BY KEN THOMPSON
PHOTO BY CHRISTINE PETKOV
In a region that has more than its share of locally owned restaurants competing with national chains, it should be no surprise that Greater Lafayette has a mixture of long-time favorite donut shops, two others on the way to earning that status and a newcomer that is growing its clientele.
Mary Lou Donuts
Mary Lou Donuts opened for business in 1961, but the only thing about it that feels close to its age is its mid-century modern A-frame building on South Fourth Street.
That’s because owner Jeff Waldon is always thinking about the future while making the most of the present. What did Waldon see when he purchased Mary Lou’s in 2017?
“That it could be bigger than that little A-frame on Fourth Street,” says Waldon, a former teacher and Lafayette Jeff girls basketball coach. “The people who came before me – Mary Lou Graves, Keith Cochran and especially Brian Freed, who spent 37 years of his life there – 27 years as owner, 10 as a worker. They made that place. All we needed to do was not screw that up.”
Waldon and his son, Courtney, made sure of that by sticking to what makes Mary Lou’s so popular. They make their own glaze, whipped cream filling and icing.
“It’s a fresher product,” Waldon says. “The more you can make it like home-made, the better it’s going to be.”
COVID-19 affected Mary Lou’s like it has virtually every business in the United States. Closing time is now at 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Mary Lou’s is closed Sundays, and that will remain in effect even when the pandemic guidelines are rolled back.
Mary Lou’s counter remains closed but the drive-thru is doing good business. Even the regulars have found a way to enjoy their coffee and donuts.
“I used to have a 9 o’clock group, a 10:30 group and I had my 1 o’clock guys, motorcycle riders who would come by and eat every day,” Waldon says. “My 4 o’clock group that was there until we closed, and we usually had to kick them out at 5, now some of those people are coming in the morning and sitting in their lawn chairs in the parking lot.”
One of Waldon’s innovations – the food truck – also has been mostly sidelined by COVID-19. The good news is he’s getting ready to roll it back out this fall in smaller communities.
When the food truck hits the road, demand will be high for Mary Lou’s apple fritter.
“It’s the best one ever, anywhere,” Waldon says. “No one makes one like it anywhere.”
Like elsewhere across the country, the glazed yeast donut is popular. So is Mary Lou’s blueberry cake donut. Waldon looks forward to when he can reopen the front doors so he can sell more iced sugar cookies and cut-out iced cookies. Waldon boasts of having sold 15,000 cut-out cookies at Christmas.
“We just started doing blueberry muffins, chocolate, chocolate chip and banana nut chocolate chip,” he says. “Not everybody loves donuts and when you get something for the family, we want to make sure everybody gets something.”
Mary Lou’s will get a boost when the Big Ten Network airs its third season of “Campus Eats.” The production team spent the weekend of Sept. 12 at Mary Lou’s.
If Waldon gets the chance, here’s the message he’d like to send to Big Ten country.
“Wherever you came from, you probably had a favorite donut. And if it’s unfortunate enough to have been one of the big chain donuts, you really missed out. If you have a favorite hometown donut, you are going to go to (Mary Lou’s) and you’re going to forget about all those other places. The thing about our product—and I hear it over and over and over again—is that people will say I’ve never had another donut like this anywhere. The taste, the texture, the size of donut I get, the quality and the price, it’s ridiculous.”
This mainstay of downtown Lafayette has been around since the 1920s when William O’Rear opened the bakery. O’Rear’s moved to its current location, 312 N. Ninth St., in 1957.
Greg and Judy Lintner have owned O’Rear’s since 2005, coming from a family that owned a bakery in Rensselaer for 47 years.
“When we came from Rensselaer … we were more of a breakfast roll and cake bakery but we did everything: cookies, brownies, pies,” Greg Lintner says. “You name it, we did it, just like here. The only difference is we do a few rolls compared to a ton of rolls we did in Rensselaer. We are more of a pastry shop with all our cookies, cupcakes and brownies. I like it a lot better.”
Lintner admits that competing with the likes of Mary Lou and Corlew Donuts is difficult since donuts are “90-some percent of their business.”
“Whereas when you come in here you see just a few pans of donuts we make,” he says. “Sometimes what’s so frustrating is you make six or seven pans and sell three. The next day you sell them out and customers ask where are your donuts.
