Friday should be a cause for celebration. And not because it’s the kickoff to Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.
Instead, it’s something much more important — at least to those of us living on this side of the Atlantic. Namely, it’s National Doughnut Day, an occasion that will have us seeking free offerings of the sweet treat from any number of purveyors.
But count me out of the big cream-filled (or jelly-filled) party — and not because I’m on one of my perpetual diets. Rather, it’s because I mourn the state of the American doughnut.
I’m old enough to remember a time when the doughnut reigned supreme in this country. I’m talking the era of neighborhood shops where you could count on getting a fresh O-shaped ring of goodness most any time of day and pair it with a steaming hot cup of joe, all for a sum not much more than it might cost for your daily bus or train fare. And even if you went to a chain, as in Dunkin’, you were still likely to be satisfied. Remember how Dunkin’ ran those ads touting its labor-intensive “Time to make the doughnuts” approach?
But these days, you’ll generally be disappointed with the quality of the doughnuts you’ll find. Or you’ll pay dearly for the privilege of quality.
I’ve given up keeping track of all the old-school doughnut shops in my native New York City that have closed over the years. It’s gotten to the point that the surviving ones, such as the Donut Pub in Manhattan and Peter Pan Donut in Brooklyn, have become almost retro shrines to the concept and practically doughnut destinations as a result.
Meanwhile, what’s taken over? You guessed it: There’s a Dunkin’ on practically every corner. Seriously, the city has 619 Dunkin’ locations — about twice as many as it does Starbucks shops — according to a 2021 report.
The problem is that Dunkin’, by many accounts, no longer makes its doughnuts onsite. You’re essentially getting commissary doughnuts — not necessarily inedible, but far from the ideal. I did a test run to Dunkin’ for this column, and my immediate thought when I bit into a classic Old Fashioned was to paraphrase a line from Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” and declare, “No life in the doughnut!” (In the play, the reference is to lifeless booze.)
When I reached out to the Dunkin’ folks, they didn’t directly address the question of where their doughnuts are made, but insisted that quality has not been sacrificed over the years. “In keeping with our company’s heritage and tradition, all donuts regardless of production methods use Dunkin’s signature donut recipe and are finished by hand,” the company said in a statement.
“These days, you’ll generally be disappointed with the quality of the doughnuts you find. Or you’ll pay dearly for the privilege of quality.”
That’s not to say you can’t find good, even great doughnuts in town. There are a number of gourmet emporiums that will sell you all sorts of tricked-out doughnuts made with the finest of ingredients. My personal favorite is the Doughnut Plant, which offers square-shaped doughnuts, vegan doughnuts and even a savory doughnut inspired by the Italian pasta dish cacio e pepe. I haven’t had the latter, but I will say I’ve never been disappointed with anything Doughnut Plant has served me. And I’m a fan for life of its crème brulee doughnut.
But here’s the rub: At Doughnut Plant and similar upscale shops, the doughnuts can easily run close to $5 apiece. I’ve also seen places that can push the figure to nearly $6. That means a dozen will set you back real money (so much for surprising the gang at the office with a big ol’ box). In the process, such places violate the Passy Principle of Doughnut Dining — as in, doughnuts should be affordable! At Dunkin’, I scored a half-dozen for a mere nine bucks, or $1.50 apiece.
How did we get to this place where it’s become so impossible to find a good doughnut at a good price? Stephen Zagor, a veteran restaurant consultant, explained to me that the process of making doughnuts requires a lot of space (think serious frying machines) and a lot of staff (think people waking up to, well, make the doughnuts). That all works against a proprietor’s favor, and doubly so in a city like New York, where commercials rents are quite high.
Plus, Zagor said, you can’t ignore the fact that doughnuts just aren’t as fashionable as they once were — in large part because we’ve become more conscious of eating better. (“The only thing healthy about the doughnut is the hole,” Zagor joked.) People will make exceptions for the gourmet stuff — hence the cacio e pepe doughnuts — but not necessarily for the everyday doughnut.
As for Dunkin’ and how it has seemingly de-emphasized the doughnut, Zagor noted the obvious: It’s become a coffee company — basically, the more affordable alternative to Starbucks. Indeed, Dunkin’ sort of made that point when it dropped the “Donuts” from its name in 2018. And my doughnut carping notwithstanding, I’ll say this much for Dunkin’: I’ll take its great-tasting, no-nonsense joe over Starbucks’ over-roasted brew any day of the week.
There may be hope for some of us doughnut fanatics out there. I still love a good Krispy Kreme DNUT, -1.41%, especially the original glazed variety. The chain, which checks the affordability box, makes the doughnuts fresh at most of its locations, so that helps explain the quality.
And some doughnut entrepreneurs are trying to find the sweet spot (pardon the pun) by keeping costs low while producing a higher-end product. Certainly, that’s how Bear Donuts, a store that just opened in New York, describes its approach. It offers some very creative doughnuts, done with a Korean flair, but with prices that start at $3.50 apiece.
Ultimately, you may get what you pay for with doughnuts. And today’s inflationary environment makes the situation all the more challenging. “The cost of everything has changed so much,” said Jeff Magness, a vice president of Doughnut Plant.
Magness also noted that his company’s insistence on detail, such as creating individual dough recipes for every doughnut rather than using a base dough for all, only adds to the financial burden. (Interestingly, Doughnut Plant makes its product at a central location and then distributes to its stores, but that doesn’t seem to affect the quality.)
But enough of my doughnut dilemma for now. We’re coming up on National Chocolate Ice Cream Day on June 7. Does anyone know where I can score a good cone without breaking the bank?
The Fast Foodist is a MarketWatch column that looks at restaurant menu items through a critical and business-minded lens. Send suggestions of products that you think should be critiqued to [email protected].