Chow Town

Omaha’s Willy Theisen the godfather of product, customer service

Updated: 2014-01-07T19:18:37Z

By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN

I grew up in a household where elbows were not part of the table setting, “please” and “thank-you” were bookends to most any request and handwritten thank-you notes were promptly sent for everything from birthday gifts to tips received from babysitting gigs.

And I have always half-suspected my penchant for a high level of customer service was rooted somewhere in that polite upbringing.

Manners, after all, matter in customer etiquette.

So imagine my surprise when, in mid-December, I came face-to-face with the provenance of my fierce loyalty to restaurants, hotels, shops, airlines and service providers where the product is exemplary and the customer is the focus: one Willy Theisen.

I was in Omaha, happily eating my way through the city and its distinctive neighborhoods that are in the throes of a culinary renaissance. It was lunchtime and I was part of an eight-member entourage of hungry food and travel writers from across North America that invaded historic Dundee, a vibey enclave on the rise in Omaha.

Founded in 1880 and annexed into the city in 1915, Dundee is west of Midtown and not too long ago was home to boarded-up buildings and a ho-hum attitude.

That was until a guy with a knack for recognizing a good idea and then pitching it to the public sat on a bench one day, surveying the bones of a Dundee street — Underwood — that had undiscovered commercial potential.

Today Dundee’s pulse is racing, thanks to Theisen’s restaurant, Pitch Coal-Fire Pizzeria, which has encouraged other trendy eateries and businesses — and in turn, crowds — to flock to the revived area.

Theisen was on hand to greet us at Pitch and spent time recounting his remarkable story, all the while ensuring that every dish put in front of us wasn’t just good — it was very good, and delivered by servers who genuinely cared about our experience.

He shared the virtues of some of Pitch’s bestsellers, including Calabrese-style meatballs that are handmade by the hundreds each day and the MIA, his favorite coal-fire pizza topped with San Marzano tomato sauce and a house-made fennel sauce, pepperoni and fresh mozzarella.

As the retired founder of Godfather’s Pizza and a respected savvy businessman, Theisen knows his way around a pizza pie.

Correction: a well-executed pie.

The Godfather’s brand, launched in 1973, became the fastest-growing pizza chain in the country. And Theisen, a grassroots entrepreneur, innovator and zealot for details, rode the wave of success right into the 1983 sale of Godfather’s and into his next deal, and another one … and then several more.

Growing up in Sioux City, Iowa, I remember how excited my friends and I were for what we perceived as big-city restaurant concepts. Our love affair with pizza was as authentic as prepubescent kids could get. Pizza Hut, Shakey’s and then the king of all pizzas: Godfather’s, which opened not far from my house, on Gordon Drive, in 1974.

We couldn’t get enough.

Prior to getting our driver’s licenses, my friends and I were dropped off at Godfather’s on Friday nights by the appointed mom or dad to eat cheese pizza and slurp Coke after Coke. They knew we would be safe and sound at Godfather’s.

Hours later the same lucky parent who volunteered for chaperone duty would retrieve us: a group of full-bellied, sugared-up kids.

When my pals started getting summer jobs, I kept my babysitting clients. Finally I convinced my parents to let me work in an establishment that, back in the mid-1970s was considered a dream job for a teen: Godfather’s.

It was clean, well run and most importantly, the pizza joint was parent-endorsed — and, by the way, those same parents liked the pizza, too, washed down with pitchers of sudsy beer rather than cups of soda.

Whether or not Theisen engineered “kids’ hangout” into his original Godfather’s Pizza model is an unknown to me — I didn’t ask him during my Pitch encounter.

But the essence of what I experienced during the summer as a Godfather’s employee was special and instructive. The manager had a checklist for every employee comprised of values and ideals that started at the top, with Theisen.

How to answer the phone (“Hi, thank you for choosing Godfather’s!”—always with a smile); how to greet a customer (“Welcome to Godfather’s!”—with a smile); how to say goodbye to a customer (“Thank you, and come back soon!”—you guessed it, smiling) and how to keep the place in tip-top shape, including the restrooms.

Of course there were specific measurements for each pizza topping and other ins-and-outs of running the restaurant that I wasn’t privy to — the sum total of which obviously made Theisen very successful.

But it was the way a customer was treated when dining in or taking out at Godfather’s that resonated with me, an impressionable teen.

Theisen — who has big plans for Pitch, taking it outside the Omaha market, with Kansas City being a possible location — probably signed my paycheck during that summer of 1975. The money I earned at Godfather’s is long gone (undoubtedly spent there, on cheese pizzas and drinking countless Cokes with my buddies) but the lessons learned wiggled their way into a succinct appreciation of pitch-perfect customer service.

Willy Theisen, consider this my woefully long overdue thank-you note.

Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.

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