I don’t mean to sabotage your New Year’s resolution to eat healthier, but I cannot suppress my excitement over uncovering some delectable Tacoma doughnut history that provides a positive contrast to their unfortunate representation in recent news.
In 2010, a Tacoma doughnut shop suffered prominent media coverage for the part it played in a child prostitution scandal. More recently, and with less infamy, we have been teased about the arrival of Buck Naked Doughnuts on 6th Ave. No one seems able to track down the prospective proprietors as the nine-month-old “coming soon” banner taunts us and the doors remain closed.
I became interested in the history of doughnuts in Tacoma when my brother mentioned to me that he and his wife were renting a home that had once belonged to “The Doughnut King” of Tacoma.
I thought my brother fabricated the anecdote so as to promote a personal agenda– to have a doughnut party with a blind taste-test– but my research revealed that Tacoma was in fact the home of James Price Lesher, a man who was indeed called “The Doughnut King.” Lesher came from a family of doughnut royalty; His brother-in-law, A.A. Hoover, lived in Portland where he was also called “The Doughnut King.”
Along with his brother Hoyt Lesher, James founded the Hoyt Doughnut Company in 1910 at 610 South Fife. In 1917, Hoyt Doughnuts relocated to 2412 6th Ave– not too far from where Buck Naked should (have) open(ed). James Lesher was considered a pioneer in doughnut manufacturing, and strongly led the local business community through his active involvement in many business and social clubs– earning him the title “Mayor of Sixth Avenue.”
Bringing People Together
Doughnuts– and most likely Hoyt’s Doughnuts– played a part in Tacoma’s first block party, held in 1920. Doughnuts were given free-of-charge to the attendees, a total of over 600 adults and children. The block party festivities took place between South Trafton Street between 6th and 8th Avenues, less than two blocks away from Lesher’s doughnut shop.
The Community Service Club, who hosted the party, wanted to provide an opportunity for neighbors to get to know each other. What a better way to combat the isolating effects of urban living than dancing in the street, community singing, and free doughnuts?
During both World Wars, the Hoyt Doughnut Co. provided their delightful pastries to troops at Fort Lewis.
A 1932 Tacoma News Tribune article about Lesher (an article I was startled to see fatefully placed next the bold headline “Wife was Fat, No Longer Attractive: Loses Husband’s Love”, until I realized it was an ad for a diet drink) notes that Lesher would joke that he had already filled the 91st Division with so many doughnut “holes” before they went overseas that a few more bullets couldn’t hurt them.
Both John T. Edge in Donuts: An American Passion and Paul R. Mullins in Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut claim that it was during World War I that doughnuts became an “American” food. A group of women working for the Salvation Army wanted to help stave off homesickness among troops they were assisting in France and thought baked goods would do just the trick. Without access to proper baking equipment, these resourceful women figured out how to make doughnuts to serve to the men.
Doughnuts became a symbol of the comforts of home, and soon both the YMCA and Red Cross also began distributing doughnuts as a part of their aid to soldiers.
Post-War: Ernie Rice, Dean of the Doughnut Men
In 1947, Ernie Rice, who started at Hoyt Doughnuts in 1911 and also married the Leshers’ sister, bought the company from James (Hoyt had long dropped out of the business, but it is uncertain when).
Ernie developed his own recipe for the doughnuts, which he unabashedly declared to be the best on the West Coast. Adding some credence to his claim, Ernie’s doughnuts were popular throughout the Puget Sound for “their unusually fine texture and delectable flavor.”
Ernie also claimed a world record for having made 1,100 doughnuts during an eleven-hour shift– a surely arduous feat that can be difficult to appreciate after witnessing the numbing march of doughnuts spewed out of a typical Krispy Kreme store at a rate of nearly 3,000 doughnuts an hour.
What might prove more astonishing in our career-hopping era is that Ernie made doughnuts for the Hoyt Doughnut Company for 48 years. Referred to as “The Dean of the Doughnutmen,” Ernie was believed to be one of the few remaining career doughnut-makers when he retired in 1959. Without a buyer for the business, Ernie’s retirement closed the Hoyt Doughnut Company for good.
But this was far from the end of doughnuts in Tacoma.
House of Doughnuts
Roughly about the same time Hoyt closed, Kendall Clement opened House of Donuts at 1524 Tacoma Ave. So. Kendall told a reporter in 1961 that rainy weather caused people to buy more doughnuts, making Tacoma the perfect spot to set up shop.
Clement went on to open up several shops in the wet Puget Sound, including one in Lakewood that continues to operate with high ratings today. Just as it did in its early days, House of Donuts provides a wide variety, yet has die-hard followers of their old fashioned and plain doughnuts.
Drum Roll Please
I know you’ve been wondering about the results of my brother’s blind taste test of local doughnuts. With a total of eight voters, the contenders ranked as follows.
1. Le Donut
2. Pao’s Donuts
3. Krispy Kreme
Fun Facts about Doughnuts
- There is a French doughnut called pets de nonne, which translates to “nun’s farts.”
- A song called “My Doughnut Girl” pays tribute to the Salvation Army’s support of troops during World War I.
In 1941, Dr. J. Howard Crum proposed a doughnut diet plan for losing weight– all those calories just mean more energy right?
- Paula Deen’s “Lady’s Brunch Burger” replaces the traditional burger bun with two Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.
- Rogue Ales has partnered with the popular Portland-based Voodoo Doughnuts to create a bacon maple ale after one of their signature doughnuts (note that Le Donut on Hilltop has their own bacon maple bar).
- Oscar Wilde once said, “Between the optimist and the pessimist, the difference is droll. The optimist sees the doughnut; the pessimist the hole!”
- In the 2004 book The Apostles by Yanier Blak Moore, the principal character’s girlfriend suggests leaving their gang life in Chicago to open up a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop in Tacoma and get rich because Tacoma is “ripe for investment” and doughnuts as a complement to the coffee craze. (165-6)
- Krispy Kreme did not invent the doughnut drive fundraiser. Doughnuts were used for fundraising by the Army as early as 1919. The Camp Fire Girls held doughnut drives until they switched over to mints in 1950 because they would not go stale.