BY KATHY MATTER
PHOTOS BY CHRISTINE PETKOV
In bright pink script neon, high on the wall of Mary Lou Donuts’ new eastside Lafayette flagship store, four words say it all:
Eat more hole foods
In the friendly but competitive world of donut baking in Greater Lafayette everyone — from Cassidy Kitchel, who makes gluten-free and vegan donuts at Rose Market in downtown Lafayette to Debbie and Tom Corlew, who quietly run the area’s second oldest, and very traditional, donut shop on Veterans Memorial Parkway — agrees on that adage.
While donuts of varying types, and freshness, can be found in pretty much every gas station, convenience store and food market plus national donut chains, area pastry lovers loyally seek out and abundantly support the Corlew Donut Company, Hammer Donuts, Mary Lou Donuts and Rose Market in Lafayette and The Homestead in West Lafayette.
Chances are good there’s at least one name on this list you’ve never heard of, so let’s meet these folks. And when you’re done reading this, put these stops on your morning calendar. Nothing tastes better than donuts and cider in the fall!
Stop 1: Corlew Donut Company
Make this stop one because while you’re on the southside you can also pick up cider at locally owned Wea Creek Orchard, 5618 S. 200 East.
Tom Corlew, the shy baking genius behind the donuts here, prefers for his wife, Debbie, to do the talking. You might be shy too if you spent every night, six nights a week from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. by yourself making donuts.
“He’s 65 and started baking as a teenager. It’s all he’s ever done,” Debbie says. Originally, he worked for Payless in Anderson as a baker, then was asked to move to Lafayette to manage baking production at Payless stores here. “It’s a lot of hard work. You’ve got to know what you’re doing. Donut baking is a skill,” she says.
In 1999 Tom and Debbie decided to open their own southside Lafayette bakery. They’ve never advertised, but word of mouth brings in a steady stream of people. “Our donuts speak for themselves,” says Debbie. “The southside is booming and our business just keeps getting bigger.
“Our donuts are fresh every day. We don’t sell day-old donuts and we never freeze them. You can’t freeze donuts and make them taste good.”
Every night anywhere from 70 to 140 dozen donuts and pastries roll out of Tom’s kitchen. Weekends draw the most customers through the doors of this true mom and pop operation. Debbie, Tom and son Thomas do it all. After most of the donuts are baked, Debbie comes in at 3:30 a.m. to fill and ice them. Thomas makes the icing and glazes the super light yeast rings.
Besides the quintessential glazed yeast ring, best sellers at Corlew include tiger tails, long johns, apple fritters and jelly Bismarcks. With their mandate to bake fresh daily, “we can’t have all those weird, different donuts that we’d just have to throw away. We just go with what’s popular,” Debbie says.
Corlew Donut Company is open 5 to 11 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Look for them next to the Arco gas station on the corner of 18th and Veterans Memorial Parkway.
Stop 2: Hammer Donuts
If you’re looking for crazy, whimsical donuts, look no further than Hammer Donuts, which got its start in the now defunct Discount Den on Purdue’s campus five years ago but, since January, scents the air on Lafayette’s Main Street.
And, no, the owner’s name is not Hammer, as is often asked. Think “Boiler Up! Hammer Down!” and you’ve got it. The Taiwanese owners, Michael Cho and Cecilia Chiu, majored in engineering at Purdue, moonlighting in donut making.
In October 2017 an ambitious Purdue student, Tate Schienbein, taught himself to make donuts, built a team and started selling donuts to Purdue students through the Discount Den on campus. Michael joined as a donut chef a year later, later adding the title of general manager. A sugary tangle of circumstances iced by COVID issues nearly put the fledgling business out of business until Michael and Cecilia took a leap of faith and rented the space abandoned by Kathy’s Kandies.
On any given day you might find an elegant crème brulee donut or a kid-friendly Lucky Charms donut looking back at you from the glass case. For Valentine’s Day baker Cho and his staff painstakingly hand-cut donuts into hearts, and at the holidays they’ll carve out a handful of Christmas shapes and decorate them with multicolored icing. Have a special occasion, like a gender reveal, you want a donut for? They are your bakers.
