Chicago’s Great Doughnut Con
Leah Walker July 9, 2012

There are certain things that I’ll stand an hour and a half in line for…

Free airline miles…80% off at J. Crew…Bradley Cooper’s kissing booth…you know, important stuff. But if the words, “I’d never wait in line an hour and a half for doughnuts” ever came out of my mouth, I was proved a liar on my recent trip to Chicago for the Windy City Tweetup.

Sufficiently fueled with caffeine from the best coffee shop east of the Mississippi, Aaron and I set out to find the Doughnut Vault. Raul saw a list by Food & Wine naming it as one of the best places to get doughnuts in the country. I’m a sucker for lists and the word “best” so I volunteered, along with Aaron, to get breakfast. Meanwhile, Raul was laid up in his fancy Sofitel hotel room.

The place was easy enough to find, and we were even able to get a parking spot right in front of the entrance, which was great because it was starting to rain. Always prepared, I grabbed my umbrella and quickly walked to get in line. I looked at the people in front and they looked so happy. These doughnuts must be fantastic, I thought. I mean, look at how excited these people are to just walk in the door of the Doughnut Vault! I knew I was in for a treat.

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 Aaron and I walked to the edge of the block to get into the orderly queue. It wouldn’t be so bad, we’d be in and out in about 15 minutes tops. As I reached the corner, I glanced to the left and nearly spit the delicious-tasting honey bear latte out of my mouth.  The line didn’t end at the corner. It stretched probably 40 yards down the side of the block. Some form of  “Are you freaking kidding me?” might have come from my mouth.

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 Aaron and I took our places at the back of the line. As we walked past all the people, I noticed strange looks on their faces. It was a mix of satisfaction that they were no longer where I was headed and sympathy for what I was about to endure. As I was cussing and discussing Raul, Aaron and I made a deal:  We would wait 30 minutes max. My iPhone stopwatch was set.

To say the line moved slowly would be an understatement. In fact, molasses on a cold day moved faster than this line. People were like drones waiting for their fried, sugary goodness. To pass the time, I plotted ways to steal doughnuts from the people walking past me. I knew I could handle some on my own, but began to enlist others in line. I created elaborate scenarios that combined tactics of the Three Stooges and Mission Impossible.

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Thirty minutes passed and we’d barely made any progress, but people were dropping like flies. They’d throw up their hands in exasperation and disappear into their cars. Aaron and I decided that we’d continue to wait. I couldn’t be that much longer, right?

Yeah, whatever.

Still plotting the doughnut holders demises, I turned my attention to capitalizing on this Doughnut Vault craze. I thought that if I lived in Chicago, I’d be the first one in line every day. I’d buy as many as I could possibly carry. Then I’d sit around the corner and sell them for three times the price. And for those that refused to buy my bootleg doughnuts, I’d offer coffee, giant cups of coffee, for cheap. Then I’d set up a port-a-potty and charge for people to use it. It’s amazing what a mind can do when its deprived of sustenance.

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After an hour, Aaron and I finally turned the corner. Surely, it wouldn’t be much longer. After all, we could at least see the menu painted on the brick wall. We began to construct our order. There were five of us eating and only a few varieties: buttermilk, gingerbread, and glazed. At $3 per doughnut, that fried dough should come with a lottery ticket and possibly a cubic zirconia.

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 We watched as people happily exited with arms full of brown boxes. There was no need to push them down and take their doughnuts, as Aaron and I finally reached the front door. This is what we’d stood in the rain, plotted the attack of innocent people, and eagerly anticipated for an hour and fifteen minutes. I was so excited that I had to capture the moment with a reflection shot. And do you now how pissed I would have been if I didn’t have cash?

 I swear I heard bells ring as I crossed the threshold of the Doughnut Vault. I had no clue what awaited me.

It was a tiny room. Actually, I wouldn’t even call it a room. It was a hallway at best. I felt like Veruca Salt walking into that shrinking room in Willy Wonka. It was disconcerting to say the least. One woman stood behind the counter taking and filling orders AND accepting money.

