Two weekends ago, I decided that our family was going to have a monthly mandatory “field trip”, an educational outing that combines a bit of local history with a sprinkle of fun. Our inaugural excursion was to Lou’s Living Donut Museum near downtown San Jose, California.
The original Lou was one Lucius Ades, a decorated World War II B-24 pilot. To Lou, today’s American donut, different from its European cousin in that the center of the donut is removed prior to frying in order for the fluffy treat to cook evenly and thoroughly, is a unique symbol of quality, community, and patriotism. During World War II and subsequently the Vietnam War, the “Donut Dollies” of the American Red Cross drove old GM trucks to within a mile of the front line. At 4 a.m., these college-educated women (always at least 25 years old) got up to prepare donuts and coffee for the battle-weary troops, providing warm smiles, conversation, and the uniquely American treat that provided a lifeline to home and family. Returning home after piloting more than 30 successful bombing missions, Lucius worked at a variety of local companies including a grocery store in Oakland and a donut shop in Willow Glen. In 1955, he broke away from the donut shop and, with the help of a G.I. loan, started his own donut business at its original location on East Santa Clara Street. Lou’s Donut Shop was born.
In May 1981, when Lou decided to retire, he sold his business to two of his longtime employees, brothers Charles (“Chuck”) and Richard Chavira, both hired when they were high school students. The Chavira boys (Chuck having graduated from high school 25 years ago now) and their parents, Ralph and Connie, keep the philosophies of Lou alive by creating the fluffy pastry products entirely by hand, by using only the freshest and highest quality ingredients, and by continuing Lou’s crusade of tying patriotism with the glazed confectionery.
In 1995, forced to move from the original location because the building was considered unsafe in case of an earthquake, Lou’s opened up in its new location on Delmas Avenue, sporting an exhibit of World War II memorabilia, reprints of old newspapers and magazines, and models of military aircraft in varying shapes and sizes.
When our boisterous family arrived at Lou’s Living Donut Museum on a blustery, drizzly, spring Saturday morning, I asked about the tour that I had prearranged via telephone a few days prior. I was directed to speak with a quiet, unassuming, rather skinny man dressed in bakery whites. He took us into the next-door Donut Museum, gave a brief informative lecture on the history of the donut and a biographical sketch of Lucius Ades, and popped in a 15-minute video on Lou, his donut shop, and the role of the donut in World War II — interspersed with lots of flag waving and good old-fashioned patriotism.
It wasn’t until afterward that I discovered that the antisterotypical skinny baker who had given us the personal tour was, in fact, Chuck, the same Chuck who (with his brother) had originally taken over the donut business from Lou more than twenty years prior. I interrupted Chuck’s late breakfast of a bowl of Cheerios (which not so coincidentally look a LOT like little donuts!) to ask him a few questions. Because of my own experience working in a bakery at about that same time as he started, combined with my current culinary endeavours of manufacturing my own line of barbeque sauces and rubs, Chuck and I had a lot to talk about, quickly sliding into easy conversation — the importance of high-quality, specialty ingredients; the varying qualities afforded by the hand-creation of products versus today’s more prevalent high-tech automation; and the overall attention to detail of a finely crafted product.
I won’t stop loving warm melt-in-your-mouth Krispy Kremes, but Lou’s donuts provide a noticeably high-quality alternative to engineered cookie-cutter products. I was particularly impressed with the intricate, multi-faceted flavor and the fluffy, bread-like quality of the devil’s food donut, created with a direct descendant of the original yeast culture used by Lou almost fifty years ago, and also on the same equipment Lou once used.
High quality. A friendly atmosphere. Darn good donuts. It is no wonder that Lou’s was the recipient of the Official Donut Shop of the California Highway Patrol award.
Lou’s Living Donut Museum closed its doors in July 2006, citing family illness. Chuck, pictured above, lost his lengthy war with acute pancreatitis in May 2011. He was 51.