Hopping across the river brought unexpected challenges. Temperatures and humidity levels in the kitchen demand constant watching in the donut making process, Cecilia says. “It was the biggest struggle; even the change of water made a big difference. A wider range of temperatures was OK in our West Lafayette location but we had to be more specific in Lafayette. We had to figure a lot out.”
As engineers they were data driven, and in the end data saved them, nudging changes in mixing times and frying temperatures, among others. They held onto their contract to provide donuts to Circle K gas stations, some campus locations and a lot of churches. “Right now, we’re geared to wholesale and that makes us stable,” Cecilia says, while they build up their walk-in business.
During the week the glass case is filled with more traditional choices. Years of appealing to adventurous college students plays out in the cases on Fridays and Saturdays when you’ll find marvels of modern donut making such as blueberry cheesecake donuts, lemon pie donuts, Samoa donuts inspired by Girl Scout cookies, S’more donuts with a marshmallow in the hole or Voo Doo donuts, which have to be seen to be appreciated.
Hammer Donuts is located at 611 Main St., Lafayette. Hours: 6 a.m.- 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday.
Stop 3: Mary Lou Donuts
Mary Lou Donuts opened the doors of its tiny A-frame bakery restaurant on South Fourth street in 1961. In the 61 years since, four different owners have opened new chapters in the venerable business.
Give Mary Lou and Stu Graves, who also operated Graves Bakery on the West Lafayette Levee, credit for originating the iconic Lafayette business. They gave the store its name and its donut recipes. Then came the Keith Cochran era, followed by the Brian Freed era. When former Jefferson High School math teacher and girls’ basketball coach Jeff Waldon took over in June 2017 he wanted his era to be marked by modernization and growth. “It’s an honor to carry on what the other three did for the community,” Waldon says.
Immediately Waldon began overdue planning for a bigger facility and this April opened a 4,000-square-foot bakery restaurant on Commerce Drive behind the Olive Garden. Initially visions of a bigger A-frame flooded his dreams, but builders nixed that idea. What emerged was a big, white happy donut box of a building with huge hot pink and turquoise polka dots sprinkled all over it, mindful of the sprinkled donuts inside. Ample kitchen space allowed him to make a million-dollar investment in an automated donut fryer. Soon a robot will be “hired” for its light touch that keeps donuts from flattening out in a key part of the automated process.
None of the time-tested recipes have changed, but Waldon acknowledges that a slightly different taste might be noticed beneath the glaze. Shortly after he took over “the FDA mandated the elimination of all trans fats in frying. It does change the taste a bit,” he says. Still, it hasn’t stopped people coming in the doors and walking out with polka dot boxes full of treats.
“With the new machinery we can produce 250 to 300 dozen donuts an hour, eight times what the old store could do,” he says. Customers used to complain that they couldn’t get enough cream horns because the original bakery could only produce 120 a week. Now the number is closer to 500 a week.
This fall you’ll find Mary Lou Donuts and their polka dot boxes replacing Kroger’s products in all the local Payless stores, another mark of Waldon’s expansion plans. His dreams are now filled with visions of a huge bakery in the Indianapolis area that would allow Mary Lou Donuts to be in all the Kroger stores there. He’s actively working on making that dream come true. “My job is to expand the business to honor all the people who put in hard work before me,” he says.
Locations for Mary Lou Donuts are at 1830 S. Fourth St. and 4150 Commerce Dr., Lafayette. Hours for both are 5 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday.
Stop 4: The Homestead
Although the glass front donut case fills just a small corner of West Lafayette’s Homestead, known for its foods to go as well as its breakfast and lunch business, the donuts are a point of pride in the store.
That’s because each and every cake and yeast donut is hand rolled, cut, fried, filled and frosted, something full-service restaurants rarely do. “We keep it fairly simple — basic customer favorites,” says owner Jody Bahler. “It’s just an enhancement for our business.”
Homestead’s flagship store calls Remington home and that’s where the donuts are made each night, Monday through Friday. Then they’re driven to West Lafayette in time for that store’s opening at 7 a.m. Three days a week they’re also delivered to Franciscan Hospital.
“We taught ourselves how to do it,” she says. “Friends of ours own a donut shop in southern Michigan and we watched their process (which takes 5-6 hours) then tweaked it for us. Labor is the most expensive thing in a donut.
