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Work

Rollin' in dough

Rich in sugary tradition, a family’s neighborhood business defies sour odds

MT Photo: Detroitblogger John
The Timmer family has sold doughnuts in Detroit for 63 years.
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Published 1/6/2010

You can smell the doughnuts half a block away. The strong, sugary scent drifts out from Dutch Girl Donuts on Woodward near Seven Mile, 24 hours a day, into the neighborhood around it.

It's done that for 63 years, wafting past houses where the shop's customers once lived before moving away, past the empty spots where houses once stood when the shop opened.

Over the years, nearly all of its neighboring stores left the city one by one, including next door's Sydney Bogg candy shop, after holding out longer than most around it. Between the doughnuts and the candy, the air on the block was infused with a sweet aroma for years.

"I really miss Sydney Bogg," says Jon Timmer, 29, the grandson of Dutch Girl's founder, as he rolls dough for another batch. Outside his big window, the candy store's fading, hand-painted wall sign faces back at him. "I think it's in Berkley now. It's still the same candy, still the same family and all that, but they just wandered away from the area."

But the doughnut shop stayed behind, through the population flight, through the crumbling of the neighborhood, even after robberies shook up the staff.

"We've been here a long time," he says. "My grandparents moved to Detroit because they knew it would be a big city, there'd be people that would want that, they'd get that followship, people that come in and enjoy what we do. Our customers would have to travel farther if we moved."

But the family has been tempted, he admits, to follow the exodus to the suburbs.

"I mean, we've probably all thought that a little bit, whether to move," he says. "But we've never really had that discussion because the doughnut shop's always been a Detroit thing."

Jon comes in at 5 a.m. nearly every day to make hundreds of doughnuts in the wall of windows at the store's front, where he's on display as he works, lit like a movie screen in the early morning darkness. He spreads dough on the wood table his grandfather hand-carved a lifetime ago. Sometimes there's a line of customers waiting for the first batch to come out of the fryer, soft and warm, before the sun's even up.


There actually
is a Dutch girl for whom the shop was named. 

She's Jon's now-88-year-old grandma, Cecelia, who lives in a northern suburb and needs a walker to get around these days, so she rarely makes it down to the shop. But she still runs things from home, doing the payroll and paperwork, and handling the scheduling.

She and her husband, John Timmer, used to live in the State Fair neighborhood, just blocks from the doughnut bakery. "It was a beautiful neighborhood. All lovely homes. The houses were all well kept," she says, using the same words so many other former Detroiters use about their old neighborhoods. Hers is a blighted mess now.

After returning home from World War II, John moved the family from Grand Rapids in 1946, where they had a small doughnut shop, to open a bigger place in Detroit.

"They looked at Lansing and said it's too small," says Cecelia's son Gene Timmer, 63. "They said, ‘Let's go for Detroit. Let's go for a big city.' At the time there were maybe only a half a dozen doughnut shops in the area. If you could make doughnuts you could really do well."

They had no idea. 

"He said the first night after we take in $100 I'll take you out to dinner," Cecelia remembers, "and I said, "Well, that will be one sweet date!' Just the second day we were open we took in $100." This was back when they had to earn it 40 cents at a time, the cost of a dozen doughnuts then.

John died in 1966. Gene, barely out of his teens, had to take over. He still comes in every evening at 10 p.m. and works half the night. Some regulars know his schedule and give him grief when he's late, Jon says. "If he's watching a baseball game he comes in a little late and they know it, they're like, ‘Where are my donuts? Were you watching baseball?"

The shop looks about the same as it did in the early '50s. The few changes include the addition of a dough-shaping tool to spare the fingers of those who for years made the doughnuts by hand, and the bulletproof glass that Gene added after a robbery years ago.

"I hated to do it," he says, "but pretty soon you like it for the safety factor. We had spikes up there too, and a guy still jumped over it, little agile guy. I was here and we gave him the money and he jumped right back over." After that they extended it closer to the ceiling.

But on most days the little window by the cash register is open anyway, to keep the face-to-face interactions going. "It's a lot of fun down here interacting with the customers, and having those people that come in — ‘Hey, how you doing?' We talk to them in the morning," Jon says. "It's nice."


When he was
younger, Jon didn't really want to be part of the family business, but sometimes worked at the shop while in high school. He joined the Navy after graduation to see the world. He got more than he bargained for — 9/11 happened and he was sent to Afghanistan, Iraq and North Korea. "You get stationed on a ship and then all of a sudden all that stuff happens. You don't really know that's what you're signing up for."

Once home, he went to work at the shop, and gained an appreciation for it. "At that point, I wasn't really ready to work here," he says. "I wanted something else. But now the family, I get the reason why Dad's been here so long and why they started it."

Jon prides himself in treating his job as a craft, taking time with each batch. "Business has really picked up because he makes them better," Gene says. "He's really concentrating on making a good doughnut. You think you're good right away and you can learn it in a little while, but then to really get it to where everything is looking really good all the time, that's a real trick."

He and his dad make most of each day's doughnuts. Each specializes in different kinds — Jon makes rising donuts, the airy kind; Gene makes thick, cake ones. They make a couple dozen flavors between them.

They're a close family, living and working together, even creating batches of homemade Dutch Girl silkscreen T-shirts in their basement. "We don't have to have a shop meeting really, 'cause we can just have dinner," Jon says. "The downside is dinner is usually doughnut-related. Not food-wise, but conversation, they'll be talking about the doughnut shop."

Just about everything at Dutch Girl is old-fashioned, a continuation of a tradition, like the original recipes they use, like passing the business from father to son to grandson, like staying behind in a city that most people fled. Even the wall-size windows are a throwback in a town full of stores with glass block and iron bars where unprotected windows used to be.

Maintaining and carrying on that history means something to this family. "This whole place, my dad used to stand there," Gene says, pointing to the table where the doughnuts are formed in front of the big window, where his son leans over, making another batch. "And I stand in the same spot. I think that's really neat."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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