In the front of the Runt’s Munchies, a new restaurant in downtown Cedar Rapids, a dessert case displays freshly-baked cookies, cupcakes, brownies and other treats.
“This is what I refer to as the case of yum,” owner Jessica Johnson said.
She opened her small cafe May 30, serving up lunch, dinner and snacks. With a background in serving and bartending, Johnson, 33, is at home in the restaurant industry, but this is her first foray into ownership. Originally from Tama, she moved to Cedar Rapids in 2009.
“This has always been a dream of mine,” she said.
The restaurant’s name is a mix of her own childhood nickname and the type of food she aims to serve.
“My dad has called me ‘runt pig’ my entire life,” she said. “I love pigs.”
As for the food, it’s a mix of comfort food and American home-cooked staples.
“I wanted to do the munchie thing,” she said. “Basically it’s the bar food without the bar.”
That means snackable bites like sliders, egg rolls, pizzas and dips.
“Every time there was a big event or party, I would take things, and they’d be gone,” she said. “Those are what ended up on the menu.”
She makes her own pizza sauce — referred to on the menu as “red gravy” — as well as her own Alfredo sauce and other sauces and dips from scratch.
If what she serves is comfort food, it’s also a comfort to her.
“If I’m having a bad day, I know if I go in the kitchen, I control that space,” she said. “I’ve always loved to cook and bake and come up with new things. I’d be at home and be bored and whip something up.”
Those bouts of experimental cooking led to a menu filled with her own idiosyncratic takes on classic American fare. Her corn dog waffle, for example, deconstructs a summer fair food staple: she starts with corn dog batter, mixes in diced hot dogs and cooks the batter on a waffle iron.
The cafe’s building, on the corner of Fifth Avenue SE and Sixth Street SE, used to house Jamaican eatery Caribbean Kitchen. Johnson retained its bright orange and green walls and added her own touches: a black and white checkered floor, curtains decorated with Runts candies and chairs cheerfully upholstered with a cupcake motif. A vinyl sign for the window is coming soon; until she get’s the permit to hang it, she’s written the cafe’s name on the window in green marker.
“People have called it a ‘quirky little place,’ and I like that,” she said.