Why the U.S. economy is like a donut

Krissy Clark Jun 6, 2014

Why the U.S. economy is like a donut

Krissy Clark Jun 6, 2014

Happy National Donut Day! That’s what the first Friday in June has been since 1938, when the Salvation Army first declared it so, as part of a donut-themed fundraising event for low-income mothers during the Great Depression.

That bit of trivia is just one of many economic stories baked in to those little toroidal treats we call donuts.

A toroid, in case you’re wondering, is the fancy name for the shape of a donut: full on the outside edges and hollow in the middle. And that’s just about what our economy looks like these days — middle class jobs are hollowing out, but there’s plenty of growth at the low and high ends of the income spectrum. And in fact, the donut shop economy seems to be following suit.

In Los Angeles, you can go to Donut Friend, a vegan-friendly, custom-made (I’m boycotting the word artisanal) donut shop that opened up recently in the once-blue-collar-but-rapidly-changing neighborhood of Highland Park. There, along sparkly white subway-tiled walls you can order donuts priced between $2 and $6.

Though, since you buy extra toppings like goat cheese, cherry compote and kosher sea salt, “you could go up to like a million dollars” for a single donut, says Devin Mireles, the shift-manager working behind the counter. “If you wanted everything.”

Jannah Maresh, who works at a local university, has come by to pick up some donuts for her office-mates. She spent more than $35 on a dozen. But the total didn’t seem to phase her. “I mean there’s one where there’s a crown of bacon and that’s totally worth it,” she says. “My team will be very happy today.”

Mireles, the guy behind the counter, is aware of the make-fun-ability of these prices. In fact he and his coworkers sometimes make fun of them too. “In the most appropriate way possible,” he adds. “Without getting fired.”

But Mireles says, most people buy them without a wince, and that means he’s got a job.  Up in Portland, where he used to live, employment is hard to come by. “I couldn’t even get a job like this there because they would be like ‘what’s your donut experience?’” he says.

Donuts have of course long been associated with working and middle class jobs — the most famous being the donut-happy the police man. That’s partly because when police car patrols became common in the 1940s and 50s, one of the few places open during the graveyard shift was the donut shop, says Michael Krondl, author of “The Donut: History, Recipes and Lore from Boston to Berlin.”

One of the earliest donut-memories for Tracy Mikuriya, another customer waiting in line at Donut Friend, was courtesy of her dad, a rail-road worker. “My dad used to work nights, and I would wake up in the morning hoping to see the pink box on top of the refrigerator.”

But, like cupcakes a few years ago (and lately, toast) donuts have made the move from convenient middle class treat to upscale food trend.

“Pastry is an incredibly flexible medium,” says Paul Mullins, an anthropologist at Indiana University and author of “Glazed America: A history of the doughnut.”

“You know I don’t know whether I want to spend $7 on a donut, or whether my donut needs a philosophy,” Mullins says. “But there’s clearly a place in the market for these kinds of gourmet foods.”

There’s clearly still a place for the un-gourmet, but very delicious, kind of donut too, though, according to the line out the door of Monterey Donuts, a cash only, lottery-ticket-selling donut shop a few miles from Donut Friend.

On National Donut Day, Le Phay, originally from Cambodia, is selling a glazed donut to a construction worker. “Gracias amigo,” she tells him. She learned Spanish and English from twenty years of serving her customers she says.  “They are my school.”

The cost of the average donut here: 75 cents.

Editor’s note: If you’re an ardent grammarian, you’ll likely be aware of the heated debate about the correct spelling of the word “donut.” We’ve cited two books about this deep-fried treat, each of which uses different spelling. The Salvation Army and the Associated Press both spell the word “doughnut,” but the vast majority of stores in the Los Angeles area, where this story was reported, use “donut.” We gave this a lot of thought, and in the end went with the truncated version. Why? ’cause it’s quicker. And if we’d debated much longer, there’d have been no donuts left for us!

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