The King of Kreme

Doughnuts to die for. An inside look at the temple of doughnuts — the facility on Ivy Avenue in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where every Krispy Kreme begins.

The hodgepodge of old brick buildings on the east side of Winston-Salem, North Carolina doesn't look like the source of half a century of magic. Tucked away on Ivy Avenue, the buildings look like what they are: old factory spaces in a declining neighborhood, where people still make an old product in an old way.

And yet, when Jennifer Tilly showed up at this year's Kentucky Derby with some of Ivy Avenue's best, it made news. When Lauren Bacall slipped into the Upper West Side boutique that sells Ivy Avenue's product, the New York tabloids took note. Last January, when the first store carrying Ivy Avenue's output opened in Los Angeles, people drove from more than 50 miles away to stand in line. And in an interview that was part of the flirt-and-flash publicity for her film Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman confessed that while Tom is wonderful, what really makes her weak in the knees comes from Ivy Avenue: doughnuts.

Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

The glaze so delicate that it melts under your fingers as you pick up a Krispy Kreme. The doughnuts so airy that lifting one without denting it is impossible. The mood in a Krispy Kreme store so evocative, you can't enter without smiling.

All 150 Krispy Kreme stores make their doughnuts out in the open, where you can watch. An orderly parade of doughnuts floats through the fryer, flipping over automatically halfway through the cooking process. Then a conveyor whisks the doughnuts out of the hot shortening and into a glistening cascade of glaze.

These are not donuts. They're doughnuts.

But what goes on at the store level is part of the mystery and the sleight of hand of Krispy Kreme — because, although it takes months to learn to make a Krispy Kreme doughnut, what happens in each store is only the finale of a carefully choreographed process that is completely controlled from within those brick buildings on Ivy Avenue.

The Temple of Doughnuts

Americans treat themselves to Krispy Kreme doughnuts at a fantastic pace: 11,000 dozen doughnuts are sold every hour — more than 3 million melt-in-your-mouth Krispy Kremes a day. Every one of those doughnuts traces its origins to the same place. The doughnuts may be kneaded, fried, and filled in a store in Charleston, West Virginia, or Omaha, Nebraska, or Dothan, Alabama, but every container of doughnut mix, icing, and raspberry filling comes by truck from Ivy Avenue. Even the stainless-steel equipment used to turn the ingredients into doughnuts comes from Ivy Avenue: The fryers, the conveyors, the proofing boxes are all handcrafted in the facility's metal shop.

If there is a chief wizard of Krispy Kreme, it is Clarence Curry. Curry, 61, has been at Krispy Kreme for 33 years; he started back when the founder himself strode the halls. Curry's title is director of the mix department. His crews create and control the mix from which every Krispy Kreme doughnut is made. Curry's world is a blend of tradition and technology — one in service of the other. As a company, Krispy Kreme has one overriding goal: consistency. It wants a doughnut purchased in Scranton, Pennsylvania to taste exactly like a doughnut purchased in Las Vegas. And it wants a doughnut eaten on July 13, 1999 to taste exactly like a doughnut eaten on July 13, 1959. "The product never tricks you," says Mike Cecil, 55, Krispy Kreme's "minister of culture." But that consistency is harder to sustain than it seems. It requires vigilance. It even requires change.

In 1966, when Curry first started working at Krispy Kreme, ingredients were still measured by hand on bench scales, still blended by hand, still poured into 100-pound sacks. But founder Vernon Rudolph — who fried his first doughnuts in Winston-Salem on July 13, 1937 — was no Luddite.

"Mr. Rudolph put that panel in on the third floor," Curry remembers. "That panel" refers to the company's first computerized batching system, which used punch cards and a card reader. The next generation of technology used tape. If a computer lost track of the recipe, says Curry, "it could take half a day to reload the tapes." But the computers provided consistency, and Rudolph's company flourished across the South.

Ivy Avenue is so obsessed with consistency that before each batch of wheat flour is allowed into the building, a sample is tested in a second-floor lab. When the big hopper trucks pull up to the loading dock — as they do half a dozen times a day — someone climbs up and takes a four-foot-long core sample from each delivery. "We do a quick check for moisture content, protein, and ash, using an infrared tester," says Amanda Cook, 26, a food technologist who works in the lab. Wheat crops vary; the doughnuts cannot. In fact, all of the raw ingredients are tested before being accepted — shortening, flour, sugars. "It's not just taste," says Cook. "It's chemistry." If a 25-ton truckload of flour falls outside of established parameters, the entire delivery is rejected. All 25 tons go back. That happens every couple of months.

