Several years ago, I swore off fast-food burgers — except for burgers from Runza restaurants across the Midwest.
For my taste, Runza’s hamburgers were superior, didn’t seem like fast food, seemed fresher, didn’t look like they’d been formed with a cookie cutter.
Rules for “Who Feeds the Farmer?” installments lean toward Mom and Pop establishments, local steakhouses, those favorite places around towns big and small. The exceptions are chains that were founded or based in Nebraska, Kansas and western Iowa.
Runza fit that requirement, since it opened its first Runza Drive Inn restaurant in 1949 in southwest Lincoln, Neb., and continues to have company headquarters in Lincoln.
As good as the burgers are, Runza’s specialty is the Runza sandwich: ground beef, cabbage, onions and secret spices, baked inside a hand-size loaf. Those were pioneered by sister and brother Sally Everett and Alex Brening. Sally’s son Donald joined the family operation in 1964 and bought the company name and incorporated the business in 1966, the same year a second location opened in northeast Lincoln.
Franchising began in 1979, and Runza growth took off.
Runza sandwiches now come in three more varieties: cheese, Swiss mushroom and cheeseburger. Outside of Runza Restaurants, these dough bread pockets are made in various shapes and may be called bierocks. They originated in eastern Europe and the recipe came across the pond with many of the immigrants.
The Runza is the star of one of the restaurant’s biggest annual promotions: Temperature Tuesdays in January and February. The temperature at 6 a.m. at the coldest Runza is that Tuesday’s price for a Runza with the purchase of a medium fries and a drink. So, if the temperature is 0 or lower, the Runza is free.
Like most fast-serve restaurants, Runza’s menu has grown over the years. Besides the usual hamburger and cheeseburger, it offers double burgers, Swiss mushroom, bacon cheese, spice jack and barbecue bacon Swiss.
There are also garden salads, grilled chicken sandwiches, kids meals and desserts.
I did ask a store clerk once why there isn’t a vegetarian Runza sandwich that my wife could eat, maybe with several of its cheese varieties with the cabbage, onions and spices. It’s not that she would starve without it. Runza is known after all for its fries and onion rings, and for the thoughtful combinations, called Frings.
While the Runzas are famous, there are other menu items that continue to draw customers.
Miller & Paine was a department store in Lincoln for decades. Its downtown store’s café featured cinnamon rolls. When the store closed, it provided its recipe to Runza. Following a favorite Midwest combination, Runza customers like to pair the cinnamon rolls with a bowl of Runza’s homemade chili.
Now in its 70th year, Runza has many fans around the country and beyond. They can get a Runza fix with mail-order purchases of Runza sandwiches and Miller & Paine cinnamon rolls. Sandwiches can be ordered by the dozen and the rolls in increments of two dozen.
Runza opened its 80th locations in 2008 in Nebraska, Iowa (2), Kansas (1) and Colorado (1), and is looking for franchisees in 10 more locations in Nebraska, three in Iowa, four in Kansas and one in Colorado.
It’s not a national chain, but it’s not hard to find a Runza around the Midwest.
What’s your favorite specialty food in or near your home? Is it based on an ethnicity? Where are the best kolaches served? Italian pasta? British fish and chips? Corned beef or Bangers and Mash? Swedish meatballs? Or German schnitzel?
Send your recommendations and some background on why you think that way. Email your thoughts to email@example.com or by mail to Terry Anderson, News Editor, Midwest Messenger, Box 239, Tekamah NE 68061.