Runza: 12 Facts About The Regional Fast Food Chain Embracing The Midwestern Sandwich

Runza it's the best sandwich you've never heard of. Unless, of course, you live in the Midwest, then you can't drive down the street without running into one practically on every corner. In the Midwest, the runza sandwich is about as ubiquitous as castles are in the German hillsides. This self-contained heated pocket of meat-and-cabbage-filled deliciousness has a long history, not only in places like Nebraska and Kansas, but across the pond, too. It's an old recipe that has survived politics, migration, and commoditization, as well as a few centuries and more iterations than the latest iPhone, or very nearly. 

Like most foodie imports worth their salt, it's a recipe that most people in the area know about, but which non-locals are only now discovering. The pocket sandwich now lends its name to a restaurant chain, and lovers of this Midwest specialty come from far and wide to partake of its homey goodness. But it isn't just the restaurant chain's made from scratch stance on good food that draws people in. It's also a place where the dinosaur mascot, Runza Rex, photobombs airport meetups, all in the name of spreading the word about great food, and the Lego version of Runza is as much fun as the Batman Lego movie. It's one rambunctious runza romp of deliciousness with one great sandwich at the center of it all. If you've not tried Runza, this is what you need to know about this unusual sandwich and its namesake chain.

1. The first Runza drive-in opened in 1949

In 1949, Lincoln, Nebraska got a new drive-in. Its owner, Sarah "Sally" Everett, along with her brother, Alex Brening, began stuffing a mixture of meat and cabbage into a pastry pocket and selling them to the locals. With this, a midwestern rite of foodie passage was born. In the 74 years that followed, the restaurant (and the subsequent chain of restaurants) became a staple in Nebraska. By 1966, Runza had acquired a second location. In 1979, the franchise was born.

Today, Donald R. Everett, Sally Everett's son, owns the restaurant chain. The name and the trademark for Runza belong to him. Sally's grandchildren are also involved with the restaurant chain. Sally's family continues the tradition she started, working with the freshest ingredients, including the dough, fresh beef, and cabbage that the pocket sandwiches the runzas are known for. Though there are now Runza restaurants in other states aside from Nebraska, the chain owners decided to keep it decidedly midwestern. There will be no national chain of Runzas.

2. The chain has at least 80 stores in four states

As of this writing, Runza has over 80 restaurants in four states. They are Nebraska, of course, as well as Colorado, Iowa, and Kansas. Soon, Runza will open its doors in Yankton, South Dakota, too. The family also hopes to open franchise locations in Wyoming and Missouri.

People who are awarded Runza franchises are expected to spend most of their time working in their home stores. Those with recent food service experience are looked on most favorably when it comes to being awarded franchising opportunities. Aside from that, Runza franchisees stand out in their community. Franchisees must be actively involved in the community's affairs as business owners, city council members, and more. It takes about six months before a new franchisee fully takes on his or her new store. Training the new franchisee takes time. It also takes around four months to build the new store before it becomes a new Runza location.

3. The runza is a pocket sandwich

If you were to go into your average Runza location and order its famous stuffed sammy, you'd get an elongated, sort of rectangular-shaped bundle of meaty goodness that is delicious enough to eat in just a few minutes flat. Given that the ingredients which make up the sandwich are locked inside a flaky crust, like a little pastry-encrusted briefcase, you can also feel fairly confident about eating it in the car. No need to worry that your sandwich ingredients will end up in your lap. It's not like a burger or anything where all the ingredients fall out of the bottom of the bun while you're tootling down Main Street. The bottom, sides, and top of the sandwich are sealed until you take the first bite. Unless you bite from the bottom, the sammy's stuffing stays inside until the last bite. 

But the rectangular shape is only one of the runza's shapes. In non-restaurant settings like when you eat one made from scratch at home it's not uncommon to see a shape change. Round runzas are also a thing. So are triangle and half-moon-shaped runzas. The rectangular ones hail from Nebraska, mostly, while runzas in Kansas look like a sealed hamburger bun. In other words, like most folk recipes, this one has a few variations. Though if you want the rectangle-shaped pockets of yum, your best bet is a visit to one of the Runza restaurants. They are rectangular through and through. 

4. Sometimes, the sandwich is also called bierocks

If you go into a Runza restaurant and order a runza sandwich, the employee behind the counter will know exactly what you are ordering. After all, the restaurant is named after the sandwich it's famous for. However, since the runza came from a folk recipe brought from across the pond by immigrants, lovers of the savory stuffed pastry know it by many names, and not just runza. A common second name for the sandwich is a bierock, which is said to be of German origin.

