Week #21, The Donut Whole, Wichita, KS
This week’s post is a pretty lengthy donut adventure. You’ve been warned. Go get a few donuts and a glass of milk, then settle in for a few moments of sugar-enriched reading…
A couple of months ago I heard about The Donut Whole, reportedly a super cool donut shop in Wichita, Kansas. I was immediately leary, assuming there wasn’t much in the way of trend-setting food or hip donut stops in central Kansas. I might have also thought that about the people in Wichita. I was so wrong…
This trip required a little more pre-planning than most of my donut adventures, including calling ahead to speak with co-owner Michael Carmody to let him know we were coming. I am not in the habit of letting donut shop owners know I am coming for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t want them to be uncomfortable or on edge with my visit. I’m not a food critic and I want to experience a donut shop as it is every single day. One donut shop owner spent our entire visit frantically cleaning when she found out I have a donut blog. I would have rather talked donuts than watch her clean. So sometimes I don’t talk about my blog with the donut makers at all or if I do it is on my way out the door. The second reason is that I want to pay for my own donuts. I have been on the other side of that discomfort, being offered free donuts and then feeling like I couldn’t say what I really thought about the donut experience. But this time I thought calling ahead was imperative, as I really wanted to talk with the folks at The Donut Whole to find out how a fun and funky donut shop could work in Wichita.
Last Thursday John and I hit the road in the ragtop for the 3+ hour drive to Wichita. There were few stops on the way, no time to waste, donuts were waiting! The weather was perfect, just a light jacket needed, and traffic was light. The GPS (whose name is Nigel) pointed us right to The Donut Whole, which was easy to spot with the giant rooster on the roof. We drove past for a quick check of the neighborhood and easily spotted several other fun stops–3 tattoo and piercing shops (donut tattoo anyone?), a bundt cake bakery, a candy store, a spice shop…My pre-conceived notions of Wichita were changing already and I hadn’t even had a donut yet!
We parked and headed into the Donut Whole. The front area is full of seating options from booths to unique tables. There’s a stage for live music (that’s a first!) and one wall is covered with burlap coffee bags. The floor is covered with leopard print carpet. Are you starting to get that The Donut Whole is not your typical donut shop? In a booth, two guys in suits were having a discussion about the economy (both with laptops open), at another table a girl with vibrant purple highlights in her hair was talking on her cell phone, nearby three teenagers were talking about the difference between a job and a career. That last little bit of eavesdropping made it hard to not laugh out loud, as I’m still trying to figure that out myself. The vibe was more coffee house than donut shop. I was already thinking it would be great if more coffee houses offered good donuts to go with their java. Hmmm…
A hallway filled with local art separates the front area from a second room with the donuts. Before checking out the donut offerings, a quick stop to the bathrooms was in order–we had been in the car for a couple hundred miles. And yes, this is the first time I have written about the bathrooms at a donut shop. I am not promising it will be the last either. The bathroom walls were tagged by a local graffiti artist. There was no typical bathroom graffiti, but colorful, well-defined donut-themed tagging. I stopped just short of taking a photo in the bathroom and now wish I would have. You can find pics of the bathrooms over at Flyover People if you really need to have a peek.
Donuts were waiting…a bakery rack with too many choices was on display behind cases full of retro and unusual varieties of candy and chocolate, like a chocolate cherry chile bar. My apologies for the lack of details on the chocolate offerings. I was honed in on some of the most creative donuts I’ve seen yet! Rootbeer Float with a dusting of malt, S’mores, Cherry Cordial, Maple Bacon, Peanut Butter & Grape…We selected a dozen donuts to take home and a couple of donuts each to eat there with friends from Wichita who were meeting us. We noticed only two maple bacon donuts remained in the rack and tried to order them, only to be told they were being held for someone. Slightly bummed, but still excited to try all of the varieties–and there were many, even on a Thursday! John was ordering coffee brewed from locally roasted beans for both of us when I spotted Michael sitting nearby so I introduced myself and was pleasantly surprised to find out those two maple bacon donuts were being held for us. Calling ahead really had been a good thing this time! And I got to pay for them so all was well in my donut world.
