Tag Archives: Sioux Falls

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.

Chili in yellow bowl on red plate, cinnamon roll on side

Embarking on a #Vagabond #Instagram #Vanlife #Adventure

December 20, 2018 by
Photography by Jared Kennedy

In my daily, mindless scrolling of social media, “#vanlife” posts began creeping into my Instagram feed.

The wanderlust-inspiring images of people not giving a crap about anything carried a strong allure; however, I couldn’t help but be turned off by the stereotypically beautiful bohemians dominating the movement. This throwback hippie lifestyle seemed to reek of privilege for people who don’t have to work for a living. I had no idea that—within a year of discovering the hashtag—I would become part of this movement, a lifestyle far more sincere than I had realized at first glance.

What is van life?

While popularized via social media, van-dwelling, van-camping, or van-lifing isn’t a new thing. The most obvious precursor to van life now can be found in the 1970s. Think floor-to-ceiling carpeted Ford Econoline vans, Volkswagen buses, etc. On the whole, these build-outs were simpler than their modern counterparts. Van life today includes vans of all shapes and sizes, ranging from super-technical to very basic. A lion’s share of these van dwellings are colloquially referred to as “Sprinters.” This type of van is taller, often providing more living space than normal, low-roof vans. Sprinters dominate the fleets of commercial businesses, and they are produced by brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Dodge, and Nissan.

Looks crazy. Sure, I’ll try it.

Erin and I hadn’t been together for very long—maybe two weeks—when she mentioned in conversation she wanted to live in a van with her dog and travel the United States. I feigned interest and support in my initial reaction, but having a person bring this up in “real life” somehow made the idea far more tangible than before. I started looking at the popular hashtags on Instagram; I stalked the accounts of notable van-lifers; I even looked at vans and how people built them out. Soon enough, I caught the bug. I began running the numbers in my head: “How long would I have to save to take a year off and do this? What would my monthly budget look like?” I found that saving ahead of time for a whole year of expenses was probably off the table if I wanted to go on this adventure sometime this decade. Maybe if I would’ve gone to school for economics and not communications I would have the cash flow necessary, but no, I knew I would need to find remote work and take a job on the road.

I was sold on the idea, and once I am sold on an idea there is little that can get me off it. Erin and I were in a fairly new relationship, so I had to figure out how to say: “Let’s go halfsies on a $35,000 project and make this massive commitment to each other even though we just met” without the part where I sound like a naive nutcase. I think it ended up coming out something like “Wow, I just ran the numbers on what it would cost to save up for van life, and it’s way more doable than I thought…” What happened next was pretty simple. We agreed to go for it.

We went for it.

After about a month and a half of deal-surfing online and test-driving a couple of vans, we found ours. It was at the top end of our price range, had low mileage, and was a “high roof, extended-length” model, which are hard to find and sought after by van-lifers. On April 27 (neither of us will forget that date), we drove up to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and picked it up. That’s when the hard work began.

We built it.

The van was a bare cargo van, so we were truly starting at square one. The first three steps were: install a plywood subfloor, install a roof vent fan, and insulate the interior of the van. We logged over 50 hours on those three projects alone—mainly on insulation. We had to make sure the van was insulated to retain heat in the winter, and ventilated to repel heat in the summer. Once the insulation was complete, we installed wood paneling on the walls and ceiling and began building the living space. It took at least another 40 grueling hours to install a bed, cabinets, solar panels, and other essentials. Finally, the van was coming together. We were feeling pretty good.


What I learned when I actually looked into van life is that the glamorization of the movement isn’t really the fault of the people in it. Social media just has that effect. The reality of van life is that the aforementioned privileged, bohemian beauties are living in a dirty, tiny, cramped, often-uncomfortable living space. (I am writing this paragraph at night, sitting in a lawn chair at the front of our van with a massive head cold. My feet are buried in the dog’s bed for warmth, and I am thinking about throwing on some gloves because my fingers are getting numb.) Even if your van has all the amenities, there is still a unique set of challenges associated with occupying such a small, off-the-grid space—especially if you are doing so with another person.

Megan and Matt McMonagle—widely known in #vanlife circles as @dirtydarlings—are a married couple who have lived in their Mercedes Sprinter van for 14 months and say their nomadic stint may be coming to a close. Megan is an accountant and took her full-time job on the road. Matt quit his job and does photography and other freelance work now. Megan eventually decided to quit her job also, but she wants to continue doing remote work of some kind.

“I worked at this job for a year on the road, doing everything from 10 to 40 hours a week trying to find the right balance between work and our traveling lifestyle,” Megan says. “For now I’m living the, ‘I saved up money for a long time to enjoy a few months of unemployment’ life.”

So work is a thing, and van-lifers must work (unless they are fabulously wealthy, which I am not).

Another challenge to the social media phenomenon is personal. The lifestyle will test your relationship. It is not always rainbows and butterflies.

“Let me just tell you,” Megan says. “No matter how much you love another person, spending 24/7 with one other person in a very tiny space is hard. Another challenge has been the lack of independence in our relationship. Our days and schedules are so closely tied together that we sometimes forget we need to take time for ourselves and spend time apart.”

Erin has a dog, Yadi, that she definitely loves more than anything on the planet, and she has jokingly shared her fear that one of us would get so tired of hearing the other speak that we would drive the van straight off a cliff. She claims she wouldn’t do such a thing because she has Yadi to live for—which means I better come up with something, too, or I will never get to drive.

Seems like it isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, so what gives?

Things that go viral on the internet seem to exist on one side of a digital dichotomy, like representations of “real life” that only exist in social media: Are there really kids who eat Tide Pods? Do people really do yoga with goats? Do Instagrammers really live in vans? (The answer to all those questions is “yes,” but representative individuals add up to statistical outliers from the general population.)