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You’ve got to be kidding me!

I was furious. I’m not an expert in the restaurant biz, but there is a better way to run this circus. Perhaps send a person outside and let them take down the orders. Have another person filling those orders in the back. Then have one person taking money. If I were in charge of the Doughnut Vault, I’d have people in and out in no time flat.

But the owners probably want lines. Lines mean a place is popular. People want to go to popular places. The allure of a popular place brings dumbasses like me in that are willing to stand in line for an hour and a half in the rain. I’d gotten my first peek behind the Wizard’s curtain.

 I felt duped.

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Aaron and I forked over the money for the doughnuts and got into his car just before the meter expired. We were headed back to the Sofitel with the doughnuts.“Raul better appreciate these damn things.”  I could not believe that I’d wasted an hour and a half of my precious time in Chicago waiting in line for stupid doughnuts. They better boost my IQ and prevent aging, I thought to myself.

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I sent Raul a text letting him know that his prized doughnuts and cold coffee had arrived. I might as well have rung the triangle for the cowboys, because he was in my suite in no time flat. I ripped the brown box open exposing the source of my frustration. As Raul reached for his chocolate-glazed doughnut with sprinkles, I glared at him.“You better love that freaking doughnut.”

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He took a bite of the over-sized disk, and I watched his face.“Well, is it one of the best doughnuts in the USA?” Raul knew the answer he had to give, and if he was lying, I couldn’t tell.

I took a bite of my gingerbread doughnut and my anger swelled. It was a good doughnut, and I would certainly eat it. Would it make even my top 10? Absolutely not. Was it worth standing in the rain for an hour and a half? Hell no! Did I get angry writing this post nearly six weeks later? Hell yes!

Final Doughnut Vault verdict? It’s good, but I wouldn’t wait more than ten minutes for it again.

Leah Walker

Leah’s a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that’s in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah’s thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don’t extend to speaking French. Yet.

67 Comments

  1. I would have waited just to see what the hype was about and I also would have been pissed if it wasn’t the best doughnut I ever had! I do like your “doughnut upcharge” business plan, you’d probably make more money than the owner.

    I own a restaurant and though we do like a bit of a waiting list, so we can seem popular, an hour and a half is ridiculous when it could be prevented by just adding one more staff member.

    1. Annette, if you ever want to go in with me on my whole doughnut domination plan, I’ll gladly welcome your restaurant expertise. Why stop at doughnuts? We can parlay this plan to every business that has outrageous lines! {insert evil laugh here} Over-hyped is certainly a good word to describe these doughnuts. But like I said, it didn’t keep me from eating them!

  2. Harvard MBA candidates take note: “I thought that if I lived in Chicago, I’d be the first one in line every day. I’d buy as many as I could possibly carry. Then I’d sit around the corner and sell them for three times the price. And for those that refused to buy my bootleg doughnuts, I’d offer coffee, giant cups of coffee, for cheap.Then I’d set up a port-a-potty and charge people to use it.”

    This section was laugh-out-loud funny. No flies on Leah!

    1. Yes, Frank, I have quite a devious mind. It’s scary what I can come up with when left to my own devices. I need help harnessing and directing this gift for good rather than world domination. Come to think of it, I would kind of like to dominate the world.

  3. I know of a donut con in Vancouver, all the foodies rave about this place, a friend of ours gifted us 2 $3.50 donuts to try them. I was so disappointed that I didn’t know what to say when she asked me how I liked them. The bottom line is that the masses are waiting for you to tell them what they want and if that’s a donut so be it. It seems to work for Ford with their F150, the best selling truck for 34 years.

