how streets should be, that’s how they always have been, full of activity. That’s what cities are all about.”
The $75 million Salvation Army Kroc Center on the former Wilson packing plant site represents “a neighborhood changing improvement” that makes “the area much more attractive and safe,” said senior Kroc Center officer Major Todd Thielke.
South High School’s new Collin Field is a showplace stadium. The repurposed Livestock Exchange Building is a full-occupancy, mixed-use success. Metropolitan Community College’s South Campus boasts the new South Omaha Library branch.
The Omaha Botanical Center and Henry Doorly Zoo are established, ever-expanding anchors. The Bancroft Street Market and Leavenworth Art Corridor are emerging cultural hubs.
All of it, said Bisson, points to “the synergy going on in South Omaha right now.”
The project is making neighborhoods-housing, commercial centers-corridors and industry-employment its focused implementation areas. There’s also emphasis on enhancing marketing-tourism and transportation-parking.
Mavropoulos said the project depends on partnerships: “There are a lot of organizations doing very good work. We’re here to see where we can align efforts or create synergies, where we can fit in with expertise to help make things happen.”
Addressing substandard homes and creating new affordable homes are priorities. The project plans a campaign educating property owners about upkeep issues and code violations. She said the project may partner with an existing community development corporation or form a new one to coordinate efforts.
Attracting new industries and filling their labor needs is another priority. “For employers to go into an area there has to be space available, incentives (tax) and a skilled labor force that lives nearby,” said Mavropoulos. Strategies include reusing former industrial sites, tax increment financing and job training.
In addition to large employers, she said, “we’re going to work with small businesses.” There’s strong support for a proposed mercado, an incubator for small businesses and artisans in the Plaza de La Raza on South 24th.
“It seems like everyone feels the mercado would be an exclamation point and really help draw in not just area residents but people from throughout the Omaha metropolitan area and probably points beyond,” said Bisson.
Brick-and-mortar changes will take time. Clearing and cleaning brown fields, for example, can take years.
“It’s a 20-year plan, people have to understand that,” said Mavropoulos. “Development plans are not immediate, you don’t see changes quickly. I mean, some things will start happening, but they’ll have to do more with education pieces that go out to the community, which creates the groundwork for bigger projects. It is a process.”
With the master plan complete, she said, “now people just want to see things happen.”
South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance president Duane Brooks said “there’s almost a wait-and-see attitude on what’s going to come out of this implementation process. There’s an amount of skepticism here in South Omaha because there’ve been so many plans developed over the years.”
Bisson said a vetted plan gives stakeholders and developers confidence to invest.
Mello has no doubt a dynamic slate of new growth will follow.
“We’re going to find ways to implement some of our short term goals of improving housing stock, encouraging better work force development and educational opportunities, maximizing public infrastructure and community parks and trails. Those are tangible, completely doable initiatives,” said Mello. “It’s just a matter of bringing the right people to the table for each individual project and following through on that commitment.
“I feel very confident the people leading this project will help some of these short term initiatives come to fruition as we start working towards our longer term goals.”
Visit the project’s website at www.omahachamber.org/sodp/.
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Pat Drickey has been a fine art, architectural, and landscape photographer and he’s combined all of those talents and disciplines in a niche today that finds him making sumptuous and collectible panoramic images of the world’s great golf courses. This short profile should whet your appetite for the much longer piece I did on him, which can also be found on this blog.
The Panoramic World of Pat Drickey
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
Omaha commercial photographer Pat Drickey knew he was onto something big when panoramic images he was commissioned to shoot of Pebble Beach Golf Course struck a chord in people. What began as an irrigation company ad campaign gig, flying him to elite courses around the world, became his own niche enterprise when the prints sold out and the Professional Golfers Association took note.
“That’s when I knew this could be a business,” said Drickey, an Omaha native whose Stonehouse Publishing company, 1508 Leavenworth St., specializes in producing iconic landscape images of premier golf courses around the world. Drickey, who takes the vast majority of the photographs himself and personally supervises the production of every single print, estimates more than 300,000 Stonehouse prints are now in circulation.
In addition to being licensed by major courses, the United States Golf Association and the PGA, he has the endorsement of living legends like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, giving him access to virtually any green. From Pebble Beach to Pinehurst to Medinah to St. Andrews to many other championship courses with rich histories, Stonehouse and Drickey are recognized names with carte blanche access.
“Which is a significant deal,” he said, ”because we are becoming that embedded in the lore of golf.”
Drickey’s neither the first nor only photographer to capture links in a panoramic way. But he believes what separates his work from others is the photo-illustration approach he uses in creating crystal-clear images of striking detail and depth. Employing all-digital equipment in the field and the studio Drickey brings exacting standards to his imagemaking not possible with film. Digital enhancements bring clarity from shadows and achieve truer, more balanced colors, he said. Even a sand trap can be digitally raked.
“It’s just incredible what you can do — the control you have,” he said.
He said Stonehouse has adopted the fine art Giclee process to its own printmaking methods, which entails using expensive pigmented archival inks on acid free watercolor paper to ensure prints of high quality that last.
“I want to produce a product that’s going to be around for a long time. The color hits that paper and stays with it — it will not fade. And that’s significant,” he said.
He feels another reason for Stonehouse’s success is its images portray the timeless characteristics that distinguish a scenic hole or course. He strives to indelibly fix each scene into a commemorative frieze that expresses the design, the physical beauty, the tradition. The clubhouse is often featured. Getting the composition just how he wants it means “waiting for the right light,” which can mean hours or days. Much care and research go into finding the one idyllic, golden-hued shot that speaks to golf aficionados. That’s who Stonehouse prints are marketed to.
Building-updating Stonehouse’s image collection keeps Drickey on the road several days a month. He’s half-way to his goal of photographing the world’s top 100 courses. One he’s still waiting to shoot is Augusta, home to the Masters.
“That’s one of America’s crown jewels. We are present at the other majors and we’d like to have a presence there. It’s just a matter of time. Those introductions have been made,” Drickey said.
Stonehouse prints grace golf books-periodicals. Drickey’s collaborating on a book project for Nebraska’s Sand Hills Golf Club course. He has more book ideas in mind.
His golf niche is an extension of the architectural photography he once specialized in. It’s all a far cry from the images he made with a Brownie as a boy. He still has that camera. A reminder of how far he’s come.
- How to: Create panoramic photos in Adobe Photoshop (onsoftware.en.softonic.com)