“It’s so much fun. Yes, it is!” Jody says. “I like doing the finishing touches.”
High on the list of Homestead favorites sits a maple bacon long john. Bacon dusted with sugar caramelizes in a frying pan before nestling into its home in the long john’s creamy maple icing. “Long john” is a Midwest term for a bar-shaped donut, probably taken from long underwear worn on the farm in the winter, although no one knows for sure how it became attached to a donut.
Stepping outside the box, Jody has even constructed tiered wedding cakes out of donuts. For special events the restaurant will provide a big board with pegs on it with, of course, a donut on every peg so attendees can grab and munch.
Because donuts are best fresh, Homestead reduces its prices at 3 p.m. daily for any still left in the case. “You can fill a box for $5, but it’s always a risk.”
She offers a tip for making a donut bought late in the day taste like it just came out of the fryer. “I suggest popping it in the microwave for 5-7 seconds. It’ll taste like it’s just out of the fryer.”
The Homestead is located at 1550 Win Hentschel Blvd., West Lafayette. Hours: 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday.
Stop 5: Rose Market
Cassidy Kitchel was working at The Arts Federation when her parents first opened Rose Market, but she came on board as a baker in January and her gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan donuts have quickly put the small Main Street shop on the map.
A self-described health nut, she’s been creating and tweaking recipes for more than a decade, ever since her son was diagnosed with celiac disease as a toddler. “I baked my own stuff because you couldn’t find it, and when you did it was too expensive.”
There’s science and a lot of practice behind each donut in her glass case, which beckons buyers, a colorful treat for the eyes as well as a tasty treat for the tummy. “Being gluten and dairy free takes lots of practice but I think I’ve perfected it,” Cassidy says. Even folks who are not gluten free find the taste surprisingly delightful, something they don’t have to lie about liking.
Cassidy feels her grandmother Dolores Rose, for whom the store is named, has become a cooking angel watching over her shoulder. “I was really close to her. She found so much joy in cooking for others and I really channel her. Love comes through in what you bake,” she says. “I can feel her with me.”
Her joy comes in seeing donut-deprived celiac kids go crazy over a bright blue Cookie Monster donut with bulging eyes. “When they haven’t had it, or can’t have it, and are finally able to pick something out, it makes me so happy,” she says. “I’ve had people literally stand in front of the case and cry to have this in our community.”
That includes treat lovers of all ages who have allergies, need to eat dairy free or eat vegan. When they go to a regular bakery there’s often just one choice they can eat, or more often, no treats at all.
Cassidy takes pride in using cage-free eggs, high-quality flour and top of the line ingredients all through her process. There are no artificial dyes in Cookie Monster’s blue icing. All her rich colors come from plant-based superfood powders. Even the colored sprinkles can boast of being dye free, perfect for kids who have allergies to food dyes.
Although Rose Market offers donuts all week, the widest selection fills the case on Saturdays. French toast, coffeecake and streusel donuts are among the best sellers along with perennial favorite blueberry. Every time you go there’s likely to be a new treat staring back at you, such as a stuffed donut that’s a play on strawberry shortcake with vegan whipped cream and fresh strawberries on top.
Vanilla donuts provide the base for ice cream sandwiches with non-dairy chocolate ice cream, a dollop of vegan whip, a drizzle of chocolate syrup and sprinkles. Also in the freezer case you can find gluten-free biscuits and gravy.
Because Cassidy’s donuts are baked, not fried, you can pop them into the freezer and expect them to come out just as fresh as they went in.
Word of the business has spread quickly on social media, generating a loyal base of kids and adults that come in weekly and “we have new people every week too. I think we’ve just scratched the surface,” Cassidy says.
During the interview for this story a Mexican baker, owner of a bakery in the Yucatan who was visiting relatives in the states, happened upon Rose Market and walked out with a small box of donuts. Ten minutes later she was back extolling their virtues and asking Cassidy for a gluten-free baking lesson. “The donuts are amazing. They taste so good and they’re beautiful,” exclaimed Maru Medina. “Oprah needs to find you.”
Rose Market is located at 816 Main St., Lafayette. Hours: Monday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. ★