Top of the class

More than 1,300 miles and 1.5 million people separate the two distinctly different worlds of Manhattan, NY, (the Big Apple) and Manhattan, KS (the Little Apple), and yet for all its fame and fortune, New York City doesn’t boast even one place like Varsity Donuts. This gem of the Great Plains rests in the heart of a college town known for a rich agricultural tradition, and occupies an historic 85-year-old building that once was the town drug store where locals loved to go to grab a stool at the long marble counter and enjoy a grilled hamburger with a cherry phosphate. The building itself was fashioned after the old Palace Theater in New York City.

So when the partners of Varsity Donuts decided to renovate the old Palace Drug Store building in downtown Manhattan, they knew they wanted to hold on to the past while aiming for the future. Everything in their bakery would soon become a recurrent blend of nostalgia and innovation. The art deco floor tile would stay, as would the oak wood cases and a piece of the original marble counter. “This is all original wood and tile,” says Kevin Peirce, one of the six owners. “So many people love this building because it has a great history here. We want people to come in and enjoy the experience.”

The 3,000 sq ft building located in the heart of Aggieville, just blocks from the campus of Kansas State University (with total enrollment of 24,581) is now home to Varsity Donuts, which opened Sept. 22, 2011 to huge fanfare. Word had spread there was a new donut shop opening (Manhattan’s only donut shop had closed a few years earlier), and college students love their sweets. “We were shocked before we opened the first day to turn the corner at 3 a.m. and see people sitting in chairs outside our building and cheering every time we’d bring out another rack of donuts,” Peirce recalls with a smile.

More than a dozen fans had camped out overnight, and 60 people had lined up at the door when Varsity Donuts opened at 6 a.m. for their very first day of business.

What separates Varsity Donuts from other retail shops is what they did next to leverage the early hype into a steady stream of loyal customers, ensuring a successful business model down the road. How? They became an integral part of the community. For one, they invited local clubs to hold weekly events inside the bakery, which features a long wooden community table and plenty of booths along the walls. Now, the local ping pong club holds court every Monday night. Other regulars include the “Sunday Night Knitters” and the French club, as well as regular scrabble tournaments and Jenga games throughout the week. “A lot of student groups study in here,” Peirce says. “We do a lot of different things to keep people in the bakery. It helps build community.”

The food truck

On weekends, the party really starts to roll when Varsity Donuts opens the window of its food truck parked right in back of the building. From 10 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., the bakery closes and the food truck window opens for business, selling $1 glazed donuts, $2 hand-dipped corn dogs, $3 bacon bombs (a decadent bacon fritter drizzled with maple glaze and topped with bacon crumbles) and $4 Mac ‘N Cheese Grilled Cheese Sandwiches (cheesy noodles topped with jack and cheddar and layered between two slices of grilled buttery bread).

The bacon bomb is a particular crowd favorite, as is the Mac ‘N Cheese Grilled Cheese, which customers can make even more decadent by adding two slices of bacon for $1 — “and most people do,” Peirce says. “For the bar crowd, we needed to offer something savory. We try to make it a fun atmosphere back there. The line often gets crazy.”

The reason behind the food truck out back is that Varsity Donuts’ owners knew that it would take a major investment to install a fryer hood in the bakery’s production room, so they decided from the start to fry all of their donuts in an old food truck and park it in back of the building. They still tag the truck every year, as required, but it never moves. They built a patio around the truck in the summer of 2012 to accommodate the late night crowds in Aggieville.

To add to the festiveness, there’s a projector mounted on the dashboard of the food truck to play cartoons and YouTube videos on the brick wall of the building next door, and they hold corn dog eating contests and other fun events through the night. 

Fans of Varsity Donuts can be seen scribbling their names on the outside of the white food truck, where you’ll also find stickers attached that promote the bakery’s favorite Tweets. “Leah (Hyman, one of Varsity’s six partners) does a great job with Twitter and Facebook,” Peirce says. “We make stickers of our favorite Tweets from fans and slap ‘em on the truck. We don’t do traditional marketing. We promote a lot of events and new donut flavors through social media. Facebook and Twitter have been our biggest allies.”

Fun flavors and more

Varsity Donuts doesn’t just make donuts; they create them. There are several shaped in squares in creative names like the Flat Tire (with crushed Oreos on top), paying homage to their bicycle theme. The Party Girl is a perky raised donut with pink frosting. And the shop is perhaps best known for the Maple Bacon Bar, which is part of the varsity lineup of donuts that sell for $2.89 apiece.

