If you want to start an argument in Johnson County, just tell someone you’ve found the best doughnut shop in the county.
Those born in Joco will likely claim the doughnut of their childhood can’t be topped. Those who eat doughnuts regularly will press you for details on whether you’re talking about a cake doughnut, a long john or a fritter. Eventually, you will find yourself with glazed-covered hands, a cup of coffee and an understanding that you simply must agree to disagree.
The independent doughnut shops of Johnson County are as mercurial as the very argument about which is the best.
And that, in many cases, is why they are beloved. They run out of flavors. They don’t have websites. You better bring cash because credit card machines crush the margins on an 80-cent doughnut. They make you work for something you want.
The sugar slingers are anchors to the past. The vinyl stools and the hand-lettered signs are echoes of a day when we didn’t post food photos on Instagram or use a hashtag to put the cap on a great meal. As a result, our connection to them — and the owners — is somehow more personal. So when a doughnut shop closes, the loss is felt more deeply. Some doughnut holes can’t be filled.
In a year
when Dunkin’ Donuts returned to colonize Johnson County, several independent doughnut shops disappeared. Doughnut Factory (9408 Johnson Drive, Merriam) closed its shop in 2012. The store had far-reaching roots, stretching back to Nick Mitchell Sr.’s launch of the Flavor-Made brand in 1955. Hillwah Donuts More (12126 W. 87th Street Parkway, Lenexa), the only area doughnut store to offer doughnut kabobs (doughnut holes on a skewer), closed in December of the same year. Hillwah’s was the last of a revolving door of would-be glazers: Paradise Donuts, Steve’s Donut’s and Lamar’s all tried to make a go of it in the same space.
Still, doughnuts aren’t a fad. They are not a $4 bite of luxury like cupcakes. They’re an inexpensive, year-round reminder of why we love the fried foods of a county fair and the cider doughnuts that accompany an annual apple-picking trip. It will be a sad day in the Midwest if it turns out we have passed the point of peak frying oil.
With so much tied to our memories and family connections to doughnut shops, 913 didn’t set out to discover the best doughnut shop in Johnson County.
Instead, we decided to stop by each of the six independent area doughnut makers and find out exactly what it is that keeps us going in — for — circles.Mr. D’s Donuts
11222 W. 75th St., Shawnee
6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily
Doughnuts of note:
Honey dip, cinnamon roll
A pair of army veterans sits at the far ends of two rectangular tables pushed together in the center of Mr. D’s Donuts. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, they compare their relative health in between sips of coffee and small bites of honey dip doughnuts. Chi-Fen Chang smiles at them from behind the register, while her husband — the Mr. D. in Mr D.’s Donuts — talks on the phone in the kitchen at the back of the shop.
The men pause their conversation as the door opens at nearly 10 a.m. A pair of brothers, their wives, a sister and a half-dozen children come barreling into the shop. They ignore the wire racks filled with deodorant, baby powder and off-brand Barbies at dollar store prices. The children press their face and fingers against the glass case beneath the register. The family orders 20 doughnuts that are stacked like a carb-laden pyramid on the plastic tray.
“Where’s my doughnut boy?” says Mr. D. (who declined to give his full name or an interview).
A boy with hair spiked from his winter hat steps forward to give him a hug. Mr. D sits with the family at the U-shaped counter, the boy of about 8 perched on his lap. When he asks about the family’s patriarch, the sister explains that her father is out of the hospital and back on his feet.
“Your doughnuts were the first thing we brought him,” says the woman.
The children plow through blueberry cake doughnuts and cinnamon rolls. Mr. D gives them a brief tour of his kitchen before they are once again swaddled in hats and scarves. The family promises to return soon, and Chang waves good-bye from the register.
The old men watch them go. They sip their coffee and continue to work at their doughnuts — a pair of seated sentries waiting to welcome the next group that comes through the door.