When the James Beard Foundation contacted Matt Sehnert, he wasn’t sure what to make of the news the caller had to share: That his southwest Nebraska family-owned bakery and cafe, which opened in 1957, had won a national award.

“I wondered if I needed to give them some money and they would send me a plaque,” he said, chuckling.

So Matt and his wife, Shelly, scheduled a phone call with the Beard Foundation, which explained that Sehnert’s Bieroc Cafe, in McCook, was Nebraska’s first-ever James Beard America’s Classic Award winner.

“We came away from that going ‘holy cow, this is real.’ ”

It is real. On Tuesday morning, the James Beard Foundation announced that Sehnert’s was one of the winners via an Instagram post. The full list of 2019 winners has not yet been announced. The James Beard Awards, which are given to restaurants, chefs, authors and wine experts, among other food industry professionals, are considered the Oscars of the food world.

Even after the official announcement, Sehnert still seemed surprised. When this reporter told him he was the first winner in Nebraska, he said, “Is that true? Wow.”

Sehnert said people around the country nominate restaurants for the America’s Classic award, and the Beard Foundation reviews those nominations and chooses its winners.

Other than a story in Oprah magazine mentioning its cinnamon rolls and a few “best of Nebraska” honors, this is the first time Sehnert’s has received national attention of this kind, Matt said.

“It feels good,” he said. “I guess this is something that you don’t really go after. It kind of falls into your lap.”

The bakery is known for its bierock, or Runza, made with sauerkraut along with ground beef, onions and a crusty, rustic bread exterior.

Sehnert’s is a quintessential small-town cafe, with its worn wood floors, long counter of baked goods and its two house specialties: bierocks and jiffy burgers, which are served on homemade buns.

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Sehnert’s makes its version of the Runza with sauerkraut and a crustier bread exterior than you will find at the better-known Runza restaurant chain. The Sehnert’s version also uses less dough and leaves the ends of its bread open, resulting in meat in every bite. They’re still made by hand.

The Sehnert family is German and came to Nebraska in the 1800s. The family settled in the same areas as Germans from Russia, who originated the bierock and brought it to the Midwest. Matt Sehnert’s parents moved to McCook in 1957 and opened the bakery.

“We are just carrying the torch of my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents,” Sehnert said.

He said he expects more people to seek out the bakery as a result of the Beard award, but he hopes they come for more than the bierock.

“People in southwest Nebraska will probably have to look up and see who James Beard is,” he said, laughing. “But I am really hoping this 15 minutes will give McCook a place on the map. I think when (people) explore it a little bit, it will be easy to see it’s a great place to live. The community is extremely important to us.”

The America’s Classics series started in 1998 and recognizes the country’s favorite regional restaurants, which are distinguished by timeless appeal, serve quality food and reflect the character of their community.

For a list of past America’s Classic Award-winning restaurants, visit jamesbeard.org/content/americas-classics-award-winners. To see the Instagram post, visit instagram.com/p/BtOXilUhffA.

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