A Christmas miracle occurred somewhere between my midtown home and a west Omaha strip mall.
I was driving on West Dodge Road at a desolate morning hour in a desolate temperature when I steered into One Pacific Place.
My assignment: to see just how busy an already-busy bakery is a day before showtime. At WheatFields, Christmas Eve rivals Thanksgiving Eve in terms of traffic and sales.
Unlike the one-day Thanksgiving pie sprint, Christmas is a monthlong marathon of gingerbread, German stollen, kolaches, sugar cookies, cookie bars, divinity, pies, cakes, cupcakes and this year-round favorite and a Christmas top-seller: cinnamon rolls.
But when I opened the restaurant door at 2 a.m. Monday, I discovered WheatFields was merely a front for Santa Claus. He and a cadre of elves, with a penchant for accordion-heavy ranchera music, have been using the joint for their holiday baking.
While you and I have been sleeping these frigid December mornings, Santa and his elves have been mixing and measuring, scooping and stirring, folding and frosting, boxing and delivering so that Omahans could have fresh-baked treats like caramel apple pie.
A constant is the cinnamon rolls. I saw elves in black T-shirts plunge their arms into 20-gallon mixing bowls of butter-yellow dough.
They spread the dough onto flour-topped counters. Then, at lightning-elf speed, they punched, shaped, spread and cut the dough, lathered it with butter, dusted it with cinnamon, pinched it, rolled it, cut it again and placed it into heavy baking pans that slid into an oven taller and wider than Santa Claus.
In Omaha, Santa goes by the street name Ron Popp. He pretends to be a 56-year-old restaurateur who had the revolutionary notion that restaurant food should use fresh ingredients and Santa-like portions. This worked for him when he built the Garden Cafe into a successful chain.
Popp took the formula to WheatFields, which has been his family's only restaurant for the past 14 years, and that, since 2000, has grown to three storefronts in Omaha. All of the baking occurs at the One Pacific Place location.
The baking for all three means, in a single month, WheatFields goes through 8,200 pounds of butter, 9,200 pounds of sugar, 10,300 pounds of flour and 108,500 eggs.
WheatFields uses so much cream — 7,600 gallons this month alone — that in the past it has been the largest cream consumer in Nebraska. I can confirm that this cream is put to good use when whipped and served atop one of those heavenly cinnamon rolls.
WheatFields has made 109,540 of those cinnamon rolls so far this year.
Pulling that off, plus creating and manning all of those other sweets, truly is magic.
On Monday morning, here's what I saw: One elf scooped muffin batter. Another lugged 120 eggs, cracking one with a delicate flick of a wrist. A third squirted chocolate onto a peanut butter pie. A fourth elf pushed airy whipped cream frosting onto strawberry wedding cake while a fifth topped cupcakes with 2 inches of chocolate frosting and a bright red maraschino cherry. More elves lugged trays of muffins, croissants and dessert bars, squeezed them onto whatever shelf space they could find, then boxed them for delivery.
Head elf Jane Cody, who has worked with Popp for 10 years, was keeping track of it all, building a who's-been-nice-in-Omaha list that for Monday and today was several dozen pages long. And that was just the cakes.
“We make a lot of lists around here,” Jane said. “We've got the system pretty much down pat. Controlled chaos!”
In all, some 65 elves were working Monday at the One Pacific Place location.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Popp has built menus based on old family recipes that his son, Andrew, now uses in candy-making for the restaurant and on staples from his Iowa childhood, like the cinnamon rolls.
“Once a week for 13 years, I remember having big, soft cinnamon rolls with white icing along with a bowl of chicken noodle soup,” Popp said. “I brought the recipe with me from Dow City, Iowa, and it has always been a top seller.”
Good one, Santa. We know where you're really from.
Popp sells a lot of cinnamon rolls at Christmastime. We tried to count, but chief baking elf Andres Avila Rodriguez, while pushing a cart full of risen dough, just said, “A lot.”
The rolls come miniature or as big as your face. They come frosted, drowning in caramel and nuts or sprinkled with red and green sugar in the shape of a wreath. They compete for display space with too many other sweets to write down.
But perhaps the real Christmas miracle is this:
“People say, 'You took out the calories, right?' ” Jane said. “I say, as long as you close your eyes before you eat it.”
Done and done.