Varsity Donuts offers about 20 varieties of donuts each day, and rotates in seasonal varieties like S’mores from October through January. There are three tiers of prices: 89 cents apiece for Classic, $1.39 for JV, and $2.89 for Varsity.

The bakery even features its own donut characters: Otis and Opal. Otis is the name of their classic yeast donut, and Opal is their signature cake donut. 

“Kids will come in for parties where we show them how to decorate donuts,” Peirce says. “We do a lot of great marketing. We sell merchandise that is very popular — mugs, Frisbees, T-shirts. Some of our partners have a T-shirt print shop, and we give a lot of T-shirts away.”

A unique partnership

There are six partners involved in Varsity Donuts, and each brings unique expertise to their roles. They are a group of friends, first and foremost, and they are savvy business owners and managers with years of experience on the Aggieville scene.

Diane Meredith and David Sauter own and operate The Dusty Bookshelf, Acme Gift (a florist and gift shop) and Thread (a made-to-order T-shirt print shop). Peirce owns Bluestem Bistro, right around the corner from Varsity Donuts, a bistro and bakery that specializes in scratch-made pizzas, salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes. Tanner Pieschl is the store manager of Thread, and Leah Hyman manages social media and marketing at Varsity Donuts. The sixth partner, Jeremy Corn, is known affectionately as the “bike guy.” He collects vintage bicycles, and one of his favorites is the Schwinn Varsity, a classic during the 1960s and ‘70s.

Bicycles are a valuable spoke in the wheel at Varsity Donuts, which offers restored vintage bicycles, both single and tandem style, for customers to rent for by the hour, afternoon or entire day. “People rent tandem bikes and pedal down to the park for a picnic with our donuts,” Peirce says. “We also hold a birthday bike ride every year on our birthday, and we co-sponsor a 5K run in the winter with two donut stops along the way.”

The message comes across this way: Engage in healthy activities, but enjoy a delicious donut for a special treat any time of day. 

Bicycle themes play heavily in the decorating scheme of the bakery, which features unique lights designed like a small bike wheel on the bottom of each hanging fixture with a larger wheel above. There’s a vintage red Hedstrom kids’ bike parked on top of a wooden cabinet along one wall. Finally, “Ask about bicycle rentals” is written on a large chalkboard behind the donut racks at the sales counter.

As mentioned previously, Varsity Donuts was originally home to The Palace Drugstore, which operated during an era when drugstores were gathering places for the neighborhood. Varsity Donuts aims to retain what Meredith describes as a “community clubhouse” vibe.

As explained on the Varsity Donuts blog site (varsitydonuts.blog.com), the partners in the business wanted to recapture the magic of those years.

“An important part of the decision to open our donut shop at 704 N. Manhattan Ave. was the opportunity to help preserve the historic building located there. Like us, many members of the Manhattan, KS, community have a soft spot for the beautiful building, and for good reason. The intricate details poured into it make it easy to picture the shop back in its drugstore and soda fountain days, maintaining a distinct nostalgic presence for those that grew up spending time there.  After doing a little research at the Riley County Historical Society, we became even more attached to it.  Here’s what we learned.

“Back in the late 19th century, the business district that we call home was nothing but a muddy little field the college students trudged through on their way to the downtown shopping area on Poyntz Ave. By 1900, some clever shop owners had expressed collective interest in creating a business district specifically for appeasing the weary students, and Aggieville was born. A few years later, there were around 25 businesses in the district, and Aggieville had established itself as an important part of Manhattan. In 1929, brothers Forrest and Harold Forrester (yep, Forrest Forrester) decided to capitalize on the booming Aggieville area by building an additional branch of their Palace Drugstore (originally located on Poyntz Ave.) at 704 N. Manhattan. The impressive stained glass window once graced the front of the shop — a green, gold, and amber pattern, the glass was certainly the focal point of the building’s façade.
 
“Thanks to the merchants who have occupied 704 N. Manhattan throughout the years, elements of the original building remain intact. You’ll walk across the hand-laid mosaic tile floor, and you’ll sit on an original stool with your elbows propped up on the same marble counter that once faced the soda fountain. The walls are still lined with incredibly detailed woodwork, and if you sit in the old wooden booths, you might happen upon a surprising dose of history: the undersides of the tables are still coated with gum tacked there by wise-guy high schoolers trying to impress their dates. Think poodle skirts, jukeboxes, and milkshakes, and gum. Historically significant gum.”