Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Time to Write About the Donuts...




In the years I was growing up there, Central Kentucky did not have much of a donut culture. The people of Lexington had few, if any donut shops, and little access to donuts that didn’t come from the Kroger bakery. I was in high school when Krispy Kreme came to town and the decades of donut starvation led to massive, ravenous crowds of grease and sugar-deprived Lexingtonians overwhelming the store on opening day and several weeks thereafter. The same thing happened a few years later when a Dunkin opened up across town, but with the recent growth of North Lime Coffee and Donuts, a small, well-regarded Lexington-based chain that popped up in the past 10 years, the small city I grew up in finally has donut culture all its own, but that wasn’t the case when I was a kid in the ‘90s. 

The North Lime donuts that are ubiquitous at every one of my family’s holiday, birthday, and even funeral gatherings, were nowhere to be found during my youth, and I always relished an encounter with donuts as a kid. My favorite childhood donut memory comes from a visit to my maternal grandparents in Steubenville, Ohio during my preschool years. It was then that I developed a taste for the cream filled maple long johns that my grandmother would buy at the local Big Bear supermarket. The blend of maple icing and vanilla buttercream filling paired with an elongated rectangle of fried dough was my idea of culinary perfection during my early childhood, and I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since. Every time I encounter a new maple long john in my travels, I am compelled, by nostalgia, to try one in hopes it helps me recapture a piece of my childhood innocence. The closest facsimile to the donuts sold at the long defunct Big Bear I’ve encountered came from the self serve donut case at a Kwik Trip gas station in rural Minnesota. I couldn’t tell you the name of the town it was in or ever hope to find it again, and donuts from other Kwik Trips just don’t taste the same. Sure, I could retrace the steps of my last Minnesota road trip and visit every Kwik Trip along the way, but sadly, my time and resources are finite. As a result, the perfect maple long John remains elusive. 

I’ve had donuts on my mind a lot recently, as I’ve just finished a tour to locations of three broken donut chains, two related to one another and one unrelated. The experiences are too numerous to cram into a single post, so this and the next post will focus on my donut tour.

In my coverage of Dawn Donuts last year I remarked on the decline of the American donut shop, and my preferred spelling of the word “donut,” so I’ll spare you the repetition of those details. Just know that donuts are not as popular as they once were, and the decline of the donut shop has left a gaggle of broken chains in its wake, including Spudnut Shop. 

In an attempt to recreate the potato donuts they had encountered in Germany, brothers Al and Bob Pelton of Salt Lake City, Utah, developed a potato flour based donut mix and opened the first donut shop selling their patented “Spudnuts” in 1940. They began franchising Spudnut Shops in 1946, and by the mid fifties, there were over 300 Spudnut Shops in the US alone, each represented by Mr. Spudnut, a top hat wearing anthropomorphic donut, who seemed to be based on the recently overhyped Mr. Peanut. The Pelton brothers retired and sold the business in 1968, and the Spudnut brand would bounce around between owners until 1979, when a series of poor investments made by Spudnut’s then parent company, Dakota Bake N Serve, brought about the company’s demise, and with it any corporate support for the Spudnut brand. Franchisees who wished to continue selling Spudnuts reverse engineered the recipe for the proprietary donut mix that they had previously been receiving from corporate, and soldiered on. Wikipedia claims there are 35 independent Spudnut locations open today, but after some Googling, I count only 16 locations in the US, plus weirdly, one in Vietnam, still using the Spudnut name. 

It's nice to see a little neon on a modern sign. 
I had long planned to visit a Spudnut location or two in my travels after learning of their existence from a reader. (Thanks Art!) I thought my trip to the El Dorado, Arkansas Minute Man would provide me with an opportunity to also visit Arkansas’ last Spudnut Shop, also in El Dorado, but some unforeseen circumstances necessitated an early departure from El Dorado which came before I had a chance at an Arkansas Spudnut run. Weeks later, I opted to visit the last two Ohio Spudnut shops, located in suburbs on opposite sides of Cleveland. I expected the two locations of the same broken chain in close proximity to look and operate similarly, but figured I might as well visit both while I was in the area. 

All aboard the Spudnut train! Toot toot!

