Economic Development Tourism Historic Preservation
Calhoun County, Iowa

Plenty of Iowa’s rural communities support pancake days or soup suppers, but there’s nothing quite like Jolley’s Famous Biscuits & Gravy Breakfast. Comfort-food aficionados willing to brave Iowa’s icy winter mornings swell the population of this tiny Calhoun County town (approximate population 28) by at least five to six times when breakfast is served.

“I love it when Jolley has their biscuits & gravy breakfast,” said Steve Boedecker of Twin Lakes. “You can’t beat it.” 

In November 2022, 311 people flocked to Jolley for biscuits and gravy. By the next breakfast, which was held in February 2023, the crowd still reached an impressive 280 guests. For the Jolley community, which has felt the pinch of a declining population, the breakfasts have provided a winning formula to preserve the heart of the town—the local community building. 

“When the local café closed in the early 2000s, people were worried that they’d have no place to get together,” said Betty Scheidegger, who helps spearhead the fundraising breakfasts. “Now, we’re able to the keep the community building open.” 

Yetter Locker sausage offers unique taste
For roughly 30 years, Jolley’s Famous Biscuits & Gravy Breakfasts have infused extra energy into a town that still has a post office, the Jolley United Community Methodist Church and Rastetter Plumbing. 

In years past, volunteers gathered early on a Saturday morning each November, January, February and March, donning their aprons and oven mitts, to feed the crowds in the style pioneered by breakfast founders Bob Sorenson, Eddie Meyer and Roy Johnson. Due to fewer volunteers, the breakfasts were only held twice this last season—November 2022 and February 2023. Still, some traditions remain. 

“Bob passed away in 2004, but he set many of the standards that have made our breakfast famous, including plenty of sausage in each batch of gravy,” said Scheidegger, who is now in her late 70s and has helped coordinate the breakfasts for 20 years. “We used to use 6 pounds of sausage, but the cost of food inflation changed things, so now we use 5 pounds.” 

It helps that Calhoun County pork producer Trent Blair has donated hogs to be processed at the Yetter Locker for the biscuits-and-gravy breakfasts. The mildly-spicy sausage is distinguished by its light flavor, rather than a heavy dose of grease. Based on feedback from satisfied guests, the recipe has become a favorite, even among those who normally don’t care for biscuits and gravy. 

Some of the volunteers gather in Jolley on a Friday before each breakfast to fry the sausage and get as much work as possible done ahead of time. Then it’s go time on Saturday morning. While the volunteers made the biscuits from scratch in the early years, they quickly learned that they couldn’t keep up with the Saturday morning rush, which usually reaches its peak around 8:00 or 8:30 a.m.

Today, roughly six volunteers (including Scheidegger, who arrives by 5:30 a.m.) bake tray after tray of refrigerated biscuits, make sausage gravy and serve beverages to the hungry crowds who wait patiently in a line that sometimes extends outside the front door. “We bake at least 10 to 12 cases of biscuits,” said Scheidegger, noting that there are 12 tubes of eight biscuits each per case. 

To streamline the process, volunteers have added a second serving line in the main dining area to accommodate the many guests who return for a second helping of biscuits and gravy. You’ll also find volunteers filling carry-out orders here and replenishing countless cups of milk, juice and coffee. 

While inclement weather has rarely, if ever, slowed down Jolley’s beloved biscuits-and-gravy tradition, the COVID-19 pandemic was another story. “Even when it’s cold or snowy, the people still come,” Scheidegger said. “COVID knocked us out of whack, though.” 

Demand for carryouts tripled in the post-COVID era, compared to what they were before the pandemic. It’s also tougher to find volunteers, and even the menu has changed a bit. While guests used to enjoy 100% orange juice, that’s been replaced by SunnyD orange drink, due to post-pandemic food price inflation. 

Reaping the rewards
Despite all these challenges, Jolley’s volunteers have raised enough money through the years to pay the community building’s heat and light bills. They’ve also rewired the building’s electrical system, added a new stove in the kitchen and continue to make other improvements—all noteworthy accomplishments for a community that purchased the building for $1 years ago. 

This local gathering place, which was built in 1955 as a Masonic lodge and later used by Eastern Star members, remains a social hub of Jolley. For years, the community building has been a popular destination for local, early-morning “coffee risers” who gather for conversation and card games. 

The biscuits and gravy breakfasts served at the community building also helped support Jolley traditions that have now faded into the past. Proceeds from the March 2007 breakfast, for example, allowed volunteers to donate $650 for Jolley’s annual 4th of July celebration, which featured a community picnic and fireworks at the city park. 

While a lot has changed since Jolley’s famous biscuits and gravy breakfasts started, community spirit lives on. “It takes dedication to keep the breakfasts and the local community going,” Scheidegger said. “The people we serve appreciate these breakfasts. As long as I can still help, I will.” 

written by Darcy Maulsby

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