Veteran Food Magnet: Gary Rohwer’s Glenn Valley Foods
May 28, 2020 03:56PM
By Leo Adam Biga
Serial entrepreneur Gary Rohwer seizes opportunities. He sizes up markets, recognizes gaps, and devotes resources to filling them. It’s why he succeeded in the fields of music promotion, farming, hosiery and steel grain bin before settling on business such as restaurants, meat processing, and food service.
His latest venture, Glenn Valley Foods, is the culmination of his decades of food industry expertise and innovation. Glenn Valley produces a line of specially sliced and portioned beef, chicken, and pork products designed for quick meal preparation in commercial food service and home consumer settings. It also produces and markets complete meal packages.
Rohwer’s made several fortunes by fixing on market niches and bringing his business acumen to bear on them.
“I’m always looking for opportunities,” he said. “When something comes up, I just pounce on it. I seem to enjoy it and have fun with it. Plus, I like to strategize, analyze and visualize. And I love getting people involved—helping them grow. That’s probably what really, truly excites me. It’s not so much the money, it’s the challenge. Just moving on and challenging myself and others, and having a good time working with people.”
Exuding the energy of someone half his age, Rohwer ascribes his vibrancy to being passionate about what he does.
“It’s that passion that creates the energy and gives you the can-do attitude you can make it happen.”
The Omaha native traces his first entrepreneurial endeavor to his junior and senior years at then-Omaha University, where he studied marketing. He bartended at a venue whose owner couldn’t make a go of the ballroom. Rohwer cash-rented the space and made it a popular event room featuring live bands.
A semester short of graduating, he quit school to manage a 100-acre farm his father owned north of Omaha. He’d made enough as a music promoter-event booker to buy farm equipment. He enjoyed the challenge, but the land’s thick clay soil proved unproductive.
“I fought that for a number of years and loved it, but I was struggling. So I started to look for other opportunities.”
When a girlfriend remarked she couldn’t find a one-size fits-all pantyhose locally, it sparked his next adventure.
“I checked into it and made a trip back to New York City. All the hosiery companies were headquartered in the Empire State Building. I cut a deal and brought one-sized pantyhose to the market here through a company I started-Garland Hosiery.”
His next career move responded to a glut of grain storage when he struck a deal with a steel manufacturer to erect steel grain bins and grain handling systems under his own Mark-Rite Steel Systems.
“I did extremely well. That was a helluva run.”
He hit upon what’s become his primary business when, he said, “I took an interest in the restaurant industry. I wondered what that would be like. I looked at it, studied it.” He took the plunge after being introduced to a Philly cheesesteak sandwich at a failing Lincoln restaurant—Chartroose Caboose.
“I’d never even seen a cheesesteak sandwich before. I tried it and I thought, boy, what a sandwich.”
Rohwer purchased the company in 1981.
“That’s the first time I ever bought a company. Five years later we were in five states.”
He sold the chain for a profit. That set the stage for creating PepperJax Grill in 2000. In between, he and a University of Nebraska researcher developed the perfect Philly steak. He patented a method of slicing portioning meat. He marketed Steak-EZE to the food service industry. He opened his own processing plant to handle orders. He built it into a $28 million business before selling in 1998 to Advance Foods.
He then tried retirement. “That was the worst time of my life,” he said. “Then I came up with a concept using my Steak-EZE product—PepperJax Grill.” This fast-casual eatery features made-to-order fare. He dedicated himself to creating “the world’s best Philly cheesesteak sandwich.” “I did a lot research on that sandwich. I made several trips to Philadelphia, checking everything out.”
He tabbed a third generation South Philly Italian bakery to make the ideal bun. “It took two years getting it just right. it was worth it. It really helped my sales.” PepperJax became a top 100 restaurant chain per trade industry measures.
“Every day we challenged ourselves to get better,” he said. “We had a dream and a vision to be the best.”
The successful venture was bought by private equity company TA Associates in 2016.
Making a mint was nice, but, Rohwer said, “the destination is not nearly as fun as the journey.” “That journey is one I’ll never forget.”
Greg Cutchall, president and CEO of Cutchall Management Co., admires Rohwer’s “great success story.” “He’s a very talented businessman. We worked together on a joint venture a few years ago to combo a Burger Star and a PepperJax at the new outlet mall. Landlord would not agree to the terms Gary asked for. I went ahead without him and lived to regret it. Smart man Gary is. A real empire builder. I would partner with Gary anytime going forward.”
Rohwer formed Glenn Valley Foods in 2008. Since selling off PepperJax, it’s become his full focus. Glenn Valley produces a 1.0 version of Steak-EZE—Gary’s QuickSteak. The brand’s growth led Rohwer to open a new 50,000-square-foot facility last year at 68th and J streets. It employs 100-plus workers.
Glenn Valley is diversified across three divisions-retail (grocery stores and big box stores), military (bases-installations) and food service (mostly large restaurant chains).
“We’re presently in about 5,000 grocery stores,” he said. ”We’re trying to take it into every state in the country and create a national brand at the retail level.”
He’s in talks with the Kroger supermarket chain as well as with Target, Walmart, and other large box stores where food is sold.
Glenn Valley also does co-packing for King’s Command Foods, a manufacturer of portion-controlled, pre-cooked, and ready-to-cook meat products to foodservice and retail segments.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic is hurting his food service division, Rohwer said “the retail is just incredible—the demand is high,” adding, “The military is going up. So diversification is nice.”
“I use his products in my catering division. High quality and priced right,” Cutchall said.
Rohwer is still driven by the same things as when he started.
“I have a passion for success. To me, it’s like a game. You challenge your employees and you challenge yourself to win the game, and when you win the game, it’s success.”
Rohwer also likes being a David going against Goliath.
“The thing I’m proudest of is that I have been able to compete all along the way with mega companies. My edge comes from the people and the product I have, the value we bring to the marketplace, and how we bring it.”
Quality equates to value in his world. His peers recognized it when they inducted him in the Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame in 2017.
“To have the success with a winning team is the ultimate,” he said. “You can’t do it yourself. It’s impossible.”
His trust of the team he’s gathered around him is such that he and wife Linda go away for weeks at a time to their lake house in Minnesota, leaving the company in the capable hands of staff.
“Everybody knows our objectives and how to get there,” he said.
In a life of always “moving on from one thing to another,” he said he hasn’t thought of a succession plan. “Maybe it’s because I don’t want to think about it.”
For Rohwer, there may be new challenges to run with yet.
“I’ve often wondered how much fun it would be to have a large cattle ranch out in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming,” he said. “Maybe that’s what I’m going to do next, I don’t know.”
Whatever’s next, it’s imperative he derives joy from it. “That is the real definition of success. When people chase the buck, they never get it. But, boy, when they chase their passion … It’s amazing how that works.”
Visit glennvalleyfoods.com for more information.
This article first appeared in the "60 Plus" section of the June 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine.