Thursday, February 20, 2020

...I Wrote About the Donuts!

This is the second part in my two-part series on broken donut shop chains. Before you read on, I suggest you go read the first one if you haven’t already.


A good many restaurant brands founded in the US have departed that market entirely. For instance, the last operating US Chi-Chi’s closed in 2011, but there are still Chi-Chi’s locations open for business in Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The last Kenny Rogers Roasters in the US closed around the same time as the last Chi-Chi’s, but there are locations still open all over Southeast Asia, where I can only imagine The Gambler doesn’t have much of a fan following. It’s tough to visit a Kenny Rogers Roasters or Chi-Chi’s without boarding an international flight, and a trip to Luxembourg or Indonesia for a broken chain meal or two is something I’ve not yet mentally prepared myself for. However, I did recently experience a chain that is all but forgotten in the US, but is huge in Asia, and the most exotic lands I visited in the process were Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Even with its recent shift in focus and name away from donuts, Dunkin is the most successful survivor of the decline of the American donut shop, but Dunkin had a rebellious child named Mister Donut. Mister Donut was founded by Harry Winokur, the business partner and brother in law, William Rosenburg, founder of Dunkin Donuts. Winokur exited the partnership in 1956, and borrowing his brother in law’s idea, opened the first Mister Donut, soon franchising and growing the brand rapidly. The Mister Donut was acquired by International Multifoods Corporation in 1970, and the first Mister Donut in Japan opened a year later. The Mister Donut chain peaked at around 550 North American locations in the International Multifoods years, but the beginning of the end came in 1989 when the British conglomerate Allied-Lyons acquired both Dunkin Donuts and Mister Donut. The new corporate overlords forced Dunkin Donuts to metaphorically eat its own young, as US Mister Donut operations were merged into the Dunkin Donut chain, and most surviving US Mister Donut locations were converted to the Dunkin Donuts brand. Mister Donut would continue in the East Asian market where it thrives today with locations in Japan, The Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, and Indonesia, but only a single Mister Donut location remains open today on the North American continent.

The Godfrey, Illinois Mister Donut is one of a good many franchised locations that was either unwilling to convert to a Dunkin Donuts location or unable due to proximity to an existing Dunkin Donuts. These locations operated more or less independently and all but one would eventually change their names or simply close. I had a chance to stop in for breakfast on a recent trip in order to save myself the cost of a trip across the Pacific to see what Mister Donut was all about. 


I had spent the night previous in Springfield following dinner at the local Hen House restaurant, and left early the following morning, as I had a long run to the El Dorado, Arkansas Minute Man. the Godfrey Mister Donut was on the way. I arrived there before sunup and was greeted by the faded orange glow of a 1970s era Mister Donut sign complete with the Multifoods logo. The donut shop occupied the end slot of a small strip mall, and was brightly lit, serving as a beacon for passersby early on what was a cold December morning. I found my way across the parking lot and in the front door where the bright lighting continued along with brighter decor. Swaths of brilliant orange and harvest gold assaulted my eyes accustomed to the dark following an antithetical 90 minute early morning drive in the dark. Nearly every element of the decor of the dining area seemed to be straight from 1977, and a gaggle of regulars, men in their seventies rattling the pages of unfurled newspapers and harumphing as they offered their opinions on matters mighty and minute to anyone within earshot appeared as if they’d been coming there every morning since the place opened. As with the Mentor, Ohio Spudunt shop, there wasn’t much of anything new here in terms of decor, donuts, or customers, though multiple tabletop signs were advertising breakfast sandwiches that had been recently added to the menu. I didn’t bother with a breakfast sandwich. I was there to feed on the obsolete, not newly-conceived piles of bread, greasy pork and round, pale yellow egg patties whose constituent ingredients may or may not have come out of a chicken at some point. I ordered three donuts whose composition I wagered hadn’t changed much since “Disco Duck” was topping the charts, and a bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper. (I never developed a taste for coffee.) I then selected a booth near the door to assess my order and surroundings. 

Just look at this visual spectacle! You don't last long in the donut business if your food presentation game isn't on point. 
The first donut out of the bag was a honey dip, and while, like many donuts with the word “honey” in their name, it didn’t have much in the way of honey flavor, it was a perfectly serviceable glazed donut. A cherry cake donut came next, cracked around the edges and shimmering with a thick, crunchy glaze. Its flavor was sweet enough to take down an army of Wilford Brimleys, but the overwhelming sweetness carried with it only a hint of maraschino cherry fighting its way through the deluge of sucrose. Donut the third was the one I had looked forward to most, a cream filled chocolate long john, which despite the lack of maple icing, I hoped would come close to my beloved childhood donut from the Steubenville Big Bear. While the rich flavor dark chocolate glaze was a welcome surprise, the long john fell well short of the vague childhood memory I’ve been building up in my mind for the past 30 years. It was a little light on cream filling for my taste, with a wide, bready mass in the middle between two small cream pockets on the ends. 

