The donut shop is practically unheard of in the UK. There, people think of doughnuts as large, sticky confectionary items, either with a hole in the middle or closed-up and filled with jam. They’re bought in a bakery instead of a newsagent (where you might buy chocolate), generally for or by children – the only age group who can take that much sugar in one go – and handed over in a white paper bag. I used to enjoy these now and again.
Then as a teenager I progressed to the ‘iced finger’, an elongated bread roll with a layer of vanilla or strawberry icing on top. You could pick these up without getting sticky fingers. It somehow felt more wholesome to get food from a bakery, where they had some ‘good’ food, than pillaging the chocolate display at the corner shop. I thought this was how it was going to be forever. Then I discovered the donut shop.
When I was an exchange student in New Jersey in 1992, I would go and sit in ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ at the top of Haledon Avenue, about a mile from the city of Paterson. In England you couldn’t go and sit anywhere in the evening except the pub. In the US, you could go to Dunkin’ Donuts and drink coffee instead of going to the pub and feeling conspicuous. The donuts weren’t coated with sugar and came in a variety of flavours. My friend would drive me down there and wait in the car while I went in.
Arriving in Toronto in 1993 I found a huge proliferation of donut shops. Relatives from outside the city talked about a chain called ‘Tim Hortons’ but I only came across one or two outlets. Instead I frequented franchises like ‘Country Style’ and ‘Coffee Time’ as well as independents like ‘Fifty Plus’ on Queen Street, ‘Donut World’ near the library and one in the Beaches that I think was called ‘The Donut Cave’.
In mid-2011 I was back in a Dunkin’ Donuts in New Jersey. There was a huge widescreen TV showing local news, some overweight people, some kids kicking around and a bloke on his laptop. Up in Toronto, Tim Hortons has become the McDonalds of the donut industry, virtually wiping out Country Style and the independents and selling a wide range of light meals as well as snacks. There are still quite a few Coffee Times. The middle-of-the-road radio station still plays. Conversations still go on. Poor folks can afford it.