The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a hard blow to businesses around the world. In the US alone, economists project that more than 100,000 small businesses have permanently shut because of the health crisis. Among those are iconic institutions that have survived for decades. Stan’s Donuts in Los Angeles is one of them.
Stan Berman says there are three reasons his doughnuts were so good.
The first was the sea air that blew into his shop from the Pacific Ocean some five miles away – he never used air conditioning, even at the height of the LA summer, to avoid spoiling the perfect atmospheric conditions.
The second reason was the skill that went into making the doughnuts. And the third, simply, was love.
Stan took over his shop in the heart of LA’s bustling Westwood Village neighbourhood more than 55 years ago. The unassuming one-storey white-block building sits on the corner of two busy streets. Stan described it as “the smallest little shop you’ve ever seen”.
It was prime real estate: less than two blocks away from the UCLA campus and opposite the Fox Bruin and Fox Village cinemas where glamorous premieres would frequently take place.
The exact date it all began is a matter of debate. He believes it was Christmas time 1963, while others in his family think it was 1964. What everyone can agree on is that it quickly made its mark.
When Stan first took over it was called The Corner Shoppe – a distributor for pastries, pies, cookies and “everything else like that”. Everything, that is, apart from doughnuts.
Stan came from a long line of Jewish bread bakers. As a child, he would wake up before dawn to fry doughnuts at his father’s little Philadelphia bakery, finishing them off with a generous coating of granulated sugar. When people came in to buy a loaf of bread in the morning, they’d pick up one of Stan’s doughnuts too.
He later learned how to make intricate European-inspired pastries.
The Corner Shoppe had equipment for baking, but when Stan first took over it only sold other people’s food.
Then fate stepped in.
One Sunday morning when the shop was closed, Stan popped in to clean up and, noticing the heavy footfall in the area, saw an opportunity. He called a friend in the bakery business who brought him flour, yeast and everything else he needed.
He made a piece of dough and fried a batch of doughnuts, then sold them through the shop’s window.
It soon became a routine. Every Sunday, Stan would head into work at about 04:00 to make doughnuts; his wife would drive his three children down a few hours later to sell his creations; and with the money they made, the family would go out for dinner in the evening.
On Monday mornings people started coming in looking for doughnuts.
“They’d say ‘Stan why aren’t you making doughnuts?'” Stan, now 90, recalls. “And I’d say ‘Well you know, we’re not really doing that’. Then, before you know it, we were doing that.”
The Corner Shoppe became The Corner Donut Shoppe and eventually Stan’s Donuts.
Doughnuts were considered at the low-end of the bakery business, but Stan applied the techniques for making fine pastries learned in his youth to create a new product.
“They were so different from most doughnuts, even though I used the same flour, and shortenings and toppings,” he says.
“My idea was I’m going to make something you really like. Tell me what you like and I’m going to try and make something for you as a doughnut so you will come in for yours – I did that for hundreds of people.”
He packed his array of flavours – cherry, chocolate, cinnamon, peanut butter – into a display case that “blasted” people when they walked into the tiny room.
Before long, Stan was selling thousands of doughnuts every day.
His growing reputation and proximity to the two LA cinemas meant some of Hollywood’s biggest stars were among his customers.
When one of her movies was playing across the road, actress Ali MacGraw and her partner Steve McQueen would frequently drive up to Stan’s shop on a motorcycle, get a cup of coffee and a doughnut and sit outside on the kerb to watch people going into the cinema.
Elizabeth Taylor – one of Hollywood’s most glamorous women – ordered coffee and doughnuts with a group of friends. Not that Stan recognised her – a passer-by pointed her out.
Willy Wonka actor Gene Wilder and Hollywood filmmaker Mel Brooks were also regulars. But Stan had one rule: he never took photos of the stars coming into his shop.
“I wanted them to be comfortable to come in and share my doughnuts,” he says.
Cementing its place in Hollywood history, the shop’s original signage was restored for a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
In more recent years, Stan’s Donuts has been frequented by a Nobel laureate and senior staff at the nearby UCLA – as well as many students.
