Sunday, March 10, 2019

Dawn's Dusk

I hate the spelling of the word "Doughnut." Writing comes easily to me most of the time. When I'm composing blog posts here, I seldom experience writers' block, but taking the time to include the entirely unnecessary G and H in the middle of the word is sure to break my concentration and result in substandard prose. Since the subject of this post is a chain specializing in the manufacture and sale of the aforementioned breakfast treat, I'm sure to be using the word repeatedly. Rather than try and dance around the use of that word, I'm going to do what many businesses have done before me, and use the colloquial spelling, "Donut." I apologize if this irks any spelling and grammar aficionados, but I don't think I'd be able to compose an entire blog post repeatedly using the correct spelling without it having a dramatic effect on my enjoyment of the Sunday afternoon during which I am writing this. Also, I've never heard of spell check. 

The donut shop is a genre of business that seems to be slowly going extinct. Places that specialize in fried dough coated in sugar feel out of step with a health-conscious world. The more successful donut places tend to downplay their fattier offerings and market themselves as purveyors of coffee drinks instead. Tim Horton's, a donut chain that exists all over Canada, and some select US markets including my own, has called themselves a "Cafe and bake shop" since 2011, de-emphasizing their donut shop image. Dunkin' recently followed suit and dropped the "Donuts" from their name to much media attention. With the modern unfashionable image of the donut, it's no surprise that there are a good many donut chains that long ago crossed the Cici's point to become broken chains.

Arthur Hurand opened the first Dawn Donuts in 1958 in Flint, Michigan, and the chain grew slowly to a size somewhere north of 60 locations in Michigan and surrounding states by the mid eighties. The name referred to the time of day when bakers would have to work to make sure donuts were ready in the morning. (Near as I can tell, Dawn Donuts never offered a donut filled with the eponymous dish detergent in place of jelly or Bavarian creme.) Many locations built in the sixties had distinctive zigzag pointy roofs. I lovingly refer to these buildings as pointybois. Dunkin' Donuts bought out Dawn Donuts in 1991, and converted a good many of the company-owned pointyboi buildings to Dunkin locations, just as many Zantigos became Taco Bells a decade or so earlier. The terms of Dunkin's buyout of Dawn Donuts allowed remaining Dawn Donuts franchisees to remain in business under the Dawn name. Of the eight independent Dawn Donuts locations that existed at the time of the Dunkin' buyout, two still exist today. Sadly, as of 2013, neither location operates out of a vintage pointyboi.

Edit: I've been informed that Dawn Foods, the corporate entity behind the Dawn Donut shops existed as a corporate entity as early as 1920, and still exists today. You can read more about them here. 

Located in Flint, the birthplace of both Dawn Donuts and Kewpee, the last pointyboi that operated under the Dawn Donuts name was bulldozed and replaced with a modern building that houses both Dawn Donuts and a Subway location. Google shows there's still a vintage sign out front, but the look of the building was too bland and modern for me. I opted instead to visit its sister location down the road in Grand Blanc. While not a funky midcentury pointyboi, the Dawn Donuts in Grand Blanc had a decidedly late 1980s appearance that I thought might provide an immersive experience. I wasn't disappointed when I visited. 

A donut shop straight out of 1989

Esmeralda Fitzmoster and I stopped by the Grand Blanc location yesterday morning for a quick unhealthy breakfast to kick off a weekend of unhealthy eating and were pleased to find a charmingly dated atmosphere. The menu boards looked like they had been brand new at the time of the Dunkin' buyout and were never changed. Seating in the dining room was in the form of built-in half booths with integrated chairs, similar to the units at the Taco Tico locations I grew up with. It was clear very little had changed here in a good 25 to 30 years. We ordered up half a dozen donuts from the glass case that composed the order counter, and took a seat. 

While not quite pointyboi caliber...

...the interior of Dawn Donuts was pleasingly retro. 

I was pleased to see they still use branded packaging. This baker character seems to be as old as the brand itself. 

I ordered my normal go-to donuts. I've listed my impressions of each below:

The powdered sugar donut has been my favorite variety since childhood. Early exposure to the powdered sugar donuts at Danville, Kentucky's Burke's Bakery made me a lifelong fan. This one was a bit crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with an odd mix of spices mixed into the dough making for hints of what I took to be clove and ginger that I didn't especially care for. It was a perfectly well-executed donut, but wasn't to my taste.
The cream filled longjohn is another of my childhood favorites, thanks to my maternal grandmother who would buy them for me at her local location of the now completely defunct Big Bear supermarket chain. This one didn't measure up to its counterparts from Big Bear, sadly. The icing application was sloppy, and the filling inside was almost flavorless. Still, fried dough plus sugar always tastes pretty good. 
Hey fellow '90s kids! Remember those Pogs that were shaped like the blades of a circular saw? Well the cruller is like the donut version of those pogs. They can have a light croissant-like texture, or simply be a uniquely shaped cake donut. This one, seen here with some excess sugar from its powdered sugar bag-mate was of the latter variety, a plain cake donut under a thick, crunchy glaze with a slight smoky flavor that weirdly reminded me of a campfire-toasted marshmallow. This was the most distinctive of the bunch, and therefore my favorite. I suspect it's an artifact of the heyday of Dawn Donuts, still available to the public decades later. 

To the average observer unfamiliar with the history of the brand, the surviving Dawn Donuts locations likely look like independent neighborhood donut joints, which they essentially are at this point. Without distinctive pointyboi architecture evoking a the spirit of a corporate image, my visit to Dawn Donuts felt like half of an experience, and while neither Dawn Donuts is in a pointyboi, there are still pointybois standing in the area, operating under different names. Thanks to demographic makeup that leads to this particular region having a strong donut culture, and an odd phenomenon of donut shops remaining donut shops after they change ownership and brands, quite a few of the surviving pointybois still house donut shops, including a single remaining Dunkin location in Jackson, Michigan. Rather than visiting a Dunkin' Donuts, though, I opted instead to visit the similar, but legally distinct, Don's Donuts, a pointyboi, former Dawn Donuts just outside of Toledo Ohio. 