Being an outlier is OK with me, and we are evidence that #vanlife isn’t just for hipsters (I’ll admit that I tend to wear my long hair in a so-called “man-bun” on occasion, but don’t call me a hipster!). Van life is real, and we have the receipts and debt to prove it. After hundreds of hours—and tens of thousands of dollars—my girlfriend and I are embarking on this lifestyle. We don’t know how long the open road will be our domicile, and we don’t have an exact timeline for our journey—but we know it’s happening.

Van-dwelling, van-living, van-camping, whatever it’s called this decade, is not easy. It stands in direct opposition to some major American ideals—particularly the ones that have to do with collecting lots of things, living in a big house, being well-established financially, etc. It may not impress your grandpa’s golf buddies, but who cares? America is also rooted in the ideals of individual liberty and personal freedom. In a way, van life is as American as it gets. So, excuse me while I take a selfie…before my fingers freeze and my phone battery runs out of juice.

Follow the author on Instagram at @runnerbikersprinter for updates from his #vanlife experience.

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

Omaha Tourism Trivia

August 26, 2016 by

With the College World Series and U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in the city this past summer, out-of-town visitors were front and center, but do you know how many out-of-towners visit Omaha during a typical year?

Take a guess:

A    250,000

B    1.2 million

C    750,000

D   11.9 million

If you guessed B or C, you are like most people we ask, but the answer is D. According to research conducted by Tourism Economics—an Oxford Economics Company, 11.9 million visitors come to Omaha every year. We define a visitor as someone who travels to Omaha from more than 50 miles away. About 60 percent of those are day visitors, folks who travel in from places like Shenandoah, Iowa, to go shopping, out to eat, to see their doctor, or to take in a performance and then return home. The other 40 percent are overnight visitors—people who come to visit relatives, families who want to enjoy a long weekend getaway, fans who travel to Omaha for sporting events or concerts, convention delegates, and business travelers. While we at the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau (OCVB) don’t have much control over where your relatives live, or with whom you do business, we do have an impact on leisure travelers and convention delegates.

Our convention sales team focuses on bringing convention business here. They travel the country promoting Omaha to groups such as the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives, which met in Omaha in July. The organization is made up of 200 associations that also hold meetings throughout the year, so this one meeting could garner even more convention business in the future for the city. Last year alone, the convention sales team was responsible for 291 meetings here in Omaha, and those meetings brought in more than $125 million to our local economy. 

Our marketing team focuses on building Omaha’s reputation as a great leisure destination, a place where families, couples, and friends can enjoy a fun getaway. In addition to purchasing national advertising to brand Omaha as a visitor destination, the marketing team also targets the drive market, a 250-mile radius around Omaha. A 10-month-long regional advertising campaign in Kansas City, Des Moines, and Sioux Falls paid off. According to independent surveys conducted by Scarborough Research, a total of 402,212 visitors from those cities came to Omaha for an overnight visit during 2015, a 9.3 percent increase over 2014. Think about it: if each of these visitors spent $100 while in Omaha, that’s a $40 million payoff for our city.

So next time you’re on Jeopardy and they ask how many people visit Omaha each year, aim high…we do. B2B

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau

Isiah Gandy

August 12, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If there was a sport at Boys Town, Isiah Gandy didn’t just play it. He excelled at it.

As a high school freshman, he was instrumental in Boys Town’s push through the state basketball playoffs to win the 2006 championship, the school’s first title in 40 years.

As a senior quarterback, he led the Cowboys football team to the Class C-1 championship (although they lost the final game). 

He also ran cross country and participated in the triple jump and high jump in track and field. But his first—his strongest—sport was always basketball, a game he picked up on the local court near his childhood home of West Palm Beach, Florida.

“My dad played basketball, and we shot baskets in the backyard when I was a kid, so it’s something I’ve always loved,” says Gandy.

After Boys Town, he bounced around college programs. Following one year at Des Moines Area Community College, and two seasons on court with the UNO Mavericks, Gandy transferred to Minot State University in North Dakota for his junior and senior years.

Now, Gandy has the opportunity to play his favorite game in Omaha again—and get paid for it.

This fall, he will take the court with the newly formed Omaha Chargers of the National Basketball League of America. The first-year league starts this September with a short season ending in November.

“I’ve always had a hunger for basketball,” says Gandy, who has been coaching at his high school alma mater for the past two basketball seasons. “I love the work—the grind—involved with playing basketball and playing it well.

Teams on the Chargers’ schedule are located in Sioux City, Kansas City, and Sioux Falls, and home games will be played at Ralston Arena.

As a shooting guard, Gandy joins a squad with deep ties to the local community. Head coach Rodney Buford played basketball at Creighton University before an NBA career. Point guard C.J. Carter graduated from Omaha Benson High School, was an all-star at UNO, and played professional basketball in Macedonia last season. Shooting guard James Parrott hails from Omaha, and several other teammates have links to regional basketball programs.

Gandy initially came to Omaha via Boys Town when he was 15, and he excelled right away on and off the court.

“Boys Town was a great experience for me because I learned a lot of things that I didn’t get to do in a single-parent home in Florida,” says Gandy. “We never sat down to eat as a family at home, but we did at Boys Town, and that meant something to me. Overall, it was a good experience.”

While he’s excited to play before an audience that he considers to be his home crowd, Gandy also hopes to parlay his playing time with the Chargers into a chance at international pro leagues.

“I found out about the league in April when a friend sent me a link, and I was interested right away,” he says. “This is going to be a great opportunity to see the support the community gives to its sports teams on a professional level.”

Visit omahachargers.com for more information. Omaha Magazine