As we already mentioned, the sandwich also takes its makeup and flavor profile from a Russian predecessor, the pirog. So sometimes, you'll hear people call it that, too, though maybe not on a regular basis inside an actual Runza restaurant. Regardless of whether you call it a runza, a pirog, a bierock, or just a plain stuffed sammy, it always tastes yummy when served with a side of Runza's "Frings" that's a side combo of fries and onion rings in the same serving pouch and a cold soda to wash it down. 

5. The runza sandwich comes in a variety of flavors

If you were to only read Runza's "About" page on its website, you might be convinced that the only kind of runza sandwich is one filled with ground beef, cabbage, and a smattering of spices. And indeed, that combo makes up the original recipe. However, restaurant regulars know that runza sandwiches are so much more than that. There are cheese runzas, Swiss cheese with mushroom runzas, and jalapeño runzas. Occasionally, you may even run into a Philly cheese steak-flavored variety. 

As if that weren't enough, you might also enjoy a Southwest-flavored stuffed sammy or one filled with barbecue bacon nummies. You might even happen upon one filled to the brim with Jack cheese. We, as ardent foodies, feel it's also important to point out that this list only represents what you might find on a Runza restaurant menu. Given that runza sandwiches come from recipes that go way back, you could maybe even find bierock recipes in a dusty old cookbook somewhere with recipes made up of pork, pepperoni, vegetables, and all manner of good things, just a-waitin' for the sampling. But in case you don't want to hunt down these mythical cookbooks, we feel confident that you'll find plenty of runza flavors to like, and it appears that Runza is always looking for new inspiration for its famous sandwich. Maybe you will see some of those old cookbook recipes at Runza.

6. The chain also serves burgers, chicken sandwiches, and more

When you go into a restaurant named after its famous stuffed sandwich, you expect to find a lot of stuffed sandwiches in all their iterations. However, unlike chain restaurants like Chick-fil-A that only serve a few variations of the same sandwich, Runza is different. While it's true that the chain sells hundreds of pockets of beef-and-cabbage goodness every day, the chain's menu isn't limited to meat-filled pastry pockets.

If you're not into stuffed sandwiches, you might like Runza's BBQ Bacon Burger or the Spicy Jack Burger. A grilled Buffalo Chicken sandwich hits the spot when you're in the mood for a bit of white meat. The chain also offers salads, ice cream, wraps, and some pretty addictive onion rings. (They taste great dipped in Runza's French onion dip.) 

That said, we feel we should point out that some Runza customers will even base life decisions, like where to go to college, around the availability of Runza's specialty sandwiches near their college of choice. In light of this information, we won't suggest that you completely skip offerings like burgers or ice cream at the local Runza. What we will say is that you should probably try the traditional runza sandwich at least once before moving on to the chain's other offerings. It's that good.

7. This Midwestern treat dates back to the 18th century

The Nebraska-based franchise, or rather the tradition and menu of it, came to the Midwest by way of Catherine the Great's Russia. German immigrants who settled in Russia's Volga River area upon the encouragement of Catherine the Great left the region when Russian nationalism swept the country in the 1800s. They moved to America's Midwest, where they found the land and the climate to be very similar to their homeland.

But they didn't just bring themselves over to the U.S. They brought the recipe for the Russian pirog with them. Pirozhki, a smaller version of the pirog, also exists. In the traditional Russian recipe, the pirog can contain sweet or savory fillings. Those pastries also had different iterations, with some of them being a completely closed-up pocket, while others had layers in the center or with filling topping off the pastry. (Talk about a delicious crown!) A woman who had mad pirog-making skills pretty much won the award for best wife back in the day. It was an adaptation of the pirog recipe that eventually became the runza as it's known today in the Runza franchise stores.

8. The runza sandwich is a church cookbook fundraiser staple

Church cookbooks date back to the American Civil War when local women tried to raise money for the Union Army via cookbook sales. If today, the idea that we might need to sell some cookbooks or hold a bake sale to raise funds for the war efforts seems far-fetched, it wasn't preposterous at all when the tradition began. Since that time, hundreds of church members have pulled recipes from the community, and compiled them into booklets to be sold at church fundraisers. The recipes inside could be counted on to be authentic, tasty, and a little bit folkish. Those recipes not only taught cookbook buyers how to cook something delish for dinner, but they also preserved the culture from which they grew.