Is this an attempt at a pun? Do donuts have a crust?
The Mentor Spudnut Shop was my first stop of the day. A neon sign in front of the train depot-like building proclaimed “FRESH SPUDNUTS NOW” I parked and found my way through the entryway which was adorned with a woven rubber mat emblazoned with the slogan “Spudnuts the upper crust of the donut world!” Few things are more inviting on a frigid Northern Ohio Saturday morning than a glass case of fresh donuts, and the Spudnut order counter didn’t disappoint. In terms of variety and sheer visual spectacle. The case had every variety of yeast and cake donut that a donut shop that's stuck in 1978 could be expected to make. The recipes, along with the decor, all seemed to be straight out of the 1970s making the interior of the Mentor Spudnut Shop a near perfect timewarp. I ordered two donuts, a plain glazed Spudnut and an obligatory maple long john along with some cold milk, which to my delight came in a Solo Jazz cup, the first I recall seeing in recent memory. I walked past the countertop with built in stools and sat at a vintage Spudnut-branded table underneath a large Spudnut sign on the wall and began my first breakfast of the day. 

You've gotta love this presentation. 

Classic interior in Valentine's Day regalia

I ordered the plain glazed donut, mainly to experience what was likely the original Spudnut configuration. I found it to be very lightly glazed, not overly sweet, and surprisingly dense. In the wake of the cronut craze, the Mentor, Ohio interpretation of the Spudnut could easily be remarketed as a bagel/donut hybrid. That’s not to say it wasn’t a tasty donut, which it absolutely was, but it was the unconventional antithesis to a light and airy heavily glazed Krispy Kreme. I moved on to the maple long john, which was made from I enjoyed even more than the plain glazed Spudnut, even if it didn’t measure up to the virtually unachievable goal of being as good a maple long john as the ones sold at Eastern Ohio Big Bear supermarkets in the late 1980s.

A table of anachronisms

I walked to my car, concluding that the Mentor, Ohio Spudnut shop is a rare treasure, a classic American donut shop stuck in time, untouched by modern donut fads. You’d never see a donut topped with bacon or salted caramel here. It’s a working donut museum, an exhibit showing patrons what a Spudnut Shop would have looked like more than 40 years ago. With this experience on my mind, I proceeded southwest to Berea, to Ohio’s only other surviving Spudnut Shop to test my hypothesis that another Spudnut Shop less than an hour away would offer more of the same. 

When you saw one set of footprints, it was then that I went on a donut run. 

The Mentor Spudnut was delightful enough that more of the same would have been welcome, but aside from the Spudnut name, the Berea Spudnut Shop could not be more different than its estranged crosstown sibling. Its building bore no resemblance to a train depot. Its blue and white color scheme made it look almost nautical. Upon my entry to the building, I was immediately greeted by the order counter and donut case. In fact, there was no more than four feet between the door and counter. The footprint of the store was much smaller, and there was maybe a quarter of the seating in Berea compared to the Mentor Spudnut Shop. This location was clearly set up for to-go business. The donuts in the case were just as numerous, but appeared more modern than those I’d just experienced. There was a maple bacon donut here, plus a butter pecan that looked interesting. I’ve experienced enough maple bacon donuts to last a lifetime, so I opted for a butter pecan and a plain glazed Spudnut, and took them, and a bottle of chocolate milk to one of the stools at the far end of the narrow dining room. 

All aboard the Spudnut boat. Toot toot!

Even the Spudnut glazed donut itself had myriad differences in comparison to the Spudnuts in Mentor. The Berea Spudnut is hexagonal, whereas the the Mentor Spudnut is round. The Berea Spudnut is slightly smaller in both diameter and thickness, and it has much more glaze that forms a thin hard shell around the outside of the donut. For all its differences, its texture is virtually identical to that of the Mentor Spudnut. I guess the top secret Spudnut donut mix wasn’t terribly difficult for either franchisee to reverse engineer back in ‘79, or at least both Ohio Spudnut owners made the same mistakes and ended up with an identical dough basis for their very different donuts. 

Spudnuts for the modern person on the go. 
The butter pecan donut was a unique and pleasant experience. The same Spudnut dough was filled with a butter pecan-flavored cream and topped with lightly salted pecan pieces. It was a modern donut from the Ohio Spudnut Shop that chose to evolve its offerings. You'd never see a donut topped with an ingredient as costly as pecans or filled with a bespoke flavored creme filling more than 15 years ago. While almost certainly not an authentic pre-1979 product, the butter pecan was a perfectly good donut from a perfectly good donut shop, which has only a tenuous connection to a historic chain. 

