Oh, the smell of warm cinnamon rolls. We rolled around the state and found some of the best ever. Plus, we dive into the heritage of cinnamon rolls in Missouri. You will want to take a road trip for one of these rolls.

4 melt-in-your mouth treats to tempt your tastebuds.

A good cinnamon roll is not only evocative of the globe; it’s rooted in a spice that has traveled the world and delighted bakery customers for centuries.

When trade routes opened between Europe and Asia in the seventeenth century, cinnamon became more readily available. It was added to yeasty dough fritters like the English Chelsea bun, which has a light glaze and is studded with dried fruit or filled with jam. German immigrants brought schnecken (the German word for snails; they are cinnamon buns topped with a gooey mix of honey and chopped pecans), and Swedish immigrants brought kanelbullar (cinnamon buns typically spiced with cardamom) to the United States.

Today, people gobble up coffee scrolls (a touch of joe is used in the fondant icing atop the pastry) in the northeast and honey buns (a cinnamon-laced roll doused in honey syrup) down south. But did you know that Kansas City was once the center of the cinnamon roll universe? A mall food court in the City of Fountains gave birth to T. J. Cinnamons, the “original gourmet cinnamon roll” that challenged Cinnabon for cinnamon roll supremacy three decades ago.

Cart meets shopping mall.
The story of T. J. Cinnamons began on the road. Joyce and Ted Rice, a grade-school teacher and television cameraman, had built a mobile cart to sling their softball-sized rolls at cattle shows and county fairs across Missouri and Kansas. The catchy name and oversized pastries caught on right at the height of the shopping mall craze.

T.J. Cinnamon’s opened its first storefront in the Ward Parkway Shopping Center in Kansas City in 1984. New customers were drawn in by employees rolling out dough on the counter in front of them and the smell of the pastries in the oven. President George H. W. Bush and US Senator Bob Dole were among the early fans.

Rich Komen, the founder of Cinnabon, even tried to become a franchisee, but the Rices weren’t willing to grant him the entire West Coast. Soon, he would open the first Cinnabon in SeaTac Mall just outside of Seattle, Washington, in December of 1985. While Cinnabon slowly spread to malls out West, there would be more than two hundred T. J. Cinnamon’s locations in just four years.

“Cinnamon rolls are something that everybody grew up with, a little bite of nostalgia,” says Scott Meinke, co-owner of Heirloom Bakery & Hearth.

Cinnamon rolls are an anytime food, and the right one can make an entire road trip worthwhile. So, let’s roll around the state to check out five different takes on the classic.

The SweetArt cinnamon roll

Vegan Big Momma Cinnamon Roll
SweetArt, St. Louis
Wed.–Thur. 10:30 am-3 pm;
Fri.–Sat. 10:30 am-8 pm;
Sun. 10:30 am-3 pm (brunch only)
2203 S. 39th St., 314-771-4278, SweetArtStL.com

Comfort food and plant-based fare come together in this cozy cafe owned and operated by husband and wife Cbabi and Reine Bayoc.

In 2008, the couple opened their art gallery and bakery in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis. Cbabi was the artist, while Reine created the cupcakes that quickly built a following for SweetArt.

The walls are adorned with family scenes and portraits. The menu is laid out on brown paper scrolls. Light wooden tables quickly fill up with the downtown lunch crowd and the buzz of conversation. You can watch people in line try and resist the dairy-free and dairy-filled cupcakes.

But sweets aren’t the only thing on the menu at SweetArt. You’ll also find a Southwest burger topped with onion rings, a banh mi made with lemongrass-spiced tofu and Mackin Cheese (a vegan take on macaroni and cheese) that comes with a sweet potato and pecan biscuit, black-eyed peas, fried cauliflower and chik’n, a soy chicken substitute, on the Church Basement Plate, a Friday night dinner special.

The warm fluffy cinnamon rolls are called Big Momma Cinnamon Rolls. Once a Saturday special, they proved popular enough to be offered every day the bakeshop is open. The oversized rolls are vegan, as are many of the items at SweetArt, made with a vegan butter substitute. There’s a traditional roll, as well as seasonal versions.

It’s rare to see a full pan of six rolls nestled beneath a blanket of inviting sugar glaze. They often sell out before 11 am, so grab one if you see them on the counter.

The standard is indulgent, a collection of cinnamon-laced bites that will disappear before you’re ready to let it go. Claim the soft center first before any of your table mates can eat it. SweetArt works in occasional seasonal specials like a peach pie-filled cinnamon roll (spiced peaches nestled atop an ocean of sweet glaze) that celebrates the best of summer or a caramel apple pecan cinnamon roll that will make you want to go apple picking.

The Mexican Hot Chocolate is the flavor many will hope to find. This cinnamon roll has a dark chocolate foundation and a bit of kick from cayenne pepper. It’s enough heat to make you feel it. But right around the moment you start worrying the heat is going to build, it subsides and makes you want to dive in for that next bite.

Cinnamon Roll
Old Fashioned Dough Company, Branson
Tuesdays–Saturdays, 7am–2pm
18192 Business 13, Suite B, 417-272-3644

The Old Fashioned Dough Company lets you know what they specialize in right away. A cartoon cinnamon roll and bright yellow and red letters advertise their scratch-baked rolls, while the window is painted with a drawing of palm trees and the promise of a cinnamon paradise.

In 2018, Branson residents Karole Clark and Tracy Wright (you can see their caricatures on the front window in chef’s hats) opened the bakery that pays homage to the classics. During the week, people pop in to grab a dozen English muffins and clamshell packages of cinnamon rolls to fuel road trips or mornings by the lake.