In Nebraska, the recipes in those cookbooks often included from-scratch versions of the runza recipe. While Sally Everett's efforts may have made the stuffed pocket sandwich famous outside the Midwest, she didn't invent the recipe. The cookbooks containing runza recipes represented decades, even centuries, of immigrant history and good old-fashioned cookstove wisdom. The true origins of the runza recipe predates the Runza restaurants. Amateur Indiana Joneses could likely find a copy or two of those old cookbooks on a dusty library shelf somewhere and, in the process, gain an understanding of the evolution of this important folk dish, and the role it plays in foodie history in the Midwest and even in Old Europe.

9. The chain's mascot is Runza Rex, a dinosaur

Some company mascots, like the Pillsbury Doughboy or the Hamburger Helper gloved one, just kind of make sense. The doughboy pushes his dough products, while Lefty, the Hamburger Helper mascot, gives home gourmands a helping hand come dinner time.

Then, there's Runza Rex, the mascot for the Runza fast-food sandwich chain. No one would blame you if you tried to work out why Runza picked a dinosaur as a mascot. Do Runza sandwiches make you roar like a dinosaur because they're so tasty? Do we have a dino friend to encourage us to dine on some folkishly good food? Is the runza as rare as a dinosaur, so why not have a T-Rex as a mascot? Inquiring minds want to know.

Truth be told, even the powers that be at Runza don't exactly know why the mascot for the chain is a dino-beast. What Runza does know is that kids love Rex, and what we know from observation is that he sure does photobomb a lot of perfectly good sandwich photos and family outings alike.

10. In the winter, the chain embraces Temperature Tuesday

If you woke up one cold January morning to discover that the temperature hung stubbornly at 13 degrees Fahrenheit, what would you do? Get up and make 40 gallons of coffee to warm up? Call in sick to work? Slide back down in bed? These are all good answers, but we're willing to wager that if you live somewhere near a Runza restaurant, you'd be hoping that the temperature drops even lower  maybe down to zero. The locals know something that parts of the Runza-less U.S. don't. They know that if it's a Tuesday in January or February, they can go to a Runza restaurant, and get their runza sandwich for whatever the temperature gauge reads at 6:00 a.m. That means if the temp is zero, they pay nothing for their sandwich.

There is a catch to Temperature Tuesdays. These customers do need to buy medium fries and a drink before they can get their discounted sandwich. Still, we must admit that it's a clever way to sell a lot of sandwiches during a time of the year when most people would rather play hooky from work. We're willing to bet that many die-hard Runza fans are willing to go out and warm up their frozen horseless carriage to take advantage of this deal, even if the number on the digital temperature gauge is a cold doughnut.

11. There's a Lego version of Runza

Of all the ways to know that you're famous, getting a Lego-ized version of yourself, your movie, or in this case, your restaurant counts among the most fun pointers to success. The Runza restaurant chain got its own Lego restaurant when Adam Prochaska, a Runza Restaurant fan, created a miniature brick version of the fast-food chain. While he probably wasn't looking for a spot in the Runzatic Hall of Fame when he created this masterpiece of plastic brick, it certainly earned him one. It also got a spot at Nebraska Brick Days in March 2020.

The miniature restaurant included see-inside windows, a brown-and-green brick parking lot, and even a few Runza signs on the building and in the yard. A bird's-eye view of the restaurant allowed onlookers to peek inside to watch the little Lego people as they ate lunch. It just goes to show you how much loyalty the Runza chain instills in its fans.

12. Chili cheese fries are on its secret menu

If you search the Runza Restaurants menu with a fine-toothed comb, you'll find any number of delectable items that aren't the main event aka, a runza sandwich with all the fixin's. On the company's sides menu, you will find such nummies, such as crinkle fries, French onion dip, Frings, a side salad, and onion rings. What you won't find on the menu are items like chili cheese fries. On the main online menu, you won't find chili, either  not without a lot of digging, anyway. 

This is important because, like most respectable modern restaurants, Runza boasts a secret menu, or as Runza calls it on its Facebook page, its "not-so-secret secret menu". One hot commodity on this not-so-secret secret menu is the restaurant's chili cheese fries. Given that Runza carries plenty of french fries, lots of cheese, and even some chili, we get how this could be a thing, though we must say, some assembly is required. However, the effort looks to be worth it. We can only imagine how gooey and satisfying a platter of these savory meat-covered fries would be on a cold day at the local football field.