This was 90% of the dining room at the Berea Spudnut Shop.

The two Ohio Spudnut shops represent diverging paths taken by newly independent franchisees. One chose to do things they always did and another opted to change with the times. Neither is inherently better or worse than the other, and both are great places to pick up some donuts. However, with only 17 surviving locations spread from Cleveland to Ho Chi Minh City, its tough to not feel a bit more partial to the Mentor Spudnut Shop that offers a glimpse of what was. Of course, I’m approaching this as someone with an interest in chain restaurant history. Someone who simply wants a good donut or two might prefer the Berea Spudnut Shop that arguably, shows something akin to what Spudnut might have become had its parent company survived another four decades. Its tough to say if one is objectively better than the other. Even though both locations represent the same brand and are close in proximity, comparing them is an apples and oranges proposition. Given the short drive between the two Ohio Spudnut Shops, I found this to be surprising, but it's little surprises like this that keep me looking for broken chains after two solid years travelling regularly to track down the remnants of broken chains. 



12 comments:

  1. Longtime donut fanatic here — I worked in the first Krispy Kreme here in Columbus back in high school for my first job. I was there for both grand openings (there was a fire a couple weeks after the first opening).

    It was located in the parking lot of a Big Bear, as it turned out - but that's been replaced by a Whole Paycheck.

    Anyhow..I hate to say it in this august pub, but I think you need to stray from the chains in search of your maple stick fix. I can't speak specifically to the maple creme, but there are 2 places in Southern Ohio that bear visiting:

    Crispie Creme (note the spelling) in Chillicothe. Very old-school donut joint that dates to 1929, if Facebook can be trusted.

    McHappy's in Marietta. This is my wife's hometown, and she grew up on these donuts. I've become a fan over the years.

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    1. Thanks for the suggestions. I'll try and stop by one or both the next time I'm down that way. Fingers crossed, they'll get the new Rax open in Chillicothe this year.

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  2. If you're soliciting donut shop recommendations (which nowhere in the post is such a thing suggested, yet here I am anyway), I must recommend Shipley Do-Nuts. They are my favorite donut shop. Unfortunately, the only two remotely near me recently dropped the franchise, and the closest changed its recipe too. I think the one an hour away may have retained the recipe, but an hour is still a far drive just for a donut.

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    1. Looks like the closest Shipley locations to me are in Clarksville, TN. I'll keep them in mind the next time I'm down that way. I'll have to do some digging and see if they've crossed the Cici's Point.

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  3. Cool to see this place on here -- I've actually been to a Spudnut Shop (there's one in Eastern Washington), and I never realized that they were so widely distributed! I quite liked the donuts I got from there, though who knows how similar they are to the ones from your part of the country.

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    1. I kind of want to go to all the surviving Spudnut Shops, and see how much variation there is. Maybe I'll get that done some day.

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  4. Growing up in Lexington and you didn't mention Spaldings. I think they have the best donuts here in town.

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    1. They were never really on my radar for whatever reason. I'll give them a shot the next time I have a chance.

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  5. My most recent experience with Spudnuts happened a couple of years ago in Pekin, Illinois. I was delayed getting there, and it was almost 10 when I arrived. When I walked in, the case held just 15: a random selection of standard glazed, twists, plain balls too big to be called donut holes, and a couple of others I can’t recall. Oh, and a churro for some reason. One of the employees helped me begin selecting the 3 or 4 I intended to leave with, but we were interrupted by one of her co-workers who asked, loudly, “Do you want to just take them all?” I told her I wasn’t really interested in that many, and only had $5 on me. She held up a box that would hold everything in the store. “$5 for all of them.” Since that was barely more than the ones I wanted would have set me back, I agreed to her deal. As she boxed them up for me, the other woman walked to the front door, turned the “Open” sign around, and walked back to the kitchen to announce that everyone could clock out. And I proceeded home to Ohio without the need to stop for another meal.

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    1. Looks like that Spudnut Shop is still open for business. I wonder if they sell out every day. If so, it would explain their survival.

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  6. @Retail Retell: a warm Shipley donut certainly rivals a hot Krispy Kreme. I've noticed the chain seems to be retreating a bit, so in your opinion is it breaking?

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    1. I'm not sure. I know they've opened a few others recently in Mississippi, so it's not like they're yet at the stage where they're only shrinking. I wonder if the franchise fees have increased or something.

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