Tag Archives: Panera Bread

Chili and Cinnamon Rolls

January 9, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Pairing chili and cinnamon rolls is a Midwest point of pride that may perplex visitors from less-centered states. When the cold weather hits, warm chili and gooey cinnamon rolls are a familiar combination that comforts Midwestern bellies.

“The Midwest is about comfort foods,” says Brent Ganey, co-owner of Garden Café in Rockbrook Village. “Warm, hearty chili topped off with a sweet sticky roll is just what we need to get through the winter.”

Garden Café has a chili and cinnamon roll recipe that originated from school lunch ladies in Dow City, Iowa. Garden Café founder Ron Popp had an aunt who worked in the kitchen and wanted to share her recipe with the world.

“I love a big bowl of chili on a cold, wintry day, wrapped in a blanket with my family on the couch, a good football game on the set, and the good old feeling of love,” says Ganey, who had his first experience of chili and cinnamon rolls when his grandmother took him to Garden Café as a child.

The origins of this unique meal are unknown, but Mix 97-3, a Sioux Falls radio station, speculated that it began in logging camps of the Great Lakes region, where cooks poured leftover chili on top of cinnamon rolls. The heartiness of the meat in the chili and the sugar in the frosting supposedly gave loggers the boost they needed to complete their workday. Other accounts suggest that cinnamon—a common ingredient in chili—led to this delicious discovery.

People are eating chili and cinnamon rolls all over the Midwest, and each cook says theirs is the best—even at fast-food franchises. Chili and cinnamon rolls appear on the menus of Runza restaurants every winter, making the Lincoln-headquartered company a power player when it comes to public perception.

The Midwestern fast-food restaurant began selling chili and cinnamon rolls in 2007 after the success of their partnership with Miller & Paine, who provided cinnamon rolls at Runza’s fast casual concept Braeda Fresh Express Café, says Donald Everett Jr., the president of Runza. 

Everett has worked at Runza since he was 12. His grandmother started the restaurant in 1940, and his father expanded the family food empire with additional locations.

Runza has served chili for over 40 years, and Everett says the recipe has remained the same: “Until you’ve really dipped a chunk of cinnamon roll in that chili, you have no idea. It’s kind of like chocolate and peanut butter. Once you’ve tried it, it’s actually pretty tasty.”

Everett says his elementary school, Ruth Hill Elementary, served the combo when he was a kid. He often hears from fellow Nebraskans who first tasted the gooey-sweet combo in their own school cafeterias.

“It’s a common combination here, and that’s why we don’t think it’s weird,” he says. “But it’s like our state slogan: It’s not for everyone.”

Many Omaha-area restaurants offer chili and cinnamon rolls separately on their menu, which can be ordered together.

Wheatfields Eatery & Bakery is also acclaimed for their cinnamon rolls. If they seem familiar, it is probably because the recipe comes from founder Ron Popp’s hometown of  Dow City, Iowa. (Yes, the same Popp who founded Garden Café.)

“I love chili and cinnamon rolls together. It’s one of my top-10 meals,” Popp says.

As with speculation on the origin of chili and cinnamon rolls, there is not a clear consensus on how to eat them. Some prefer dipping the roll into chili, others prefer eating them separately, and a particular few scoop the chili directly on top of the roll. This is what makes the dish so special—everyone can pick their own way to dig in.

“I think chili was a staple item in the days of people being a lot less available to cook, either because of availability or expense,” Popp says. “Our rolls are soft and pillowy and large. And chili is reasonable cost-wise, and everyone could be a little creative with how they make it.”

Local varieties of chili abound, though not every restaurant offers cinnamon rolls.

“Cinnamon rolls are a nod to hearty school lunches. The sweet frosting makes a perfect complement to the savory soup.” says Molly Skold, a marketing executive at Mutual of Omaha who helped organize the Midtown Chili Crawl & Cookoff on Nov. 4.

The cookoff showcased eight of Omaha’s top chili chefs representing area restaurants. Vendors competed for the vote of Best Chili in Town. Culprit Cafe and Bakery, which offers chili and cinnamon rolls at their restaurant, offered discounted cinnamon rolls at their booth to add to the experience.

Chili and cinnamon roll pairings also can be at found Vidlak’s Brookside Café, Panera Bread, 11-Worth Cafe, LeadBelly, and other locations around town.


This article was printed in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Eat Fit Go

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Fast-casual restaurant chains, such as Panera Bread and Chipotle, have gained market share in recent years. They offer fresher fare than traditional fast food joints, but maintain the speed and convenience of counter service. Omaha-based Eat Fit Go ups the ante with an even faster and arguably healthier option for consumers on the go.

“I think, in general, the public is going through a food revolution,” says Eat Fit Go owner Aaron McKeever. “Everybody is kind of going towards that health conscious customer. And that’s definitely us. We’re convenience, grab, and go.”

McKeever’s three Omaha stores have large refrigerators stocked with a wide variety of pre-packaged meals and snacks. Every package clearly lists nutritional information and nearly all of them have fewer than 600 calories. There are microwaves for customers to heat up their meals if they choose to dine in.

“When we put this concept together, my partner, Sam (Vakhidov), and I wanted the feeling of a Starbucks-meets-an-Apple-Store. It’s fresh, it’s inviting, you can stay,” says McKeever.

EatFitGo2This isn’t McKeever’s first foray into restaurants or retail. Twenty years ago he started in business with a car dealership and is a former owner of Pitch Pizzeria and Jams Bar & Grill. He says he recently sold his shares in his other restaurants because “at the rate we’re growing with (Eat Fit Go), this needs my focus.”

He is not the company’s only industry veteran. Executive Chef Karl Marsh is the vice president of kitchen operations and comes up with several of the menu ideas.

Sitting at a table in the stylish Aksarben Village location, McKeever explains that they have a range of customers with different dietary needs, including people on low calorie, gluten-free, and diabetic-friendly diets. He says athletes like it because they know exactly what they are putting in their bodies.

One of his regular customers is Brandon Howell. A member of the Right at Home corporate marketing team, Howell says he likes that he can walk to the store from his Aksarben Village office.

“I usually eat lunch there about three times a week, and then I maybe grab dinner twice a week from there,” says Howell. “Really, with me trying to lose weight, it’s the calories that are in the meals, the portion control, the ease of it.”

Howell lives alone and says he doesn’t always want to cook in large batches for himself. He also points out that Eat Fit Go is teaching him about appropriate portion sizes and what is possible to prepare on his own. NOLA’s Dirty Rice and the All American breakfast are his favorites.

“It’s all very high-quality food, and it all tastes good,” says Howell. “That breakfast is like 320 calories, and I struggle to finish it.”

McKeever says his target customers were originally soccer moms who didn’t have time to cook but wanted their kids to eat something healthy on the way to activities.

“I think that the biggest thing with this concept—this grab-and-go concept—is changing people’s lifestyles. They want a healthy option that really hasn’t been out there in terms of convenience. I think that making dinner now at home is a luxury,” says McKeever.

The company is developing a kids’ menu and vegetarian entrees. As the organization expands and more franchises are sold around the country, each market will have a central, corporate-run kitchen that supplies the franchisees with meals.

The first corporate-owned Eat Fit Go locations opened in early 2016 in Omaha, with franchises set to open in several Midwestern cities and as far away as Atlanta and Scottsdale, Arizona.

“They should put one by my house, too, and take all of my money,” says Howell.

Visit eatfitgo.com for more information. B2B