"Honey" dip

Cherry

l o n g b o i

Despite the mediocrity of the donuts, I couldn’t help but think that I was in a special place, a place unaltered by modern food trends and marketing. Thanks to my habit of tracking down surviving locations of diminished and near defunct restaurant chains, I encounter these stuck in time places a couple of times per month on average, but two years in, I haven’t tired of finding these modern shrines to fast food history. On the contrary, each rock I uncover to find a place like Mister Donut underneath makes me want to turn over more rocks, and that’s exactly what I did. 

I came here to eat donuts and gawk at dated decor, and I'm all out of donuts. 

I left Mister Donut feeling like I hadn’t quite had the entire experience, because just as Mister Donut was the troubled, rebellious child of Dunkin Donuts, Mister Donuts had wayward offspring of its own in the form of Donut Connection, a chain formed by owners of franchised Mister Donut locations that were unwilling or unable to convert to the Dunkin Donuts brand in the early nineties. Following my recent Donut tour of the Cleveland suburbs, I traveled east into Pennsylvania to experience, Donut Connection, the other half of the Mister Donut story. 

Dunkin' Donuts begat Mister Donut, and Mister Donut begat Donut Connection, so it is written in the Book of Fermentations.

I’m unsure if Donut Connection itself is a broken chain, but I’m inclined to say it is based simply on the fact that it splintered from another larger chain the way Halo Burger and the various Big Boy chains did. I have no idea how many were open at the peak of the brand, or how many are open today, because half of the locations shown on the Donut Connection website show up as permanently closed when Googled. In general, the largest concentration of Donut Connections seems to be in the New York City area, with a few more strewn around Pennsylvania. There are a handful of surviving outposts as well, as far west as Minnesota and as far south as Florida. 

I found my way to the Butler, Pennsylvania Donut Connection on a Sunday morning. I had stayed nearby in Wexford, Pennsylvania the night before, and while I made the drive shorter and later in the day, it was no less grueling than the drive from Springfield to Godfrey, Illinois I’d made a few weeks before, thanks to the route of icy roads through the mountainous terrain north of Pittsburgh. The narrow roads with endless undulations and inclines and the smell of steel mill pollution in the air served to remind me of those childhood visits to my grandparents in Steubenville, which actually wasn’t terribly far away. I took it as a sign that I was in the right part of the country to have a shot at recapturing my beloved childhood donut memory. 

Look at that big green roof! There's gotta be a zigzag hiding under there, and I want to see it!
I arrived in Butler, in a part of town that looked like so many places in Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, and that weird skinny part of West Virginia that’s wedged between the two. Tucked in the streets lined with old homes built on impossibly steep hills and alternating thriving and empty storefronts was Donut Connection, sitting on a small lot carved out of the hillside, which extended sharply up behind it. The building sported a curious gabled roof that extended implausibly high above what would be the ceiling of the dining room. I surmised the building may have once sported the signature Mister Donut zigzag roof before the Donut Connection days as I found my way to the front door. 

This was a popular place on a Sunday morning. I got there before 9:00 and they were already running low. 

The selection of donuts sat on shelves behind the order counter below a decades-old menu board with faded pictures of donuts and handwritten strips of paper showing menu items and prices. I procured three donuts, a cup of milk, and another of coffee which I had no intention of drinking, so I’d end up with a Donut Connection cup for my own collection and another for Carl Poncherello’s. I placed my various donuts and beverages on a small pink tray from the pile on the counter and proceeded to a corner booth where I surveyed my surroundings. Donut Connection’s turquoise and pink color palette dominated the decor in place of Mister Donut’s orange and gold. The decor had a slightly more modern aesthetic, smacking of the early nineties rather than the late seventies, although seemingly the same group of opinionated, retired men I’d encountered in Illinois were seated at the counter of this donut shop in Pennsylvania, though they’d shed their plain Midwestern accents for Pittsburgh ones peppered with odd words like “yinz” and “deeshwarsher.”

The view from my table. Turquoise everywhere. 