“My mother and father told me from the get-go when I first got into the business, if you can figure out the American public, you have done something that we have not done yet. You don’t know from one day to the next who is coming through that door.”
When customers do come in to O’Rear’s, they ask for pastries, cupcakes, cut-out cookies and regular cookies. Two big sellers are the butter stars and tea cookies.
“Judy makes those two or three times a week,” Lintner says. “She’ll always tell me, ‘You’re not going to believe this but we have to make tea cookies again.’ Just to show you the difference between Rensselaer and here: the red star cookies that we do are a staple here. In Rensselaer, it was strictly a holiday cookie.
In addition to closing six days a week at 1 p.m. (O’Rear’s is closed on Mondays), COVID-19 has affected business. With the churches being closed in the early days of the pandemic due to Indiana’s stay-at-home mandate, Sundays were no longer one of O’Rear’s most profitable days.
But a couple of positives did come out of the COVID-19 regulations.
“Since coming back now, our cakes are even fresher than they used to be,” Lintner says. “Now we make smaller batches, so they are even fresher and more moist.”
O’Rear’s also changed the way it displays its baked goods.
“One good thing that’s immensely helped is everything is now packaged,” Lintner explains. “Whereas before people almost frowned on the fact that it was packaged. They wanted it from the pan, open aired. Now our shelf life has doubled or tripled because it stays fresher longer.”
The West Lafayette bakery gets the word out to Purdue University students and the public about its product mostly through social media platforms Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Owner Michael Cho, who started working at Hammer Donuts as a manager, says marketing was a lot easier before COVID-19 sent most of his clientele packing from Purdue housing.
“We lost a few orders due to the impact of this pandemic. We used to have weekly standing orders from a few churches and wedding orders from time to time. However, we are fortunate that we still have the order from Circle K convenience stores, which can keep our business running,” he says.
The seven Circle K Stores in West Lafayette are now the only places to buy Hammer donuts. The pandemic forced Hammer to alter its sales from retail to a store-to-store business.
Cho believes in the potential for Hammer Donuts’ growth, so much so that he says he decided to take a risk and take over when the previous owner, a partner of Discount Den, was selling it.
Popular items include filled donuts, glazed yeast donuts and cereal topping donuts.
“We are a local business and we try our best to keep everything local,” Cho says. “Our employees are mostly Purdue students. Almost all of them are inexperienced and for many of them, this was their first job. We taught and trained them how to make donuts from scratch.
“We often support student events by donating free donuts. We are a new and growing company, but we are always trying our best to give back to our community.”
Mama Ines Mexican Bakery
Rosa Cornejo is one of 10 children raised by Maria Ines Cornejo in the small village of Salazares Tlatenango in Zacatecas, Mexico.
There, Rosa Cornejo developed her personal philosophy of “everyone else’s ‘can’t’ is my “I can.’”
After moving to Lafayette and establishing herself in the community, Cornejo likely heard people saying “she can’t” when opening the bakery named after her mother.
What those doubters didn’t realize was that the decision to open a bakery was not made lightly. Rosa and her sister, Livier Alvarez, saw many Mexican restaurants in Greater Lafayette but not many bakers that were serving Mexican bread. That’s as much a staple in the Latino diet as donuts are to Americans.
From a modest beginning, a 1,000-square-foot location on Greenbush Street and Sagamore Parkway, Mama Ines made the big leap into an 11,000-square-foot building in 2014, once occupied by Ryan’s Grill, Buffet and Bakery.
Mama Ines’ authentic holiday Mexican fare of Day of the Dead bread and Sugar Skulls drew attention from the PBS show “A Few Great Bakeries” in 2015. In 2016, Cornejo was cited by the state of Indiana as the Latino Business Owner of the Year.
In addition to Mexican Sweet Bread, the bakery’s most popular items are tamales and burritos, cakes, flan and specialty desserts, cookies, fresh fruit and vegetable juices. Mama Ines also is proud of its wedding cakes, made with only fresh, all-natural ingredients.
Corlew Donut Co.
The apple fritter is also a popular item on the menu at Corlew Donut Co., which has been in business since 1999.
Debbie and Tom Corlew were among the first to see the potential for business along what is now Veterans Memorial Parkway. They’ve been rewarded with a loyal following that indulges in cinnamon rolls, tiger tails, cream-filled bismarcks and blueberry cake donuts.
Corlew Donut Co. is open Tuesday through Sunday from 5 to 11 a.m.