The Old Fashioned Dough Company is a sensory carnival. A bright ribbon of sugar and the spice of cinnamon greets you when you open the door. The clear case at the front of the store is packed early in the morning with toffee and original cinnamon rolls. There’s often a pan of specialty flavors, too: caramel or chocolate or sweet cream or orange rolls. If you want a particular flavor, the bakery recommends calling the day before.

The cinnamon rolls—nestled twelve to a pan—are generously topped with sweet icing. The rolls are buttery and dense with a pleasant kick of cinnamon. The family cinnamon roll is larger than a dinner plate and could stand in for cake at the end of a picnic.

The choices don’t stop with cinnamon rolls, as the Old Fashioned Dough Company often has danishes, bear claws, apple fritters, and loaves of bread. Peaches find their way into cobblers and on top of breakfast rolls in the summer, while pumpkin and lemon meringue pie are stand-outs in the fall.

The essence of the Old Fashioned Dough Company has been captured in a candle made by Smokeshow Candle Company at Plattsburg, for sale at the bakery. On your way out, snag a scent inspired by the these cinnamon rolls.

The Hubcap cinnamon roll at Lambert's Restaurant in Sikeston.

“Hubcaps” Cinnamon Roll
Lambert’s Cafe, Sikeston
10:30am–9pm Daily
2305 E. Malone, 573-471-4261, ThrowedRolls.com

Lambert’s Cafe has built a reputation on warm, “throwed” rolls—the pillowy bread that servers who are pushing a cart toss to diners throughout their meal. But once the “hubcaps” come to the table, you won’t have eyes for anything else. The massive cinnamon rolls—they are aptly nicknamed—are serious endeavors. Lambert’s estimates they bake more than 2,400 cinnamon rolls each week.

Earl and Agnes Lambert opened the original restaurant in Sikeston in 1942. The couple borrowed $1,500 to open a small cafe that served homestyle eats. They moved and expanded twice thanks to the popularity of their meat and potatoes and the made-for-TV novelty of a wait staff that tosses dinner rolls—a tradition invented by their son Norman in 1976. Today, there are three Lambert’s locations. The original in Sikeston, as well as restaurants in Ozark, Missouri, and Foley, Alabama.

Lambert’s is like a frontier town and a rest stop smashed together. There are vintage photos and Americana. The menu is a mix of Southern and Midwest classics. You can get fried chicken and mashed potatoes with white gravy, a plate-tipping mound of pork chops, ham steak, or even frog legs.

The Hubcaps circle the dining room on baking sheets, nine to a pan, atop metal carts. They are larger than your face. This is not an exaggeration.

“Every now and then, I get out on the floor, and I get excited because that’s my work,” says Monique Franklin, a roll-maker at Lambert’s for the past decade.

Her day starts at 7 am, when she begins to roll out the dough that’s been left to rise overnight. She’ll bake between twelve and twenty-five dozen each morning. Monique works alongside her mother, Ella Buxton, who has been a roll-maker for more than thirty years. “She used to bring them home when I was growing up,” Monique says. “And she showed me how to do everything here.”

The cinnamon rolls have a bright pop of cinnamon and a waterfall of sweet vanilla icing. They offer gentle resistance to your fork and are an unintentional food challenge. They are traditional rolls, heaping portions of nostalgia.

Lambert’s is happy to let you take one to go, if you’re full. If you need another keepsake, snag a Hubcap cinnamon roll-scented candle on your way out the door. It’s slathered in faux-icing and weighs a pound.

Fried Cinnamon Roll
Big Sky Donuts, St. Joseph
Mondays, Wednesdays–Sundays, 5:30am–11:30am
3613 Faraon St., 816-387-8282, BigSkyDonuts.com

Many people have a dream of buying their favorite restaurant. Matt and Beth Unzicker decided to live that dream. The Unzickers bought Big Sky Donuts in 2017.

Matt was a long-time customer. He’d talk with the previous owner—Big Sky originally opened in 1994 as a bagel shop—on weekends about life and donuts and, eventually, a life in donuts.

“I didn’t come for the donuts; I came for the conversation,” Matt says.

Big Sky Donuts is a classic donut shop that’s been given an infusion of youthful energy. They still make heart-shaped donuts to celebrate Valentine’s Day, but you can also get an espresso made with locally roasted Mokaska Coffee.

“We wanted to keep money local as long as possible. It’s also a better quality product,” Matt says.

The Unzickers also redesigned the footprint of the shop so donut fans could see them rolling dough.

“There’s a social element,” Matt says. “Every classic donut shop needs the classic regular. It’s a familiar face where you can shoot the breeze for three minutes on your way out. And if you take that three minutes over a timespan of a couple years, it develops into something meaningful, a slow and organic process of community that we’re hoping to be a part of.”

Big Sky makes raised donuts and cake donuts. They frost their donuts with maple and fill them with raspberry jelly. They’ll even make a birthday donut the size of a plate. They’ve got apple fritters and cinnamon twists, but you should save room for the cinnamon rolls.

Since Big Sky doesn’t have an oven, the cinnamon rolls are fried instead of baked. The result is like a circular hand pie (swap the fruit filling for cinnamon and sugar) with a bit of crust on the exterior, giving way to a nice, soft, chewy interior.

“We’ve had people that don’t normally like cinnamon rolls come in and like ours,” Matt says. “They are fried but still soft and doughy.”

The rolls are topped with the same glaze as the glazed donuts in the shop. It’s made from scratch each morning. The day starts at 1 am because the doors open at 5:30 am. The shop stays open until they sell out or until 11:30 am, whichever comes first.

This article originally appeared in our November/December 2021 edition.