Butter, Sugar, Flour: Ron Popp’s Love of Baking Inspires CareerMay 27, 2022 03:17PM ● By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
The combined scent of butter, sugar, and cinnamon wafts from the kitchen as one walks into the restaurant at 1224 S. 103rd St. It’s the scent, and ingredients, to a confection that owner Ron Popp has known for most of his 65 years.
“We had terrific school cooks,” Popp, originally from Dow City, Iowa, remembered. “We’d have those [cinnamon rolls] every other Monday at school with chicken soup.”
Another early cooking memory is also of sweets—spending time with his four aunts combining sugar, water, corn syrup, and salt with stiff egg whites to make divinity on Christmas Day.
“Made right, it’s just one of the best candies,” Popp said.
In the 1970s, Popp moved roughly 60 miles south and west of his hometown to Omaha to attend college, with the intent of becoming an accountant. To pay the bills, he got a job at a brand-new Perkins restaurant. Matt and Ivan Perkins owned the restaurant chain at that time, maintaining, according to Popp, homemade dinners, pies, and gravies that made the chain successful. Within a couple of years, however, the Perkins brothers retired, and the restaurant model changed.
Popp earned his associate’s degree in accounting and continued managing that Perkins for 10 years before deciding to step out on his own, settling in the former Rockbrook Coffee Shop.
“It was 1,000 square-feet, and 55 seats,” Popp remembered. “It was a small place that everyone went to.”
The coffee shop at Rockbrook became Popp’s Garden Cafe, and he soon expanded around the city, boasting places downtown and in Ralston, among others. Popp took Matt and Ivan Perkins’ from-scratch ideas from the pre-corporate run Perkins, creating pies, cakes, and breads from scratch alongside potato casseroles, fresh soups, and breakfasts served at any time. Eventually, he turned to venture capitalists to help finance the expanding restaurants, and that’s when he realized he needed to move forward.
“That was a big learning curve,” Popp said. “You need to be consistently mediocre to do what venture capitalists want.”
Consistently mediocre is exactly what Popp did not want. He wanted good food, made from scratch, that would please customers each time. That is why he branched out on his own in 1985, and it is what would prompt him to go on his own again in 2000. He took over the Garden Cafe on Pacific Street, that aforementioned restaurant at 1224 S. 103rd St., and turned it into Wheatfields Eatery and Bakery.
The emphasis is on bakery. “Our cinnamon roll recipe is the recipe from school,” Popp said. Diners can indulge in those large, fluffy confections with vanilla icing or eat the caramel pecan version, with sticky brown-sugar glaze dripping down the sides of the yeasty sweet bread.
On a cool, below-average day in mid-April, Popp stood in the kitchen, cranking out 10,000 of those cinnamon rolls for people in preparation of Easter brunches and breakfasts. He started mixing them at 10 a.m., and baked until 6 p.m. He cracked eggs by hand, melted butter over the stove, and combined the right amount of yeast and flour in the mixer time after time.
After more than 20 years at Wheatfields (and many years before that at Garden Cafe) one might think that Popp would get out of the kitchen and visit cities such as Budapest and come back with memories of the art at St. Stephen's Basilica or the thermal-spring baths on Margaret Island. Popp might, but it’s the food that this passionate restaurateur comes home raving about.
“The Strudel House got me to do even more with strudel,” Popp said. “They have this long silver table and they take two bakers, one on each end, and they make it there. I learned a lot about how much there is to stretching the dough. In Germany I learned a lot about gingerbread. There are a lot of different versions in Germany.”
Even a trip to Switzerland gave Popp ideas about a food he had been trying to perfect.
“We went to one place in Switzerland, and they had the cheese sitting out,” Popp said. “It clicked. I had been trying to figure out the secret to a good fondue—it is 100 percent the cheese.”
Back in Omaha, with tweaked recipes for strudel and fondue in hand, Popp returned to the kitchen to work magic with butter, flour, and sugar. It’s something he has no intentions of leaving soon.
“The thing I ask myself: Do I want to still be making cinnamon rolls in my 80s?” Popp said.
The answer, he replied, is yes.
This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.