“Time to sell the doughnuts”

donutsMayflower796Doughnuts are a food that has rarely been taken seriously by the media. After encountering loads of silly stories about doughnut holes and dunking I have decided the reason is that throughout the last century the doughnut industry was amazingly successful in promoting its products, often through humor. Most of what appeared in papers and magazines was the work of publicity agents for the manufacturers of doughnuts, equipment, and mixes.

No doubt people would enjoy doughnuts even without publicity, but the endless promotional events and stories helped make their consumption year-round rather than concentrated in fall and winter.

donuts1939World'sFair

Starting in the 1930s the publicity directors of one of the largest producers, The Doughnut Corporation of America, organized dunking contests, created a National Dunking Association, sponsored displays at World’s Fairs [1939 advertisement shown], and planted photos of celebrities eating doughnuts in newspapers and magazines along with cartoon-illustrated stories such as one about a character named “Ima Dunker.”

One of the corporation’s publicity directors claimed that doughnuts were the first food to have a week proclaimed for it. National Doughnut Week began in the 1930s. To the annoyance of some who felt it was frivolous, mayors of cities and towns around the country would receive a kit with a membership card for the National Dunking Association and a bib along with a request to proclaim doughnut week.

The Doughnut Corporation of America grew out of a small baking business in NYC owned by Adolph Levitt. He is often credited with inventing the first automatic doughnut machine in 1920, but in fact there were numerous machines on the market then as well as in earlier years. Doughnut making machines were popular with bakeries and lunch rooms which placed them in their windows so that people on the street could see the (cake) doughnuts being made and feel drawn to buy some. But Levitt was clever and soon his rapidly growing company was supplying the whole country with machines as well as Downyflake doughnut mix, and backing it all up with publicity support.

donuttimessquaremenu1949In 1931 the Doughnut Corporation created a Mayflower Coffee Shop in Times Square. It was followed by one each in Boston and Chicago the next year, and another in Springfield MA in 1934. By 1936 there were 15 around the country, and in 1949 there were 24. The Mayflower Shops menu featured popular dishes such as Hamburgers, Corned Beef Hash, and fountain specialties, but also Waffles (the company made waffle mix too), Pancakes, and of course Donuts (as they came to be spelled). Plain, sugared, and cinnamon donuts cost 5 cents each in 1949, 10 cents for a frosted donut, and a Donut a la Mode came to 15 cents.

donutdownyflakeADV1932The Doughnut Corporation also franchised Downyflake Shops. In 1931 there were 36 in Boston and surrounding towns in eastern Massachusetts, out of a nationwide total of about 400. They appear to have been sandwich shops for the most part, but some may have only sold doughnuts. The Doughnut Corporation also built doughnut plants around the country. A plant in Fort Worth TX in 1932 produced an important doughnut ingredient, dried egg powder, a product which had for decades come exclusively from China.

I am unsure how long the Doughnut Corporation’s restaurants stayed in business, however by the mid-1970s the company, now DCA Food Industries, still produced doughnut making equipment. By then the doughnut-plus-coffee shop business was led by Dunkin Donuts (750 franchises) and Winchell’s Donut House (530 units).

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

10 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, food

10 responses to ““Time to sell the doughnuts”

  1. Eleanor Carter

    My father, Stanley Williams, was a salesman for Doughnut Corporation of America for years! He hosted the 1940’s bond drives in Chicago. I have several pics of him with Nimitz, Doolittle, MacArthur and Eddy Arnold.

  2. What a very interesting article on a food that is delicious to be sure, but one I try to stay away from. On a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I discovered that humor is still in abundance at a unique doughnut shop we visited, Voodoo Doughnuts. I wrote about it last month in a blog posting, which also illustrated their best-selling doughnut, the Voodoo Doll! Might I also add, it was delicious and worth every calorie!

  3. Gary Gillman

    Very good, to be sure. I know a book came out, I think in Canada, a few years ago on the history of donut commercialization and franchising, also very interesting.

    One thing I think it would be good to nail down, is, the origin of the food. I have a small volume of traditional recipes in Hampshire (England). It has one for “Isle of Wight Doughnuts”. I’ve often wondered if they originate in that place, therefore. Of course many foods have writ across the U.K. or parts, so it might come from somewhere else. An English origin seems likely to me, however, frying in deep fat isn’t really English, even for chips (french fries, which apparently came to London from France or Belgium). I suppose you could shallow-fry a donut, or if necessity required it. Any ideas on this score?

    Gary

  4. MM Pack

    Fascinating info re corporate doughnut marketing! I’m wondering if you know the name of the Houston company that produced dried egg powder in 1932. My quick internet search didn’t turn up anything.

  5. Jim

    Liked this one Jan. Throw back time.

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