The Untold Truth Of Ann Sather

If you live in Chicago, or have ever visited the city, chances are good that the popular Ann Sather Restaurant is a frequent dining spot or a place where you go on the weekends for delicious brunch fare, including the famous just-out-of-the-oven cinnamon rolls.

The cozy, homey dining establishment is where you can order comfort food at affordable prices with quality ingredients, and all are made from scratch. Over the years, Ann Sather's has become a Chicago institution that continues to be frequented by families, friends, locals, and tourists who "know the moment they came in the door they went from being a customer to becoming a friend," says the official website.

The original location on Chicago's Belmont Avenue is still standing and currently there are two additional locations in the city's Edgewater and Boystown neighborhoods. But, before the real-life Ann Sather (yes, she was a real person!) opened her own restaurant, the same original building housed another family-owned Swedish restaurant. So it was a perfect hand-off when Sather decided to go into the restaurant business in 1945.

Ann Sather dreamed of opening her own restaurant

Ann Sather always dreamed of opening her own restaurant — and after being a devoted career woman for 22 years, she decided to quit her job, cash in her life savings, and go after her dream. When she found out the owners of a placed called The Swedish Diner on Chicago's Belmont Avenue were going to retire in 1945, Sather decided it was in a good location (in the city's bustling Lakeview neighborhood) and hopped at the chance to buy it. Soon after, she recreated the space and menu by putting her own personal touches on them, while keeping some of the Scandinavian influence of the original diner in her dishes (Sather was also of Norwegian heritage).

Current menu items include eggs Benedict, breakfast wraps, Swedish pancakes, and those delicious cinnamon rolls that have become Ann Sather's hallmark. In recent years, lunch and entree items have been added as well.

In the beginning, Sather's goal was fresh, homemade comfort food and that is what her restaurant became known for, quickly amassing a following. According to an article in Umgas Magazine, current owner Tom Tunney says, "[Ann] was devoted to serving wholesome, made-from-scratch food, with low prices and friendly service ... It's like you're going to grandma's house."

Sather sold the restaurant business to an interesting new owner

Though Ann Sather ran the restaurant herself for 35 years, when she was ready to retire in the '80s, she planned it out in advance so she could find someone to take over the business that would preserve the name and continue it in the same fashion. Sather eventually sold the restaurant to Tom Tunney, an emerging Chicago businessman who had studied Hotel and Restaurant Management at Cornell University and was working in management training at Chicago's Ritz Carlton Hotel when this opportunity came knocking — it was solidified on a handshake, Tunney told Umgas Magazine.

But it wasn't a quick transaction. Before Sather completely turned over the reins, Tunney trained with her for more than a year, learning the business from the inside out, including learning a variety of Scandinavian recipes as well as how to cook. "I worked in the kitchen every day and then went out in the dining room when the guests came. If you don't know how to cook, you won't be a good restaurateur," Tunney said in the interview with Umgas.

Forty years since acquiring Ann Sather Restaurant in 1981, Tunney has expanded to two additional locations and also established a corporate and special event catering business for the brand, according to the official website.

But the most interesting part is Tunney is now also alderman of the 44th Ward in Chicago, where the original location of Ann Sather's remains today.

Ann Sather's has become famous for cinnamon rolls

Over the years the famous Ann Sather cinnamon rolls have become so well-known that has a recipe to make them at home and even Insider paid a visit to the Windy City to try them out, hailing the menu item as "the best cinnamon roll in Chicago."

It's said that Ann Sather created the recipe herself and the delicious treats were originally included as part of the bread baskets — but when Tunney took over he wanted to "make them famous on their own" (via Umgas) and decided to make the rolls more readily available by putting them on the menu as a separate item you could order (and take home with you). 

According to Insider, Ann Sather's sells about 100 trays daily (and each with 60 cinnamon rolls) — that adds up to 6,000 each and every day. 

Part of the success was paying attention to feedback from customers, says Tunney. For example, when some people told him they didn't taste the cinnamon enough, he made some changes to add more spice in. As far as the best way to eat it ... he told Insider, "The best way to eat a cinnamon roll is... pick it up, get your hands messy and your mouth messy, 'cause the frosting will go all over your face." Not that anyone is complaining.

The recipe for the cinnamon rolls remains a top secret

Even though plenty of die-hard customers have specifically asked Tunney to spill the beans on just what makes the cinnamon rolls so delicious, he keeps the secret recipe close to the chest (it's something even he only got the full details on after signing the paperwork to take over the restaurant). When pressed by Insider, Tunney revealed the base is a yeast product made from a dry mix specifically crafted just for the restaurant. He also added that water, soft margarine, cinnamon, and brown sugar are used — and to create the rich layers of cinnamon, the dough is rolled in a diagonal direction, according to Insider.

But, it's not only the roll that makes it so scrumptious, it's also how the frosting is made and the fact that they're served fresh out of the oven every time. "For the glaze to glaze over, it's just coming fresh out of the oven. ...That creates that drip that goes over the side of the rolls. If it's cold, it just sits on top of it. It doesn't have the glaze effect that you want," Tunney divulged to Insider about what makes the frosting so good. One tip he did share is that they use evaporated milk in the frosting.

There is one secret ingredient Tunney said he can't ever share, but he does point to the fact that the official Ann Sather Cookbook has some clues on how to make them at home. And, if you take a peek at the restaurant website, you'll find a cinnamon roll recipe that is pretty close to what you can get at the restaurant.

Tom Tunney sold the land where one of Sather's restaurants is located

Tom Tunney is a man with his hands in many pies — and some lucrative business discretion. He's the owner of three Ann Sather locations, an alderman in Chicago, and is also involved in real estate deals. In 2019, Tunney sold the land that houses the original Ann Sather's on Belmont Avenue to pub owner and real estate investor Tim Glascott, according to an article in the Chicago Sun-Times

But don't get too nervous about big changes happening just yet. Although the transaction made Tunney $10 million richer, the agreement is referred to as an "extended lease-back arrangement," which means nothing will change for the next ten years. "After 10 years, if they kick me out as a lessee, they have an ability to redevelop under the zoning..." Tunney said to the newspaper. That will be the year 2029, a bit shy of what will be Ann Sather's 100-year anniversary in 2045. Here's to hoping Ann Sather's will get to continue to that day.