I come from a family of dictators when it comes to donuts. They have to be yummy, fresh, and still warm, or we start looking around for the thumbscrews. Much to my mother’s hand-waving frustration when I was little, my father would often load me into the car in my jammies to go on a 9 p.m. donut run. He knew that the local bakers had donuts coming out of the oven at that hour, and that’s when they’d taste the best. Only recently did I learn that he came by his fetish from experience, as a youthful employee of the old Dixie Cream Donuts shop in downtown Austin.
These days, Texas donut aficionados find yeasty heaven at Round Rock Donuts, located just under the landmark silver water tower in Round Rock, north of Austin. Since 1926, the famous “orange donuts” have rolled out of the bakery by the dozens. Thanks to the Internet-based shipper Doughnuts Overnight, they’re enjoyed throughout the lower 48 states.
But are they really orange? Well, sort of. Dale Cohrs, who owns the shop with his wife, Jan, says that in the old days, the distinctive golden-orange tint came from the richly-colored yolks of farm-fresh eggs. “In fact,” says Dale, “sometimes they used duck eggs, which made them even more orange-y because of those big yolks. These days we use regular eggs and put a little tint in there, since people now expect that orange color.
“People are rabid about their donuts,” he continues. “They write letters to the Round Rock Leader about them, and people would take it personally if we didn’t maintain our quality. Our shop is like a shrine to a lot of people. We also want to make it fun to come here.”
Dale and some of his staff regale me with stories of customers’ pilgrimages to the donut shrine. “Did you tell her about the time that the hearse pulled up to the take-out window?” asks office manager Linda Kohl. “The driver said the guy in the back had made a final request to be buried with a dozen Round Rock Donuts.”
“And how about the woman in labor?” Dale said with a laugh. “She got some to go! Then there’s the couple who own a car dealership in the UK, but when they come to Austin to visit relatives, they always come here to get donuts. Another lady came in after staying in a local hotel; she said she was told to bring boxes and boxes with her back to Laredo.”
The bakery has quite a lineage. It was founded in 1926 by the Moehring family as Lone Star Bakery, and was originally on Main Street in downtown Round Rock. It then moved a few blocks over to the current West Liberty Avenue location. A devastating fire in 2001 leveled the first West Liberty building.
“Of course we had to rebuild,” says Dale, “but we wanted to give the new structure a ‘Round Rock’ look, like it had always been here.” They succeeded—the handsome establishment is built with traditional limestone, a tin roof, and soaring ceilings. The bakery’s decor and pastry boxes feature a lasso-waving cowboy mascot named “Donut Joe” riding “Glaze,” a sort of hybrid horse/Longhorn with a round shape that’s suspiciously similar to a donut’s.
Dale and Jan spend very little money on advertising; new fans discover the shop by word of mouth, including Internet food forums like Roadfood.com and Chow.com. Both the Food Network and the Travel Channel recently featured the bakery.
At 10 minutes to nine on a Sunday morning, there are 12 cars and trucks in the drive-through, with manager Polo Garcia walking down the line taking orders to give the staff inside a head start. There are motorcyclists, grandmothers with kids, construction workers, and people apparently dressed for church. It can be a demolition derby in the small parking lot if you aren’t careful.
One patron walked inside, saw the line of nine people and said, “Guess I ought to go to H-E-B,” but after some more harrumphing, he took a place in line. Good things come to those who wait.
It’s somewhat less crazed at 1:00 in the afternoon on a typical Wednesday—only three vehicles are in the drive-through and five people are lined up inside. But some of those could be large orders.
How many large orders are there? There’s a sign on the checkout counter that says, “Do you spend more than $40 a month at Round Rock Donuts? Ask about our House Account.” That’s a lot of donuts.
Round Rock Donuts opens at 4 a.m. They don’t just start cooking then; they actually open. Who in the world is coherent enough in the wee hours to drive over and get donuts? It turns out that even then, customers come through at a pretty healthy clip—newspaper-delivery people, shift workers, hunters, fishermen, and the early workers for companies on staggered hours. They all have the munchies, and not just for donuts. The bakery offers other items, too, like apple fritters, muffins, cinnamon rolls, and sausage wraps.
The bakery is also known for its trademark cookies with seasonal shapes, hand-iced decorations, and delicate teacake flavor. Former UT women’s basketball coach Jody Conradt always orders the oatmeal cookies. Customers can even bring in their own cookie cutters if they want a certain shape for a custom order.
But it is the vintage 14-burner gas oven called “Big Bertha,” a transplant from the original Main Street location now enthroned in the back of the bakery, that gives those cookies their perfect consistency. The old gal seems to delight in confounding new employees; they have to learn its 1920s quirks before they can re-create the magical crusty-cookie alchemy for which the bakery is famous. There is no thermometer, only a single control valve to turn the burner flames up and down as the flat shelf racks rotate inside the drum. It’s a very hot pastry Ferris wheel. Bakers have to learn to work by touch and feel, and humidity varies the baking time.
The bakery also specializes in imaginative cakes for all occasions, using the bakery’s own cake and icing recipes. An antique wooden display case shows off the variety, including a pizza cake. “People often order it to have something unusual for a teenager’s birthday party,” says Linda Kohl. “The icing is made to look just like grated cheese and onions.”
The shelves in the cake-decorating room are stacked to the ceiling with styling kits for every theme, movie, and sport you can imagine, plus a few you probably wouldn’t expect—the bakery’s “Macho Man” and “Sexy Sue” cakes are popular for bachelor or bachelorette parties.
Betty Adams has been a fan of the bakery since 1994, when she started working at nearby Dell Computer Corporation. Today she is CEO Michael Dell’s receptionist, the perfect job for enticing others to investigate Round Rock Donuts.
“These are excellent donuts,” says Betty. “Whenever I get a big order for a meeting at work, I get a box for myself, too. I’ll spend the calories for these donuts.”
Betty’s not alone—people from all over get their donut fix from Round Rock Donuts, even people from nearby Austin, which has its share of donut shops. Dale Cohrs says that in this case, Round Rock cuisine refuses to take a back seat to that of its Austin neighbor. There are bragging rights at stake, after all.
“Our donuts have been a tradition here for more than 80 years,” says Dale. “People expect them to stay the same, and we don’t disappoint them. Today you can still walk in and get donuts with the exact same taste that your grandparents enjoyed.”