Even in a slightly seedy neighborhood full of older buildings, the distinctive roof of Don's Donuts stands out. The angled entryway extends the theme of diagonal lines to the user's experience with the building. Once you're inside though, the layout is conventional, with a backward L shaped counter dictating the shape of the dinning room. The walls are plain painted cinder blocks with an institutional feel, like a cheaply-constructed roadside motel from the fifties. Everything about the place feels like a time warp, from the glass case of freshly prepared donuts at the order counter at the top of the L to the two U-shaped counters at the base of the L, flanked by low stools trimmed with bright orange imitation ostrich skin. Even the counter tops seem to be original, as they sport a well-worn floral pattern clearly from the early sixties. 

Hey there, pointyboi
Fryin' up some dough so fancy-free
Nobody that you serve could ever see the history you have inside you
The angular entryway continues the theme of pointiness. 

I stopped by and purchased a couple of the unremarkable donuts from the glass case so I could sit and loiter for a few minutes and appreciate the untouched atmosphere of the distinctive, remarkably intact, historical building. An older man behind the counter, who I took to be the owner of the place, was chatting with some regulars during my visit, and complaining about low property values in the area. Ironically, it's likely those very low property values that have kept the place running in its original form for so long. If the land it was sitting on was worth more, this endangered pointyboi would have long ago been leveled and replaced with some modern nondescript strip mall that wouldn't be worth a second look to the average commercial architecture geek.

I could stare at that countertop all day...

...and when I get bored, I can spin on these stools. 

Thanks to the Rust Belt's infamous urban decay and associated low property values, however, the the pointybois, countless broken chains, and a litany of other historic retail buildings live on as both anachronistic businesses and dilapidated husks. Because of this atmosphere, it's still possible to get both the architectural and culinary experience offered by Dawn Donuts, although the two halves of the experience are separated by a 120 mile drive. I probably would have driven much further than that for the complete Dawn Donuts experience. I've definitely driven further for reasons much more trivial.

Thanks to Keith, who writes for My Florida Retail Blog for tipping me off to both the past and present existence of Dawn Donuts. Come to think of it, he told me about Maryland Fried Chicken too. Thanks for that as well, Keith.

Thanks as well to for their information regarding the locations of surviving pointybois. 

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  1. I suggest there will be a hole in your story UNLESS you buy your favorite Dawn Donut cruller in Grand Blanc and take it down to Toledo to ingest it in the authentic pointy setting. This can bring your douGHnut fantisies to full circle. Also thanks for the Georgie Girl reference. I always liked that song for some reason.

    1. I might have to do exactly that on my next Flint-Toledo run.

  2. I’ve been to that Don’s donuts and had no idea the architecture was associated with a chain (it kind of reminds me of Donutville USA). Gonna have to check out Dawn next time I get dragged up to Frankenmuth.

    If you have a need to look into more donut chains, Jolly Pirate has a long history in central Ohio, as well as a few satellites just across the Ohio River. I haven’t been able to find a lot of info about the company, but I’m aware of a few former locations scattered around Columbus that still have the old signs or architecture. The current number of locations is probably in the high single digits, so it may or may not be below the Cici’s point, since I have no idea how many they had at their peak.

    1. I've been curious about Jolly Pirate for a while too. I visited one in Huntington, WV a few years ago, and I need to sit down and research them properly for a future blog post.

      If you're referring to Donutville USA in Dearborn, Michigan, it also started out as a location of a chain. It was originally an Amy Joy donuts, which is now down to a single location in a strip mall. I might do a blog post about them at some point, if I could make it sufficiently different than this one.

  3. Shoutout to Burke's Bakery, home of some of the best brown and serve rolls on Earth.

    As we grew up in the same 100-mile radius, it's fun to see how someone else interprets the retail landscape we saw. I remember Danville's Taco Tico turning into Taco's Too and then sitting vacant until they ran it as a Rally's for a couple of years until that experiment ended as well.

    1. Hey, another Burke's Bakery fan! Cool!

      Was the Taco Tico the building situated in front of what was a Kroger and is now a Tractor Supply where the 150 Bypass crosses Houstonville Road? I remember it being a Rally's. It was a Krystal for a while too. I had no idea it was a Taco Tico, but in retrospect, it was laid out very similar to the Taco Tico still open on the north side of Lexington.

  4. Nice incorporation of Burger Chef into your FB profile pic, but I'm still trying to figure out where your cover photo came from.

    1. It's essentially an original design by my brother, but it's lightly influenced by the short lived Burger Chef patty and flame logo they adopted shortly after being bought out by General Foods.

  5. the Dawn's you visited looks a lot like a Twin Donut, which is a small regional chain in New York City
    lots of the older, less well maintained locations have retro-looking dingy lightboxes for their menus
    though with all the gentrification, i'm not sure there are many old-school Twin Donuts left around

    1. I'll make a note of that for if I'm ever in New York City.

    2. Ye Gods, I hope not! I once got physically ill from eating Twin Donuts on Broadway & West 91st Street in New York City in the mid-Eighties! I think it was a Dunkin for a while, then it became a bank branch, and now it's -- I can't tell from Google Street View any more.

      At least I can unreservedly recommend the Barzini's on Broadway between 90th and 91st -- when we lived in that neighborhood, I used to shop there for special meals all the time.