But consistency doesn't depend on lab instruments alone. Adjacent to the lab is a full-scale doughnut-making kitchen. Here, all day long, Betty Anders, 53, and Dorothy Chilton, 48 — baking-lab technicians who also happen to be sisters — make doughnuts. They make doughnuts from every single 2,500-pound batch of mix, making sure that each batch has been blended correctly. "That keeps surprises out of the field," says Kathy Duncan, 25, who supervises the analytical lab and the kitchen. Batches are rejected at a rate of about one per month. And the doughnuts that Anders and Chilton cook? They become pig feed.

Consistency requires patience as well: Krispy Kreme doughnuts don't taste quite right if the mix is used immediately. "The mix needs to season in the sack for at least a week," says Amanda Cook. Across an alley from Clarence Curry's mixing plant is a warehouse the size of a Home Depot. In it is everything necessary to run a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop — from coffee stirrers and price signs to 45-pound tubs of lemon-custard filling. Mostly, though, the warehouse contains doughnut mix that is seasoning in brown 50-pound sacks. There are nine aisles of shelves, and each aisle is stacked two stories high. Each shelf contains two pallets, and each pallet contains 60 bags. It takes a lot of mix to make 11,000 dozen doughnuts every hour of every day.

The Kreme Dream

Sometimes, Krispy Kreme can seem dangerously close to overexposure. Although there are only 150 Krispy Kreme outlets (Dunkin' Donuts has 24 stores for every one Krispy Kreme outlet, and its sales are nearly 10 times as high), American culture is littered with references to Krispy Kreme. The 1998 Zagat Survey for New York City picked Krispy Kreme as the number-one best buy for a buck in the city. And Men's Journal named Krispy Kreme doughnuts 3rd on its list of the top 100 foods in the United States — the only mass-market item to appear on the list.

And yet the buzz is mostly genuine: It comes from people eating doughnuts. The NATO base in Keflavik, Iceland has 350 boxes of Krispy Kremes shipped in by a C-130 from Virginia Beach every week, because that's what soldiers on the base want to eat. Krispy Kreme doughnuts produced $238 million in sales last year — yet the company's brand-development department consists of just six people. Even more surprising, the company does no formal advertising.

Krispy Kreme hopes to have as many as 240 stores by 2003. (There are still 24 states that have no Krispy Kreme outlets.) But even as Krispy Kreme tries to grow, it remains true to the doughnuts of Vernon Rudolph.

The company has gone through some evolutionary stages. Three years after Rudolph died, Beatrice Foods bought Krispy Kreme. That started a period during which the stores sold things like ice cream and sausage biscuits, as well as doughnuts. The fabled equipment department was slowly closing its doors. The doughnut recipe changed. Eventually, the company was bought back by its horrified franchisees. A few days after that repurchase was complete, Vernon Rudolph's original recipe was reintroduced.

Like a talisman, what is purported to be the original recipe can still be found at Ivy Avenue, locked in a safe just a few steps from Vernon Rudolph's old office. The recipe came from Rudolph's uncle, who is said to have purchased it, along with the Krispy Kreme name, from a New Orleans chef named Joe LeBeau back in the 1930s.

Of course, the sacks of mix no longer match that original recipe — which contained potato flour, for instance. But modern cooking equipment, the size of the company, and the vagaries of the wheat crop all require adjustments. "The recipe has to change for the doughnuts to stay the same," explains Mike Cecil.

But what about the doughnuts?

Carver Rudolph, one of Vernon Rudolph's five children, has been eating Krispy Kremes since he could eat. Family members no longer have any formal connection to the company. But they still eat the doughnuts.

Although Rudolph notes that the modern Krispy Kreme doughnut is "airier" than the ones that he ate when he was little, and that the doughnuts back then were hand-cut, he says that today's doughnuts are "virtually identical to those my dad made."

About those who currently manage the company, Rudolph says, "I think the idea of Krispy Kreme means more to them than money does. They really think those doughnuts are magic."

But, according to Carver Rudolph, his daddy always pooh-poohed the idea that there was anything special about the doughnuts. "When I asked him why the doughnuts were so successful, he'd say, 'Blood, sweat, and tears — just hard work.' "

But Rudolph still keeps his bases covered. "Whenever somebody gets sick or dies, we go by the Krispy Kreme, pick up a couple dozen glazed, and drop them by the house," he says. "That's what we've always done."

Charles Fishman (cnfish@mindspring.com) is a Fast Company contributing editor. Visit Krispy Kreme on the Web (www.krispykreme.com).

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