The Searcy County Chocolate Roll Contest and Festival takes place on March 16 at Marshall High School in Marshall.
Category: Uniquely Arkansas

Chocolate Roll Contest and Festival celebrates Searcy County dessert sensation

Editor’s note: Arkansas Living is saddened to report that Red River Café owner Sharon Lewis passed away since publication of this story.

The chocolate roll has earned its place in our state’s culinary lexicon. It’s a simple pastry that’s become a signature dish of an Arkansas county and is drawing attention from all over.

“It’s a combination of a rich filling of chocolate, butter and sugar with a flaky crust on the outside. Homemade!” says Brenda Smyth, a teacher at Marshall High School. “For my kids and so many who grew up here, it’s remembering that your mom or grandma made them for you as a kid. Always a special treat because they do take some time to make.”

The dessert has been known throughout the region for years, but it likely first appeared on the menu at The Downtowner, a longstanding restaurant in Marshall. A local cook by the name of Shirley Diemer offered the rolls as a dessert. They went well with coffee and were a hit.

Chocolate rolls are available at many Searcy County establishments, including Misty’s Shell Station, the Red River Café and the Kenda Drive-In Theater.

“I have always loved chocolate rolls,” Smyth says. “I discovered them back when my husband and I moved here. This is where he was raised, but I was raised in Missouri. I had never heard of them. After the first one, I would always try to buy any that some of the local ladies had made.” Smyth’s Art Club students were looking for a fundraiser years ago. She saw an opportunity to showcase an area specialty, so she spearheaded the effort and created the first Searcy County Chocolate Roll Festival in 2012.

The annual Searcy County Chocolate Roll Contest and Festival, hosted at Marshall High School, will be held this year on March 16.

On a roll

Shirley Patterson has been making chocolate rolls for about 30 years. “My own mother did not make the kind of chocolate rolls with pie dough,” Patterson says. “I only learned these even existed after I married. (My husband’s) mom made them throughout his childhood, off and on.” Patterson, who says she uses corn syrup in the crust, is a frequent entrant in the Searcy County Chocolate Roll Contest.

Chocolate rolls can be found throughout Searcy County, at such varied places as Misty’s Shell Station, the Kenda Drive-In Theater and the Red River Café. The latter is where Sharon Lewis has brought the delicacy. Lewis, the daughter of Shirley Diemer from the Downtowner, has won the Searcy County Chocolate Roll Festival contest five times. Those rolls have gained notoriety across the region — and a huge fanbase, too.

Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Darryl Treat shares that Allen Williams, the regional market president of First Community Bank, noticed a sign declaring Searcy County as the “Chocolate Roll Capital of the World” while traveling in the area back in 2020.

He stopped in at Misty’s Shell Station and bought several. Later, when thinking of a unique homemade gift to give out during the holidays, chocolate rolls came to mind, and Williams ordered 985 rolls from Lewis. The first 500 were picked up by aircraft for delivery to Jonesboro in, at the time, the world’s largest known airborne shipment of chocolate rolls. But that wasn’t all. Williams and his son returned in 2023 with a larger aircraft and a bigger order.

 “(They) came back on Dec. 4 to fly out 1,500 chocolate rolls — 391 pounds worth! — to Jonesboro, a new world record for an airborne shipment of chocolate rolls!” Treat shares. Lewis made those rolls all by hand for the special delivery — a tremendous feat.

Five-time contest winner and Red River Café owner Sharon Lewis is believed to have set “a new world record for an airborne shipment of chocolate rolls” after shipping 1,500 rolls by plane to Jonesboro last December.

Determining the true creator of the chocolate roll may be impossible. “My mother-in-law is 93, and she talks about her mother making them for her to take to school,” Smyth says. “But she doesn’t really know how her mother learned to make them. Her dough was generally biscuit dough. Some use (that), and others use a pie crust dough.”

If you’d like to try your hand at competing in the Searcy County Chocolate Roll Contest and Festival or would like to sample lots of different chocolate rolls, make plans to head to Marshall High School on March 16. The festival also includes a 5K walk/run, a car show, music, a take-and-bake workshop and more.