As a child, I dutifully reported to Hebrew school two nights a week, a painful ritual that was only tempered by my detour to nearby Bentley’s Donuts. Choking back the cigarette smoke and the leer of shifty tow truck drivers, I’d deposit my quarters on the counter and receive my handheld bounty: Toronto’s greatest Hawaiian doughnut. Iced in a shell of soft vanilla frosting, it was layered with a rainbow confetti of long sugary sprinkles that burst upon my teeth with each blissful bite.
By indulging myself with a doughnut I was participating in a great, and surprisingly recent, ritual of Canadian mass consumption. In The Donut: A Canadian History, Steve Penfold, an assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto, dissects the evolution of the doughnut in Canada, carefully showing readers how these “banal” fried rings of dough have grown into a national symbol of identity, commerce, and culture throughout Canada. The mass-produced doughnut has become the “donut.”
With information gleaned through industry reports, media clippings, and interviews with doughnut shop owners, Penfold has attempted to write the definitive history of the Canadian donut in an accessible, often irreverent style. Early on we learn that while doughnuts were present in Canadian kitchens, the concept of mass-produced donuts and donut shops actually came from the United States—the reason Penfold chooses the more American spelling of the term. While doughnuts were originally sold in bakeries and later supermarkets, the boom in coffee consumption during the 1950s created the niche for specialized “donut shops” to grow. Rising in concert with the automobile-centred commercial strips surrounding the emerging Toronto suburbs, the Golden Horseshoe, and much of Southern Ontario, donut shops—which Penfold rightly refers to as “caffeine-delivery systems” (76)—rode the consumer trends of convenience and affordability by tapping into Canada’s growing middle market, those neither rich nor poor.
Donut shops quickly became a social space where men emerging from industrial night shifts or trucking routes nursed coffees and donuts along a counter, flirted with the (exclusively female) server, and puffed cigarettes like René Lévesque. In many shops, teenagers loitered and taunted police, while pushers dealt junk in the bathrooms. Oh Canada indeed.
Penfold’s great strength lies in his analysis of the industry’s economics, especially with the emergence by the 1970s of franchises like Mr. Donut, Country Style, and Tim Horton’s, as well as the smaller, regional franchises that have all but disappeared today. Franchisees were independently minded “quasi-entrepreneurs” (129), who sought their own investment within the confines of a packaged, controlled, and micro-managed brand name. Penfold’s interviews illustrate the inherent tensions in a relationship of economic convenience.
Despite the growth of franchises and independent “donut shops,” donuts tellingly only occupied a tiny slice of the Canadian fast food pie until the late 1970s. Donut shops and donut sales were largely concentrated in and around Southern Ontario, and only truly spread across Canada in the 1980s and 1990s, when the male-dominated counters were phased out and smokers received the boot. When the market became more saturated with donut stores, those in the lead began broadening their offerings beyond donuts, introducing pastry, muffins, bagels, and ultimately lunches.
In such a corporate arena, Tim Horton’s achieved complete market dominance and cemented the donut as a national icon. In just two decades “Timmy’s” became synonymous with donuts in Canada. In a revealing move, Country Style, a once formidable competitor, recently offered customers a free coffee if they brought in a losing cup from Tim Horton’s annual “Roll Up the Rim to Win” contest—clearly an act of desperation in face of its behemoth competitor. Tim Horton’s coffee, and the ill-fitting mocha uniforms, are now part of the fabric of our national identity—akin to the iconic Mountie and possibly Don Cherry.
But The Donut may ultimately leave readers unsatisfied. For a book about a single food item there are shockingly few details about commercial donuts themselves. At no point does Penfold describe how the donut first came to Canada, how it evolved, or how Canadian-specific flavours came into being (maple glazed? French cruller? Hawaiian?). Despite its title, this book focuses on the economics of franchising. But The Donut needs some color—some sprinkles, perhaps?—to tie the story of the book’s namesake product together with its business history. Although filling, The Donut leaves us hungry for more.
David Sax is a journalist from Toronto. He has written for The Walrus, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, and GQ, and continues to write for Toronto Life. His book on the Jewish delicatessen business, Save the Deli, will be published in 2009 by McClelland and Stewart.