We had a great time talking with Michael and briefly met co-owner Angela Etter. It was refreshing to talk with donut shop owners who enjoy what they are doing. The lack of enthusiasm may be my biggest gripe at chain donut shops. Michael shared that he started making donuts at home, using two burners on a stovetop and social networking to let folks know when donuts were available. Friends in California talk of finding their favorite taco trucks via Twitter and there is a tiny bit of that here in KC, but who knew this could be true of donuts in the Midwest?
I had a gazillion questions for Michael. He was great to answer all of them, not just with canned answers either. It wouldn’t have been surprising to have a donut shop owner hesitate to answer my wacky questions, especially when I prod about things like product sourcing and the inspiration for donut flavors. I really wanted to know about the flavor combinations, specifically the Maple Bacon donut, since it is often talked about as a signature flavor of Voodoo Donuts in Portland. Michael readily admitted Voodoo was the inspiration of DW’s version. While I haven’t been to Voodoo yet, from photos alone I think DW has slightly improved on Voodoo’s variety by using bacon crumbles instead of full strips.
And then came a major highlight of the trip…an offer to visit the inner sanctum of The Donut Whole. That’s right, we got to see the Donut Robot. (It’s kinda like this.) Donut making was done for the day but we still got an education on the making of cake donuts. I wanted to know why cake, not raised donuts, and the answer was an obvious one: labor and the time required to get a finished product. I might just start liking cake donuts a little more, even if they have more calories than raised donuts. I have a better understanding of the flavor possibilities and intricacies involved in a batter based donut now.
The Donut Whole has been offering vegan donuts on Tuesdays, now on Wednesdays, and I wanted to know if there was a large enough vegan following in Wichita to be worth making them once a week. Michael’s response was brutally honest and I appreciate that. He mentioned some vegans can be a bit of a pain. Okay, so I’m cleaning that up a little…but I do understand how some angry misanthropic vegans make it difficult to cater to their needs with their complaints and self-rightousness. Please share a little veg love with these folks the next time you drop by for a vegan donut. The vegan line of discussion led to talk of gluten free donuts, which I have yet to see anywhere. Michael nearly made my head spin with talk of how gluten proteins gelatinize in hot oil, preventing excess oil absorption, so without gluten there’s more oil, creating a greasy glob of something very non-donuty. Seriously, this guy is the Alton Brown of donuts.
After just enough donut talk to make us really hungry, we grabbed a table and tried to wait for our friends to arrive before indulging in the most perfectly sized cake donuts I have seen. I enjoyed a really good plain ol’ coffee, you know, the kind with no fancy frothed milk or hazelnut triple caramel dulce de leche flavoring. The best part may have been the diner-style coffee cup which surprisingly did not jump into my purse, even if it does belong in my kitchen.
Right on time, Amanda, Dana and Julie walked in and we spent just a few minutes looking over the donuts we bought before they went to pick out theirs. John went to get more coffee for us (it really was good coffee) and spent a few more minutes talking with Michael about the history of the building. It has a long history of being a food service establishment, which is interesting, but I found the eclectic decor to be even more interesting and enjoyed a few minutes looking around by myself while everyone else ordered donuts and coffee. Remember those giant lions at the park that had water fountains in their mouthes? There’s one of them inside DW. And a pinball machine, a scoreboard, a functioning jukebox, even a fallout sign.
Our friends joined us with a cleverly labeled box of donuts. What a great plan! There are so many flavors of donuts that it would be impossible to remember the name of each flavor. We tried several different flavors, splitting each donut into many different pieces so we could try more flavors. I really liked the Choco Crunch with Cocoa Pebbles and the Peanut Butter Grape. John was a bit hesitant about the Maple Bacon but ate the whole thing and said it was a pleasant surprise, although it did make sense to him as lots of bacon has a maple smoked flavor and some like pancakes, maple syrup and bacon together. My plan was to try 4 different flavors, 1/4 of each for my weekly two-donut allotment. I ended up trying an extra 1/4 of the original buttermilk. It was BY FAR the best basic cake donut I have ever tasted. This place isn’t just about quirky unusual flavors but has a really good basic donut, too. No reason to feel guilty about eating these donuts either, as they are made with local flour and dairy products.
