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Donut vs. Cupcake: The battle for Chicago's pastry soul

By JoshMogerman in Food on Feb 6, 2011 8:00PM

Dat Donuts: Three Donuts by KidItamae
OK, OK, we know we have dedicated a ludicrous amount of posts to the cupcake craze on this site. But a recent walk on Madison brought out one of the dark sides of this town’s current mania---the exclusion of other, perhaps more deserving, baked goods. A walk from the Opera House over to the Randolph CTA stop leads you past THREE high-end cupcake stands (Crumb’s, Cupcake Counter and Sugar Bliss), one donut outlet (and it is a Dunkin’ Donuts, blech) and some hard pastry questions. Have cupcakes crowded donuts out of the City of Chicago? Are those treats now relics of a more yeasty yesteryear?

Sure, there are some great donut shops and bakeries in the City. But they languish while an influx of energy and investment in cupcake outlets that have sprung up like weeds in some parts of town threatens to further marginalize our hole-y cakes. Conversations with some of the City’s donuteers point to heavy factors of class, geography and the economics of baked goods as partial explanations for seemingly light cake-y trends.

At its most basic level this seems to be about price point. A new age cupcake is yuppie iced art on the go. The aesthetics alone help to account for a starting price upwards of $3. Donuts, on the other hand, are pretty straightforward---most of Chicago’s most well known purveyors haven’t changed their recipes in decades---and rarely fetch more than a dollar. That means a baker would have to move lots of glazed O’s to pay off soaring downtown rents, which probably explains why the Loop and much of the North Side have been conceded to Dunkin’ Donuts’ massive economy of scale (they have even defeated corporate challenger Krispie Kream in the Loop).

That leaves donuts in some of the neighborhoods further from the City center with cheaper rents and more blue collar sensibility: Dat Donuts in Grand Crossing, Abundance Bakery in Bronzeville, Old Fashioned in Roseland, Huck Finn in Gage Park, and the Beverly Bakery, all on the South Side, have renowned donuts. Bon Appetite Magazine named Dats one of the nation’s top-10 donuts not long ago.

But amongst the folks who crank out the tasty, hand-made (can we call them artisanal?) donuts that we crave, there is a feeling that they are the last practitioners of a dying art. Abundance Bakery’s Bill Ball told us, “There aren’t too many crazy guys like me left,” noting that it is tough to find staffers willing to come in at 1:00 a.m. to make donuts (who knew that the “time to make the donuts” commercials were so spot on?). He says that mechanization has further changed the economics, with Ball’s dozen hand-made donuts costing $7 while nearby grocery store machine-made pseudo donuts cost nearly half the price.

We don’t begrudge the cupcake makers or consumers. But there is something so Chicago about donuts that we are left scratching our heads at this issue. The aesthetic of this town should lean towards the simple, strong goodness of time-tested fritters and long johns. They are the super-structural X’s on the Hancock building or the exposed supports of the Gehry bandshell in Millennium Park of the pastry world, where cupcakes are the gilt-laden excess of Trump’s New York towers. And yet, our donut makers are in trouble. So please, on this day of extreme snacking and gorging, consider you humble donut artisans.

And if you have a hot donut stand to recommend, clue us in---we are always on the lookout for worthy circular pastry purveyors!