If you’ve ever gobbled down a cheesy slice of Val’s or a steaming hot Runza during a Nebraska football game and thought to yourself, “I wonder how this got here?” I have your answer.
If the Huskers are known for a handful of things — big rubber corn heads, stadium sellouts, the tunnel walk — Runza and Valentino’s must be among them. Whichever of the official Memorial Stadium foods you prefer, either a slice of hamburger pizza from Valentino’s or a cabbage-and-beef Runza bierock, they’re both cooked right in the stadium the day of every single game. Here’s how it happens.
Both Runza and Valentino’s have their own on-site kitchen spaces in the stadium.
The dozen Runza restaurants in Lincoln start making the classic version — it’s the only one served at the stadium — the day before the game, said Jon Wurst, the restaurant’s director of franchise development. The number they make depends on a lot of factors: game time, weather conditions, humidity levels.
The high point for Runza sales? Cold weather months, when the games are around lunch or dinner. Those are the days when the restaurant will sell as many as 15,000 in Memorial Stadium.
“11 a.m. is a great selling time,” Wurst said. “2:30? Not so much.”
Store employees load the Runzas into pans and onto rolling racks, and the Friday before game day, a refrigerated truck from the Lincoln Food Bank picks them up and drops them off at the stadium. On game day, cooks arrive about 4 ½ hours before the game and start baking. A staff to wrap the Runzas arrives a half hour later. Runzas are ready to go, stocked at the stands by the time the stadium opens, an hour and a half before game time.
“A lot of people come to the game and the Runza is kind of their tradition,” Wurst said. “It’s been passed down generation to generation.”
Wurst himself is an example.
“My first year of college, at my first football game, I was introduced to the Runza,” he said. “That was 1984.”
Donald Everett and Bob Devaney are the reasons you can eat a Runza in your seat. Everett, whose mother, Sarah “Sally” Everett, opened the first Runza restaurant in Lincoln, started the tradition in the 1960s. He used to park an old mail truck he’d outfitted with an oven outside the stadium to sell Runzas. Think of it as an ahead-of-its-time food truck.
Though he had played football at Nebraska, he didn’t use the people he knew to make a connection, his son Donald Everett Jr. said. He simply pulled into a lot nearby and set up shop.
Eventually, Devaney, Nebraska’s athletic director, invited him inside.
The university invited Valentino’s into the stadium later, in 1994, said Anthony Messineo, vice president of Valentino’s.
The restaurant had worked with the university before, and Runza and Fairbury hot dogs were already on the stadium’s menu, but UNL wanted to expand. Pizza was a popular choice with fans.
“We jumped on the idea,” Messineo said.
The restaurant considered personal-sized pizzas, but decided instead on slices from its jumbo pizza. Val’s has three production kitchens inside the stadium and several ovens. Early in the week leading up to home games, managers start preparing the ingredients for the mostly hamburger pizzas. (cheese is also available, but is limited.)
“We have well over 50 people down there just making the pizzas,” he said. “They start bright and early before the games.”
Right before kickoff, they bake the prepared pizzas and, as Messineo said, “away we go.”
If it’s lunch or dinnertime, Val’s can sell more than 20,000 slices in a game.
“To be able to say you’re the official pizza of the Huskers,” Messineo said. “That still generates a lot of interest in this state.”