Runza founder Donald Everett Sr., 70, built fast-food chain from mom's recipe

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Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 2:12 pm, Thu Jun 5, 2014.

Lincoln restaurateur Donald R. Everett Sr., who once tried to save horse racing in Omaha by offering to buy Ak-Sar-Ben, died Tuesday, eight years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Everett, 70, took the beef-and-cabbage sandwich recipe served by his mother, Sally, at a tiny restaurant near Pioneers Park in Lincoln, incorporated in 1966 and turned the business into a regional fast-food chain still operated by his family.

“He was very entrepreneurial,” said Carl Sjulin, Everett's son-in-law and president of West Gate Bank of Lincoln. “He was visionary in the fast-food business and saw the potential of drive-in restaurants.”

A high-energy businessman, Everett's zest for life appealed to the young people who worked at the restaurants, many of whom bought into the business and started management careers. Runza Restaurants now has 80 locations in four states.

Everett was competitive in business and in sports, a trait one could trace back to his football days at Lincoln Southeast High School.

During pickup games with employees, he sometimes would tackle other players, Sjulin said. “He had that passion and a commitment to quality. Whatever Don did, he did well. That consistency shows up in the restaurant chain today.”

In 1996, Everett submitted several proposals, one reportedly totaling $40 million, to buy Ak-Sar-Ben so he could restart live horse racing there and refurbish its arena and other facilities. But the deal never happened, and the property is now a mixed-use development.

Everett's Bluestem Farms was one of the state's largest horse breeding and racing operations, producing Breeders' Cup contender Tonzarun. He attended the Kentucky Derby and other races around the country.

Besides the regular Runza restaurants, he turned his love for the 1950s into the Rock 'n' Roll Runza restaurant in downtown Lincoln, featuring '50s-style memorabilia and a roller-skating wait staff. The restaurant has since closed. He also started the Corner Cafe in Seward and the Wash 'n' Roll Car Wash in Lincoln.

Everett saw to it that runza sandwiches — the “perfect stadium food,” Sjulin said — were served at the University of Nebraska's Memorial Stadium. He provided them at cost, effectively donating a half-million dollars in profits over the years as a way of supporting the athletic program.

In 1994, when the university wanted an additional $30,000 for runzas to remain in the stadium, Everett bowed out, wished the next food supplier well and began selling the sandwiches outside the stadium.

The baked sandwiches also became popular at reunion-style gatherings by former Nebraskans in other cities.

“I've got good people behind me,” Everett said in 1991, when he received an entrepreneurship award from the U.S. Small Business Administration. “We have the formula for success. A Runza has never gone broke — ever.”

Everett was named Nebraska Restaurateur of the Year in 1994 and received the corporate leadership award from the UNL College of Business Administration Alumni Association. He was a member of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame and the Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame, among other honors.

He was surrounded by family members when he died, Sjulin said. He married Sandra K. Burback in 1964. Their children, Renee Sjulin and twins Dawn Amend and Donald Everett Jr., work at the restaurant company.

Other survivors include sisters Mary London of Sacramento, Calif., and Sharon Redmond of Denver; a brother, Rich Everett of Omaha; and eight grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at Butherus, Maser & Love Funeral Home, 4040 A St., in Lincoln The funeral will be at 10 a.m. Friday at Westminster Presbyterian Church.

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