The first donut on deck was a maple glazed, which to my delight was as mapley as my beloved childhood donut, though of course, the hole in the middle meant it lacked any of the cream filling crucial to recreating my childhood memory. It was succeeded by a blueberry cake donut that actually tasted like blueberries, which was refreshing given the promises that had recently been made to me and broken by its allegedly cherry flavored cousin at Mister Donut. I giggled to myself as I had the thought that Donut Connection was the William Wonka of donut shops, and if snozberries actually existed, a sonzberry donut from Donut Connection would indeed taste like snozberries. 

Bag o' donuts

A decent maple, but it needs filling. 

A blueberry donut fit for Violet Beauregard
Nostalgic, magical mystery donut.
My next donut found me in a world of pure nostalgia rather than one of pure imagination. A cream filled, chocolate iced, yeast donut was my final selection, and while its icing was in no way maple-related, the composition of its vanilla buttercream filling, and the ratio of the filing to its greasy, glutenous surroundings was perfect. I was instantly transported to the shag carpeted rumpus room of my grandparents’ Stuebenville home, watching a fuzzy broadcast Garfield and Friends on the old RCA cabinet TV while I munched a maple long john from Big Bear. At last, I’d recaptured my childhood donut! I had to fight back the urge to hop up from my booth and dance as if my grandson had just won a tour of a chocolate factory.

♬I never thought that what I ate, 
In a donut shop in the Keystone State,
Could begin to even replicate, 
What I’d eaten in ‘88!

‘Cause I’ve got my childhood donut!
I’ve got a childlike twinkle in my eye!

I never thought that I could drive,
Over the hills of Pennsylvain’, 
But now to my surprise I find, 
An end to my donut campaign!

‘Cause I’ve got my childhood donut!
I’ve got the cream filled treat to make my day!♬

The next few hours were a blur of donut-fueled euphoria, and I honestly don’t remember much that transpired after I’d finished that donut. I was on my way home on I-75 south of Toledo when I suddenly regained my senses. It occurred to me then and there that I didn’t remember what that magical donut was called. Sure enough, in my pictures, the label below the tray of those donuts wasn't visible. Furthermore, the locations map on the Donut Connection website doesn’t show a Donut Connection in Butler, Pennsylvania, so all I have to prove that the whole thing wasn’t a dream were the pictures I took and a couple of Donut Connection cups rolling around in the back of my car. Still, I can’t help but be suspicious that should I return to that same spot, I might only find a vacant Pennsylvania hillside with no sign of a Donut Connection ever being there at all. In a way, it's fitting that the donut experience I’ve chased off and on since one of my earliest childhood memories remains fleeting. That makes it all the more special when I do find a donut that lives up to the one I had all those years ago. At the very least, I can take solace in the fact that this experience taught me that the flavor of the donut’s icing doesn’t matter and it’s what on the inside that counts. 




5 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Haha! Thanks. I find my best writing is silly writing.

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  2. You should definitely check out Munster Donut in Munster, Indiana (just down the street from Miner-Dunn). I'm unsure if they have the maple donut of your dreams but they are a re branded Mister Donut. They are often considered some of the best donuts in Indiana. Here's an article with some history. https://www.nwitimes.com/entertainment/at-the-half-century-old-munster-donut-it-s-always/article_e82320fb-8f83-53be-8257-42f562440f35.html

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the tip! That's the second bootleg Mister Donut in the Chicago suburbs I've had suggested to me today. The other is Home Cut Donuts in Joliet. I'll have to check both out on my next Rax run.

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  3. Here's another former Mister Donut a little closer to home:
    https://www.google.com/maps/@41.4318712,-82.6875904,3a,57.6y,224.47h,94.68t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1shi4KLcLTtdeRobESSoradQ!2e0!6s%2F%2Fgeo1.ggpht.com%2Fcbk%3Fpanoid%3Dhi4KLcLTtdeRobESSoradQ%26output%3Dthumbnail%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26thumb%3D2%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D74.22568%26pitch%3D0%26thumbfov%3D100!7i16384!8i8192

    More rumored former Mister Donuts in Chicagoland are Country Donuts in Crystal Lake and Spunky Dunkers in Palatine. Both are fantastic.

    And in a weird plot twist, the Donut Connection in Washington PA that used to be a Mister Donut has been rebranded again...to Dunkin. Last time I was there (before the switch) I selected my 3 donuts and paid, then spied several bags of day-olds to the right of the cash register. Before I could speak, the guy said "take one". Somehow people just know.

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