Thursday, February 16th, 2012
Just past midnight, 82-year-old Frank Whigham and his wife, Champa, head to their Bennett Valley bakery, The Donut Cafe, to cook up hundreds of donuts, fritters, Danish and (best of all) cinnamon twists for the next morning.
It’s grueling work — the shop opens at 5am and the couple usually work until around 4pm, getting in a few hours sleep before starting the whole process again the next day. The payoff: Donuts so good even local cardiologists are known to come in for a few.
“We have a lot of doctors,” said Whigham, grinning. Along with early morning laborers, construction workers, then school children, the mid-morning business folks and coffee-sipping crowd and the later lunchtime nibblers, there’s a steady stream of folks walking out with pink boxes or just sitting around the tables having coffee and donuts.
Suffice to say Whigham’s built up a loyal following in the four years since opening in Santa Rosa. But fans know to come early, because his popular twists tend to run out early.
“We do everything the old fashioned way,” said Whigham, who’s a stickler for details like using real pastry cream, jellies and from-scratch ingredients. Including real cinnamon for his crispy twists.
Whigham’s been in the biz since he was 9, learning the trade in his uncle’s Georgia bakery. “I also learned to drive in Georgia,” he says with just a hint of his southern twang, “My uncles were moonshiners.” In San Francisco, he joined the baker’s union (illegally) at 15, was busted and sent back to school, and eventually ended up with 5 bakeries in Daly City. If you get him going, he’ll gladly tell you about a lifetime of adventures — from playing with Confederate dollars as a kid to teaching donut making in Saudi Arabia.
And in a place and time where sugary, glutenous, calorie-laden treats have almost become verboten, it’s refreshing to find a little corner of the world where old-fashioned morning pastries are still made — and accepted — with love. “I never get tired of donuts. I still eat five or six a day,” said the octogenarian.
Maybe there’s something to enjoying a little sweetness in life — in moderation of course. You can ask the doctors walking out with a bear claw or jelly donut the next time you’re there.
Donut Cafe: 4275 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa, 539-2416.