- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2002

When is a doughnut a historical object? When it's on display at the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian Associates' presentation of "Krispy Kreme: Taking a Bite out of American History" at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at the National Museum of American History says something about what Americans consider to be national icons.

In short, their food.

Local vocalist Cindy Hutchins will sing an aria with such lyrics as "Who made the doughtnut with the hole in the middle? How it got there will always be a riddle." Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corp. President and Chief Executive Scott Livengood will have his say, and the event will be topped by a feast of the snack of honor.

"Krispy Kreme is very much a part of our American history and it's not often you get to eat some of your history," Smithsonian program coordinator Mike Lythgoe says. As for equating Krispy Kreme to drive-ins and '50s cars, "there is something nostalgic as well as contemporary about it. At a time when we are looking for comfort food, the doughnuts and coffee bring us this comfort."

Krispy Kremes are sold in 20 varieties, whereas the chief competitor, Dunkin' Donuts, comes in 52. Founded in 1950 in Quincy, Mass., Dunkin' Donuts sells 2.3 billion doughnuts per year worldwide.

"We are in a different business than Krispy Kreme a coffee and doughnut market" says Ken Kimmel, vice president of marketing for Dunkin' Donuts Co. "We fill the need of the morning start to the day."

Not everyone is impressed: "Dunkin' Donuts has strayed so far from what doughnuts are all about," says Paul Fucito, media relations specialist at George Washington University Law School. "Krispy Kreme is all about the doughnut, the hot, fresh, crispy on the outside, soft-on-the inside doughnut."

Americans are weighing in on the doughnut debate, and early results in an online poll sponsored by Business 2.0 magazine reveal that Dunkin' Donuts is the favorite, earning 52 percent of the vote.

Mainly a Southern phenomenon until the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based company began expanding nationwide five years ago, Krispy Kreme even was hawked on the streets of Salt Lake City during the Olympics.

"It's about the experience: good times and warm memories," says Stan Parker, vice president of marketing for Krispy Kreme. He receives more than 6,000 Krispy Kreme testimonials a month via e-mail, ensuring a cult following.

"People will camp out at new store openings," he says. At a Denver store opening in March 2001, he said, two women flew in from Germany to experience Krispy Kremes for themselves.

The retro logo and catchy name also help the doughnut retain its '50s-era nostalgia, but some scholars say it has a long way to go before reaching cultural-icon status.

"A longer and broader history is needed," says Eugene Fram, professor of marketing at the Rochester Institute of Technology's College of Business. "I don't think the verdict is in or will be for one to two more decades.

"Although Krispy Kreme has been a regional product for a long time, its test as a national phenomenon is just being developed," he says. "In my opinion, it has a long way to go before it can be called a national icon."

Mr. Parker responds by saying the 65-year-old company has proved its staying power over and over again and that his company is more of a "taste treat" corporation rather than one aiming itself at the breakfast-food market.

The Krispy Kreme story began in 1933 when founder Vernon Rudolph bought a doughnut shop and a handwritten secret recipe in Paducah, Ky. The family wholesale-doughnut business prospered, but Mr. Rudolph was looking for a larger market. He and two of his friends set out in a 1936 Pontiac with $200 in hand in July 1937 and eventually settled in Winston-Salem.

The first Krispy Kreme doughnuts were made on July 13, 1937, and sold two for 5 cents or 25 cents per dozen. At this time the business was wholesale, but the demand was so great that Mr. Rudolph cut a hole in the shop's wall so he could sell the doughnuts retail. This innovation was the beginning of Krispy Kreme's drive-through window service.

In 1946, a mix plant was built to ensure product uniformity. After World War II, Mr. Rudolph began to pursue the automated production process.

"If you grew up in the South, there is a good chance that you either sold or bought some through a fund-raiser," Mr. Parker says. Krispy Kreme's Mr. Livengood remembers selling boxes of doughnuts in high school.

Mr. Rudolph died in 1973 and the company was sold to Beatrice Foods Inc., a large food-service business that brought many changes to Krispy Kreme, including an attempt at doughnut outlet restaurants. "The Beatrice years were not successful," Mr. Parker says.

Former employees bought back Krispy Kreme in the 1980s, but debt limited the company's expansion beyond the Southeast.

"It could be that the only thing that separates the doughnut chains for me is my memories," says Karen Carter, director of public affairs at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, a transplanted Southerner who recalls her family tradition of Sunday morning treks to Krispy Kreme.

In the late 1980s, the company found that the idea of hot, fresh doughnuts resonated with customers. Krispy Kreme redesigned stores and showcased the production process for customers, creating "a doughnut theater." Neon-red "hot now" signs announced to passersby when they were assured a fresh doughnut was coming off the line.

By the mid-1990s, Krispy Kreme had expanded successfully to the Midwest and New York City. It officially became a coast-to-coast operation on Jan. 26, 1999, when it opened a store in La Habra, Calif. Its first international location opened in Ontario, Canada, on Dec. 11.

Today, Krispy Kreme has 217 shops in 33 states, compared with Dunkin Donuts' 5,000 stores in 39 states and 37 countries. Krispy Kreme's doughnuts also are sold wholesale in supermarkets and convenience stores.

"We hope to have more stores outside the United States in the next 18 months," Mr. Parker says.

"They're too sweet for my taste," says one Atlanta native, recalling his days selling Krispy Kremes to raise money for his football team, "but they are just part of the culture."

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