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.