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Millions Of Donuts Couldn't Be Wrong: Donuts have experienced a renaissance, thanks to the Krispy Kreme opening. But they appear to still be bad for you.

Do-Nut Believe the Hype

A donut--even a great donut--ultimately is nothing but a donut

By Sara Bir

Passion! What is life without passion, the fiery and noble drive that compels us toward the preoccupations that stir our souls and instill life with meaning. Donut-aroused passion is fair game--donuts may be a piddly sort of thing to get passionate about, but they are so sweet and tasty, especially with black coffee. And there are so many varieties of donut to select a favorite from.

There's nothing pathetic about donuts in and of themselves, but passion is not the same thing as obsession, and we are now, as a community, collectively obsessed with donuts. Or as Krispy Kreme refers to them in the technically correct spelling, "doughnuts."

Krispy Kreme opened its first North Bay franchise several weeks ago in Santa Rosa on the ever expanding Santa Rosa Avenue. Articles have appeared in the paper, free hot Original Glazed Doughnuts have been handed out to the business community like the Easter Bunny gives out chocolate eggs, and people have been very, very excited. What gives?

Donuts are a pretty regional thing; one shop's glazed sour cream cake is another shop's old fashioned buttermilk. In New York City, there seems to be a Dunkin' Donuts on every block, as well as a donut and coffee cart on every street corner. Canadians patronize Tim Hortons, a chain that is expanding its presence in the United States as we speak.

And here in California, statistics show that between 75 percent and 80 percent of the independent donut shops are owned by Cambodian immigrants--who, as the ringing of Krispy Kreme's cash registers mounts into an ominous crescendo, are probably not too stoked at the moment.

These family-run shops tend to be pretty bare-bones, but it's sort of consistent with the overall donut aesthetic: humble, homely, no-frills. A donut, after all, is naught but a fried wad of dough with a gooey gracing of something sugary on the outside or inside. For centuries, donuts and fritters have been around in multiple forms in any culture that has a fondness for sweets and for frying--which is about half of the cultures on the planet.

But now donuts are hip, and Krispy Kreme is more or less a designer brand, the Fendi handbag of donuts. How did the lowly donut rise to this point? And just how did the donut become hip, and Krispy Kreme the hippest of the hip?

The answer is razor-sharp marketing. For this highly anticipated North Bay coming of the Krispy Kreme kind, the company set its highly tuned PR mechanism into full throttle for wave upon wave of Original Glazed hype. At the Krispy Kreme preview opening on Feb. 3--which was different than the Krispy Kreme "soft opening" a few days before, and different still than the real grand opening to come the following morning at 5:30am--the place looked like a donut war zone.

Two rented security guards roved outside to control the feverish masses, who, because of VIP invitations, had taken time out of their busy days to come and get free donuts at Krispy Kreme, while non-VIP donut consumers, savvy to the soft opening, were shunted to the drive-through.

People stood outside in line as a roving donut boy in a jaunty paper Krispy Kreme hat wandered around, passing out fresh hot Original Glazed Doughnuts to expectant customers. This is the hook, the whole linchpin in the Krispy Kreme draw: the hitherto unimaginable experience of sinking sharp little incisors into a donut mere moments old. It's a sensation that redefines the concept of what donuts are. A hot Original Glazed Doughnut, just seconds off the glazing rack and maybe a minute out of the fryer, casts off a warmth into the hand of the expectant donut eater like that of a live kitten or puppy. It's amazingly precious.

Once bitten into, the donut transforms into angel-light wisps of sugar-bathed steam, melting so yieldingly in the mouth. They do down a little too easily, because 170 calories later (which is not so bad--the typical plain bagel is between 150 and 200 calories), after the donut is gone and sliding into the belly, its ephemeral grace and wonder fades within seconds, leaving only a memory and the desire to eat more donuts.

For fans of the neighborhood donut shop, the kind of place where old men read the newspaper and thrifty graduate students study for hours, it's very easy to poo-poo Krispy Kreme's streamlined operation as devoid of everything that donuts previously stood for. But a country does not fall under the spell of a donut for nothin'. Are Krispy Kreme donuts that good? We conducted our own little experiment to find out, and that experiment consisted of eating donuts.

Krispy Kreme greeted me, at 8:30am, with a loudspeaker blaring Chic's disco hit "Le Freak" into my face before I even set foot in the store. Disco and donuts do not mix, unless you add another d into the equation--drink or drugs, take your pick.

Watching the donut-making machinery plugging away on the production floor (what Krispy Kreme calls the "doughnut theater") while waiting in line was totally mesmerizing. The cascade of just-born Original Glazed Donuts kept on coming, bobbing briefly in the bath of hot fat before going under a thick, white, rushing curtain of glaze. The donuts emerge, shiny, with a glossy sameness. Krispy Kreme does make the prettiest donuts in the business.

The rest of the place feels like the McDonald's of the donut world. There's really nothing there to make you want to stick around. The store offers an Internet port for laptops, but I can't imagine wanting to check my e-mail under the glow of fluorescent lights with the main view being a thousand disgruntled drivers idling in traffic in Santa Rosa's most God-awful commercial area. According to the press material from Golden Gate Doughnuts (the Northern California Krispy Kreme franchise), the new Santa Rosa and Pinole Krispy Kreme stores "feature a new interior design" with a "warm, coffeehouse atmosphere."

Tan's Donuts on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa is not much of a hangout either, but the absence of "Le Freak" and about two dozen customers did more to evoke a warm coffeehouse atmosphere than Krispy Kreme's sleek, retro interior design. The lady at the counter wore a pink sweatsuit whose color matched the ubiquitous pink box found in little family-owned donut shops across California. Smiling, she was kind and in no huge rush. The place felt genuine.

Our donut tasting was blind, sort of. The donuts were taken out of their boxes and put on separate plates. Conclusions were murky, and the safest thing to say is that personal preference comes into play with great intensity when the subject is donuts. Some tasters found KK's Original Glazed Doughnuts "kind of oily but light," while others felt they were "a little too sweet." Still, they were many people's favorites.

As evidenced by the sticky shards of glaze I picked out of the carpet at our office, I can vouch that Krispy Kreme's glaze goes on thicker, hardens faster, and flakes off more easily than Tan's, whose glazed donuts were likewise well-received. Tasters noted "fluffy and not too sweet" and "good," though the consensus was that they were considerably more doughy and lumpy than KK's. So: light and candy-sweet, Krispy Kreme; filling and sticky, Tan's.

The main thing is not the donuts themselves--it's the behavior people are exhibiting because of them. There's really no decent reason for the opening of a donut shop to cause traffic jams, and there's no excuse for waiting in line for an hour for a donut. We don't have to wait in line for food, especially not for food with no nutritional value whatsoever. Don't we have better ways to spend our time--with our families, going on a walk, reading a book?

When you get down to it, it's all just donuts, and the sugary goodness of donuts can only go so far. Savoring food is a pleasure and a gift; it's healthful. Festishizing food is not. Must our only joy in these troubled times come from corporate donuts? God help us!


Tan's Donuts has two locations in Santa Rosa: 1074 Fourth St. (707.568.3988), and 754 Montecito Center (707.538.7687). Krispy Kreme is at 2688 Santa Rosa Ave. (707.541.3700).

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From the February 20-26, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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