Meet Your Merchant | Moving up from fast food to Big Water |

Meet Your Merchant | Moving up from fast food to Big Water

John Cheney says his staff are the ones who make Big Water Grille a great place. From left: Cheney, chef Chris Daniels, bartender Jeremy Schweitzer and dining room manager Chris LeBlanc.
Courtesy Jenny Luna |

More Info

What: Big Water Grille

Location: 341 Ski Way, Incline Village

Phone: 775-833-0606


INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — John Cheney of Big Water Grille calls himself a foodie. His travels and family vacations to San Francisco, Southern California and Tokyo always involve food.

“Our entire stay revolves around where we are eating next,” John said. “My kids are total foodies — it always revolves around food.”

His love for food is matched by his passion for the restaurant business.

The foodie got his start working the grill at America’s most famous fast food chain, and within one yearm John worked what he called “the most desirable position at McDonald’s.”

“I love grilling. I love my time out of the restaurant, in the sun over a grill.”
John Cheney

“I started in the kitchen flipping burgers, then worked my way to the front, and then to the first window of the drive thru,” he said.

After high school, John tended bar at Fes Parker’s Redline Resort in Santa Barbara and at Red Robin, where he met his wife, Christy.

“She was three months out of high school and I was 25,” John said. “I had long hair and her parents hated it.”

John studied finance at San Francisco State, but knew he’d always work in the restaurant business.


Nearly three decades after his teenage days of flipping burgers at McDonald’s and those of bartending at Red Robin, John became a part owner of Big Water Grille in 2004.

With a great core staff now part of Big Water, John is the sole owner.

“The place has really evolved from me running the day to day operations,” he said.

John’s wife is the pastry chef and his eldest daughter helped at the restaurant this summer by working as a hostess. His wife and daughters, John said, are also foodies.

“It was cool because she gets it,” John said of his daughters’ interest in the restaurant business. “I work with people for years and they don’t get it like she does.”


John and his wife take ideas from other restaurants around the world to help improve their own.

On a trip to Tokyo, the Cheneys visited Nobu, a world-famous Japanese restaurant. John watched the servers closely.

“There was such incredible customer service,” he said. “Anytime a chopstick was dropped they replaced it within seconds.”

John took what he saw to Big Water, encouraging his staff about the importance of customer service.

“I refer to this restaurant when talking to my staff,” John said.

In Santa Barbara, John’s foodie experience is based on his favorite blackened Thresher Shark sandwich.

He orders the meal at the Brophys Bros. Restaurant and Clam Bat. It’s something John said he could eat every day for the rest of his life.


Understanding the importance of all the details when it comes to a dining experience, John is particular about his chef, his servers, and the atmosphere.

As the trees have grown in and somewhat covered the view of the lake, John has worked to grow and improve his restaurant.

“In 2006 we developed the wine cellar,” he said. “We developed it into a private dining room.”

The dimly lit room seats 18 and is widely used for fundraising events and board meetings as well as private dinners.

John has also started Big Water Wednesdays, a evening of food and drink specials that is bound to get locals out of the house.

“You can always count on seeing people you know,” John said.

The view isn’t what it was 30 years ago, when the location was known as Spat’s, but John points out that the panoramic view of the lake is still something that makes Big Water unlike so many restaurants in Incline.

“Everybody talks about how it would be better if there were a dozen less trees,” John said. “Our complaints in Tahoe aren’t that valid — when we are complaining about the view.”


Although the days of McDonald’s are in the past, there is a part of that first job that carries through today.

BWG Open Pit is the restauranteur’s latest endeavor. John started a barbecue and catering business after so many favors turned in to side jobs.

BWG Open Pit specializes in the Santa Maria style of grilling in an open pit over red oak.

“I love grilling,” John said. “I love my time out of the restaurant, in the sun over a grill.”

BWG Open Pit caters Super Bowl parties, weddings and birthdays. And this summer, John even brought his 14-foot double axel grill to cook at Red, White and Tahoe Blue.

Jenny Luna is a freelance reporter for the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza and Sierra Sun newspapers. She may be reached at

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