“For generations, numerous UCLA departments have shared boxes of Stan’s Donuts to celebrate special occasions, myriad student groups have sold them as fundraisers for worthy causes, and so many on our campus have had their days brightened by one (or more) of your delicious treats,” the chancellor of the university, Gene Block, said in a recent letter to Stan.
When the animated show The Simpsons turned 20, producers ordered batches of Stan’s Homer Simpson doughnuts – pink frosting, sprinkles – for Fox affiliates.
Simpsons writer Carolyn Omine tweeted that the shop was among her first memories of LA. Stan’s cherry cheesecake doughnut was her favourite.
While the doughnuts themselves might have been the biggest reason for the shop’s success, Stan also became a star in his own right, and he revelled in the attention.
“We would bump into people all over the world, people who knew us from the doughnut shop,” he recalls with glee. “We couldn’t go to a movie, we couldn’t go anywhere where someone wouldn’t tap me on the shoulder and say ‘Hey Stan’.”
His shop’s success and longevity earned it iconic status in LA. The city declared 3 May 2014 “Stan’s Donuts Day”, and the shop was named a “Monumental Business”.
Looking back, Stan says he has had “the most unbelievable life and it all came from the doughnut shop”.
He believes part of his success was due to him always being “the finisher”. Even in old age, he would go into the shop every day – he’d make the icing, clean the pots and sweep the floors.
He was a perfectionist and expected the same attention to detail from his small team of staff. His favourite doughnut was his raisin buttermilk bar because as soon as he took a bite he could tell whether the fryer had been cleaned.
It was also the doughnut he’d give away to customers after a friendly chat at his shop. He gave away plenty over the years – he could never bear to throw any away at the end of the day.
But as well as being responsible for his successes, he says there were “one or two events” in his life where his shop caused problems.
Stan’s first employee was a close friend called Norman. Together they were known as “the doughnut men”. But the pair fell out when Stan missed Norman’s wife’s funeral because he was making doughnuts. They were never able to reconcile.
“The problem was that the shop was so important to me that I couldn’t see other things around,” Stan says.
Stan was still frying doughnuts into his 80s, but he had a stroke about three years ago and was forced to take a step back from his business, going to the shop once a week with his son. Without Stan there every day, sales were not what they used to be.
Despite the struggles, Stan hoped that he would still have the business when he turned 100. But he couldn’t have anticipated the coronavirus pandemic, or the impact it would have on his little shop in LA.
Restaurants in the city were ordered to close in mid-March in a bid to slow the spread of the virus, with only takeaways and deliveries allowed. UCLA moved its classes online. Sales dropped dramatically.
Since 2014, Stan has been making money in royalties from Stan’s Donuts & Coffee – a successful line of shops in Chicago with a range of doughnuts inspired by his Westwood creations. But that money has dried up in recent months, with business there also suffering under the pandemic.
With so much uncertainty about the virus, Stan and his family worried how long it would go on for.
“We did a bit of business, maybe 40%, but 40% didn’t pay the labour,” Stan says.
His daughter Pam says coronavirus “killed the business”.
“We had to make the choice of whether to stay open by going into my father’s savings and it wasn’t worth it,” she explains. Without the pandemic “we would have continued. The store would have stayed open until my father passed away.”
For Pam it has left a “sweet and sour feeling”.
“It was so much aggravation trying to run the store without my father there – that’s what made it a bit easier to close the doors. But it’s been very sad.”
With a stay-at-home order in place in LA, there was no party to bid farewell to the shop when it closed its doors in April.
Stan has been left to settle reluctantly into retirement, while trying to come to terms with losing the two loves of his life – his doughnut shop and his wife of 68 years, Ina, who passed away in January.
He has received scores of letters from people mourning the loss of the shop and celebrating their memories there. He likens it to witnessing his own obituary.
His grandson, who has a tattoo of the shop’s logo, took the equipment and is now learning to make doughnuts himself.
“It’s not going to be Stan’s Donuts but he wants to continue my father’s legacy with making and selling doughnuts. That’s what he’s hoping to do,” Pam says.
At the Westwood Village shop, a note announcing its closure remains stuck to a window – a quiet end to a business loved by so many.
“I hope that you will remember how our donuts made you smile for many years to come,” it says.
The note ends: “With Love, Stan Berman.”
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