After eating plenty of donuts, drinking far too much coffee and talking about other fun things to do in Wichita, it was time for us to say goodbye to our friends and the Donut Whole. Another 3 hours of driving was ahead of us; the coffee and sugar buzz wouldn’t last much longer. We snapped a couple more photos, said our goodbyes and made it a whole block down the road before stopping at Monica’s Bundt Cakes. They have a hole in the middle, which makes them almost like a donut, right? While we were having donuts, Julie had suggested we stop at Monica’s. It was a great recommendation and we had fun browsing the cakes, the bakeware and unusual baking ingredients for sale.
The plan was to leave then, but we ended up going a few more blocks further to the Nifty Nut House, one of Monica’s recommendations. It’s a huge warehouse full of nuts, candies, snack mixes and dried fruit. I spent more money on locally canned salsa and dried fruits than I did on donuts! Now I’ve got plenty of non-sugared, sulfur free dried pineapple to make raw vegan donut holes.
Since we had already strayed way off of our route, we decided to stop by the Sugar Sisters, a bakery recommended by our Wichita friends. Another great recommendation! These girls know how to show off a city! The Sugar Sisters offers four sizes of cupcakes from teeny tiny to a jumbo size that would be very share-able. The bakery case had 4 or 5 varieties of quiche on display but we were still too full from our two donuts to consider having lunch. We got a box of cupcakes to bring home for friends and finally decided it was time to head home. Or was it? That Dog ‘n Shake across the street looked interesting! Oh, alright. Back to the interstate we go.
Before leaving for Wichita, our friend Mary told us to stop by Burns, Kansas and visit the Mennonite store for bulk spices. While looking for info on Burns, Kansas (population 278), I discovered portions of the movie Mars Attacks was filmed there. The donut shop in the movie was constructed in Burns, complete with a 26-foot diameter donut. A donut connection existed so we planned to drop by on the way home even if it was slightly off of the beaten path.
When we finally pulled into Burns, after driving 20 miles behind a tractor on a two-lane road, I spotted a fella watering petunias planted in huge Rubbermaid storage containers. I parked the car and chatted with him for a few minutes, asking about the roosters that seemed to be on every front porch in town. Roosters are their community art project and the Lions Club has installed a large one along the road. I guess if the Donut Whole can have a giant rooster on their roof, this tiny town should have them on every possible perch. He offered to show us the spot on the highway where the donut was blown up during the Mars Attacks filming, but we passed and instead headed into the Mennonite dry goods store to get Vietnamese cinnamon for Mary.
By now it was very hot, 85 degrees or so, and our sunscreen supply was running low. We drove a few more miles along a two lane road before finding the interstate again and heading back to KC, now toting a dozen donuts, a box of cupcakes, three mini bundt cakes, several tubs of cinnamon, a jar of salsa, six pounds of dried fruit, honey mustard pretzels and 4 flavors of Jelly Belly sport beans in the back seat.
Once back home, I called Em and invited her over for a donut buffet. In all of the day’s excitement, I never managed to eat a meal and found myself with a serious calorie deficit. Darn! It looked like I would have to help Emily sample even more flavors of donuts to make sure I consumed enough calories for the day. Wouldn’t want to let my body slip into starvation mode by consuming only 600 calories for an entire day. I think I managed to sample at least 12 different donut flavors from the Donut Whole and cannot pick a favorite. The Cherry Cordial was dreamy, sugared breakfast cereal on top of a donut adds a great crunch, malt on a root beer donut is yummy….well, you get the point. I ate donuts until I had no remaining calories left. It was so worth it.
This donut adventure was one of my favorites so far. Great company, amazing donuts and the realization that Wichita is a pretty cool town made for a fun day. Just last night someone told me Wichita has a hip new hot dog restaurant, complete with a veggie dog. Go on, twist my arm. I might just visit again…