Family of regulars teams up to revive local donut shop

A 5 a.m. regular since 1973, Frank Childress looks out the window. Donut King reopened in March 2018.
Photo by Kayla Drake

KAYLA DRAKE | Multimedia Producer

Donut King still looks the same, but after almost 50 years, the St. Charles establishment has a new owner.

Wayne Hetzler and his daughter Alissa Thoenen, who claim Donut King has the only Dutch crumb donut worth saving, took over the shop after the previous owners decided to retire last winter.

Thoenen grew up eating donuts from the old-fashioned shop. Hetzler, a retired technician representative from Boeing, went to Donut King every Saturday.

His usual? A “twisted sister,” “Dutch bum” and “chimichanga,” – Hetzler’s nicknames for the cinnamon twist, Dutch crumb and chop suey donuts.

One Saturday, Hetzler said he pulled up to the small brick storefront off West Clay and found a closed sign, but this time the place was closed for good.

If you squint, you can read “Chuck” on the chef’s hat on the yellowed sign, a tribute to the original owner.
Photo by Kayla Drake

Hetzler said he kept an eye on the shop until one day he saw the lights on.

Dennis Gerdes, the owner’s son, was there, and Hetzler talked to him for four hours. Gerdes showed him the entire donut-making process, and Hetzler said he was hooked.

Hetzler offered to buy the shop, and he promised Gerdes and his mother, Janet, he would keep everything as is. The only condition was that Dennis Gerdes, who has been making donuts since he was 5, had to teach others the art of donut-making.

Hetzler partnered with his daughter, a school principal, and son-in-law Paul Thoenen, who had been working as a cook at a steakhouse. She wrote a business plan in two days, including graphs, demographics, competition, pricing and the offer. The Gerdes family agreed to sell.

On the menu

The menu of Donut King, like it’s decor, is simple, no fuss.

The shop’s most popular donut is called the chop suey, which is a combination of donut holes, scraps of other donuts and cinnamon, smeared with icing. They cost $1.05 a piece, but everything at Donut King is under $2.

“We’re just really proud to have brought it back to St. Charles after it closed down,” Alissa Thoenen said.

The shop’s chop suey donut was recognized by St. Louis Magazine as being the best in the area.
Photo by Kayla Drake

She said St. Charles is a really good model and community for supporting local businesses.

“There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts right up the road, but people come here because it’s the Donut King and it’s personal,” she said. “They know us, we’re out in the community, my kids go to the schools; I think it just builds better community.”

Hetzler handed the shop over to the Thoenens soon after it opened, demoting himself to the “Duke of Donuts,” after Paul proved himself to be a capable donut maker.

Mom-and-pop shops are often known for their regulars, and Donut King is no different. Paul Thoenen said he has the same customers come in at 5, 6 and 8 every morning.

One of these is “The Liar’s Club,” a group of retired men that have been coming to Donut King at exactly 5 a.m. since 1973. There’s no initiation besides waking up before dawn and having a sweet tooth.

“If you tell a lie and correct it within five minutes, it’s not a lie,” Frank Childress, a retired plumber, joked.

Bill Faulker (center), a member of The Liar’s Club, cracks a joke. Stephen Ferguson (right) listens with the rest of the guys in between sips of his black coffee.
Photo by Kayla Drake

When the Thoenens first opened Donut King, they did not advertise to the community.

Instead, they hired back Julie Posler, a former counter girl, and she called the Liar’s Club.

The morning of opening, people were streaming in. Customers saw the open sign from the road, and neighbors behind the shop smelled the crispy fryer oil in the air, as if waiting for a cue, Alissa Thoenen said.

The shop was sold out of donuts by 9 a.m.

Paul Thoenen and the longtime Donut King cook Gerdes, come in Tuesday through Sunday between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. to start making donuts. Then the glazing starts at 3 a.m.

“If you get out of your car at 4 a.m., it’s all you smell, is donuts,” Thoenen said.

The shifts don’t bother Thoenen because he said he has worked as a cook a long time, and he is used to odd hours.

“Food’s food,” he said. “For me if I can get a recipe I can pretty much knock it out.”

Donuts take three hours to cook, no matter the size of the order, which was an adjustment for Thoenen. That is why when the shelves are sold out, the shop closes.

“We can make cake donuts pretty quick, but who wants a cake donut?” he said.

If donuts are leftover, the Thoenens donate boxes to retirement homes, church groups and local non-profits.

The couple has added a blueberry donut special on the weekend, and brought the shop into the 21st century by accepting credit cards and engaging with customers on Facebook and Instagram.

Paul Thoenen sips on coffee, waiting for customers at 5 a.m.
Photo by Kayla Drake

The shop is open from 5 a.m. to 12 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and is closed on Mondays and on holidays.

The shop also attracts customers for its nut-free and homemade recipes. The shop is completely nut-free and makes its custard and filling from scratch.

Hetzler said owning Donut King has brought Paul, typically a more reserved personality, out of his shell.

“This is the best thing that has ever happened to him because now he’s outgoing and he feels confident in himself and he knows he’s doing something to help people,” Hetzler said.

The Thoenen’s 14-year-old daughter usually helps out on the weekends. At first they said their 9-year-old was embarrassed to tell people her parents owned the Donut King.

“Then she realized that everyone loved Donut King,” Alissa Thoenen said.

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About Kayla Drake 114 Articles
Kayla is our multimedia producer, so basically all things video and podcasts. She prefers to cover human interest stories because she believes we learn best by hearing personal testimonies of grief, passion, tribulation and activism. When Kayla is not editing or writing, most likely she is either hiking or eating. And by eating she doesn’t mean fast food, college grub, but the St. Louis restaurant scene (which is to die for). She is a proud St. Louisan and is passionate about being a part in the city's redemption. Look for the girl with the stickered out water bottle on campus and say hi.

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