In a city where continuous, rapid change is the order of the day, Detroiters can take comfort in few constants. Lucky for them, one institution, Dutch Girl Donuts, isn't changing anytime soon.
Located on Woodward Avenue just south of 7 Mile Road, Dutch Girl feels a time capsule to when it first opened in 1947. Everything about it is old-fashioned, from its recipes to the image of a Dutch woman dressed in a bonnet and clogs on the shop's blue and white awning. It's the same awning they've had for the shop's entire existence. And the donuts are pretty much the same, too.
"Very little has changed in the way we make our donuts," says owner Gene Timmer.
For example, they didn't even change their flour after switching suppliers to Pillsbury. Instead, they taught the new supplier to make a mixture similar to their old one.
Dutch Girl Donut was started by Timmer's parents, Cecilia and John.
"Mom ran everything," says Timmer. "She'd work 14 hours in the store, then go home and do the books." Cecilia is also the "Dutch girl" in the shop's name.
John Timmer was no slouch himself. He built just about everything in Dutch Girl, from the wood countertops and cabinets to the proofing rack made out of aluminum reclaimed from an aircraft. Gene and his father built the table by the front window on which they made every single donut for the store's first 30 years.
These aren't primitive pieces of equipment, either. The proofing rack comes with individual doors for each tray, which Timmer describes as an "ingenious feature." The table by the front window is set at an angle -- the same angle as Woodward's. It's a nice symmetry, well-suited to the shop's motto: "Made in sight by folks in white," a reference to the bakers' aprons.
There's been only one noteworthy change at Dutch Girl over the shop's entire history. A former employee named Paul retired in the early 1990s after being employed at Dutch Girl for his entire working life. He would cut every donut by hand every day, and his retirement forced Timmer to buy a rolling machine and industrial mixer. "We had to get them because no one else could work that hard," says Timmer.
Continuity has prevailed not just with donuts and furnishings, but also those who run the store. Timmer took over the business after his father died and mother remarried and has been doing the bulk of the work for 40 years. His son, Jon, started managing the store after returning from the Navy. "Making donuts is a lot easier than landing an aircraft on a carrier," says Jon.
Things are no different with Timmer's employees. The senior employee, Annie Cook, has been working at Dutch Girl for almost as long as Gene, and her daughter, Toya, is also an employee. "They say I can't retire," Annie says with a laugh.
"She's the best at talking to customers," says Jon. "The place runs a lot better when Annie's here."
Annie, Paul, and Gene all met their spouses at Dutch Girl Donuts. It's proof not only that they spend an incredible amount of time in the store, but also of the commitment to their customers. "That's why we'll always keep our donuts at an affordable price," says Gene. "That was Dad's idea -- food for regular folks." Gene says they felt guilty raising the price of their donuts last year from $7 to $8 per dozen, but the rising cost of sugar necessitated the increase.
While Dutch Girl has hardly changed, the area around it certainly has. Timmer remembers the Woodward streetcar and how it was often difficult to find parking along the nearby residential streets. Despite the neighborhood falling on hard times, Dutch Girl has survived without needing to adapt.
Timmer's future plans are simply to continue doing what Dutch Girl has always done: make delicious donuts using well-established methods. Given the durability of their product, you might wonder if the Timmers ever entertained thoughts of expansion.
"We're just going to stay small," says Jon. "We'd love to be the next Dunkin' Donuts, but then our donuts might taste like theirs."
Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
All photos by Aaron Mondry.