Where Greek Meets Greens: Omaha's Expanding GreenbellyDec 27, 2020 07:42PM ● By Katy Spratte Joyce
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Michael Schall lost 55 pounds eating healthy, whole foods. That weight loss was part of his inspiration to launch Omaha’s Greenbelly restaurant empire.
“I’m Greek…it kinda makes sense to go into food,” Schall laughingly said during a phone interview.
But it really all began in 1988 at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church Camp on Lake Calhoun in Southwest Minneapolis. (The lake is now known by its Dakota-language name, Bde Maka Ska.) It was here that Schall met his best camp friend, Tony Nicklow of the Minnesota restaurateur family. Credited with popularizing Greek food in the Twin Cities, the Nicklows operated several restaurants over the years. (Tony’s Diner in Dinkytown is the only one currently still running.)
Nicklow encouraged Schall’s interest in restaurant operation, even paying for him to attend bartending school in the summers between semesters at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
After graduating with a degree in advertising, Schall became a high-flying advertising executive in New York City, working on products with Microsoft and others. The now-entrepreneur gathered experience that he uses to this day. “That stint in NYC is what launched...Greenbelly,” he said. The venture was inspired by a salad shop around the corner from his office, Café Europa. He loved having quick, healthy options for late nights, burning the midnight oil while tackling new ad campaigns for companies as wide-ranging as Microsoft and the Food Network.
Flash forward a few years, and the native Nebraskan was ready to be closer to home. After moving back to Omaha, Schall worked in pharmaceutical sales for a time, then transitioned into the food realm with The Cooking Club. Partnering with his sister Stephanie Patsalis, together they built the business with take-and-make meals, catering, and cooking classes at their original location at 123rd and Center streets.
But Schall couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to do in this Midwest market. Thus, Greenbelly was born in 2008. Schall said it was “a risk at the time. Omaha was a meat-and-potatoes town.” Furthermore, his new restaurant featured more expensive eco-friendly packaging before sustainability was a major consumer consideration.
The risk was well worth it. A larger commercial space was needed just a few months into the new venture, resulting in the move to the current 114th Street location in 2009. Greenbelly has been a hit with diners looking for quick, satisfying, healthy options. Salads have remained the key to success, with the coconut chicken salad and the Asian peanut chicken salad reigning as the two top-selling items, according to the owner. And while the eatery first offered soups and salads at lunch, more items, such as healthier pizzas and wraps, helped expand the menu over the years. Schall said they currently hand-cut over 300 pounds of chicken a day and that they “absolutely fly through lettuce.”
The restaurant also feeds and trains (in nutrition, not combat) lots of UFC fighters with their lean, high-quality food. Schall credits this collaboration with helping get the Greenbelly name out there early on. Marketing through social media also helped Omahans learn about the new kid in town.
A longstanding stat of 33% catering business helped Greenbelly thrive. These days, there’s more for a food business to consider as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on. Schall shared that their sales numbers were roughly half of the usual from March to April, with a big pick-up in August.
Greenbelly is a family business in the strongest sense of the word, in a time when such operations are rare. Patsalis not only was his partner in their original catering venture, but is now the director of franchising development, helping expand the Greenbelly concept. His brother-in-law helped him come up with the term "Greenbelly," a whimsical way to signal that there was an eco-friendly aspect to their healthy food offerings.
Additionally, the eatery’s famous Greek dressing is Schall’s mother’s recipe, handed down from his grandparents of Koroni, Greece. (It’s such a hit that the Greenbelly food sales rep orders it by the quart). Nieces and nephews have also contributed, on the corporate side as well as with preparing food and taking orders.
Greenbelly’s long-term success at its 114th Street location has even translated to a new model of franchising. One customer loved the restaurant so much he opened a second location in Elkhorn in 2017. A third closely followed in 2020, with an Aksarben footprint in the premier corner spot location in the new HDR building.
To promote further expansion on a larger scale, Greenbelly corporate has recently signed on with a well-respected national franchise sales company, Accurate Sales. Additionally, a new-to-market second concept, a drive-thru only Greenbelly Express, will open in the Omaha area in early 2021. The express option uses an app for less contact, which was “a pre-COVID idea with post-COVID applications” according to Patsalis, who shared that there is a lot of room to grow nationwide, with an equal interest in both models from potential investors and franchisees. Schall expanded, sharing that “Although we have been working on our express units for a few years, I believe that is the direction our industry is progressing.”
It’s clear that the future appears truly bright for Schall and his eco-friendly restaurant, both in “homaha” and beyond. The owner concluded, “With Greenbelly being built and run by family, I look forward to continuing to watch its success grow with future generations.”
Visit thegreenbelly.com for more information.
This article was printed in the January/February 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.