    1. You’re exactly right! I like to read articles touting “the best” but I also take whatever is written with a grain of salt. Had I not promised to bring back doughnuts for the group, I wouldn’t have stood in line. In Texas there’s always the heated debate of which BBQ or Mexican food is the best. I’m quick to offer my opinion, but preface it with the statement, “In my opinion…” I’d hate for someone to visit my favorite place and be disappointed. I know why the media (both written and tv) likes to make lists. It gets people’s attention and sells. What could you say to your friend? Just like Raul couldn’t tell me that the doughnut was just OK. And, yes, to the Ford analogy. What’s wrong with Chevy? Oh, they’re not built “Ford Tough”. 😉

  4. Great recap Leah! I thought the donuts were good, but no long waiting again either. Raul owes us a long wait somewhere haha. 🙂 At least they update their Facebook and Twitter feeds constantly in the morning, telling how many of each kind of donut are left. Of course if I waited in line for a long time and then saw that they were out of what I wanted… ahhhh… Loved all the scenario talk.

    1. I wouldn’t have wanted to wait in line with anyone else, Aaron. You bought into my crazy schemes and even played along. You didn’t get tired of my complaining or plots of doughnut domination. And, yes, Raul owes us BIG time! I do give them credit for the Facebook and Twitter updates…

  5. All I can say are 2 things:
    1. I feel like I was there in line with you!
    2. I am disappointed you didn’t airbrush my picture.
    ROFL

    Seriously:
    – I will say that I’d be ROYALLY pissed too had I gotten to the front to realize it was cash only and that was the one thing I didn’t have…
    – Food & Wine: take notice your review credibility has taken a serious beating!
    – Doughnut Vault: get a clue.
    – Leah is a friend who will go the extra mile – or hour – for a friend!

    1. You feel like you were in line with me? That better be a compliment and not pouring salt into my doughnut-induced wound. Next, you wouldn’t like the airbrushing that I would have done…

      And that last part you wrote…so sweet. I kind of forgive you.

  6. Not even close, Mike. However, they are big like Round Rock doughnuts, but that’s where the similarities end.

  7. This reminds me of a time friends and I waited an hour for brunch at Mama’s in San Francisco (one of THE brunch spots). Rodolfo, my Chilean husband who didn’t care that the place was trendy, could not bring himself to understand why we were standing in line for food when there was food to be had without lines all over the city. I insisted it was worth it, but secretly I agreed with him when he said the food was good but not “stand in line for an hour” good.

    1. That’s a tough pill to swallow when your suggestion yields so-so reviews. I cringe when people ask me where I want to eat. It’s such pressure! What if the place sucks? What if the service is lousy? The next time people will say, “Don’t let Leah (or Emily) pick. Remember the last time she picked?” Ahhhh…..LOL!

  8. I probably would not have waited for that long for a doughnut but I do know some people that would. It does make for a good story.

    There is a pizza place here in Phoenix that is consistently ranked as one of the best in the country. Thanks NY Times and Oprah for letting the secret out and screwing it up for the locals! It used to only be open at night and they did not take reservations so you would have to get there 2-3 hours early to get in line. I have to admit that I did wait in line a few times. The problem is that it really was worth the wait so what choice did I have. It is now open all day starting at lunch so there is no more waiting in line.

    1. Don’t you just hate it when the Food Network or the Travel Channel ruins your favorite place? It sends me over the edge! There’s a place two blocks from my house that was on “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” that is soooo good. In fact, it only has about 10 tables. Hello, one hour wait! Now, I would stand in line for great pizza. I thought I was going to have to at Grmaldi’s in Brooklyn, but luckily the door guy snuck me in ahead of the Saturday night wait. That line was about 50 people deep. I was prepared to stand in it though. And it would have been worth it.

      1. They do ruin the good places. The food might still be good but dealing with the crowds is not.

        There is a Mexican/Chinese restaurant here that was on one of those shows for being good and I thought it was very mediocre. I think it just made the show because of the weird combination.

        1. Mexican-Chinese, huh? Yeah, that sounds a little strange. I just discovered a Korean-Mexican food truck here in Houston. I think I’ll give it a try just to see what the hell it is.

  9. As a Quincy, Mass. native (birthplace of the venerable Dunkin’ Donuts) I must admit that the best donut I’ve ever eaten in my life was the glaze donut at Nelson’s Donuts in Lake Charles, LA. Incredible!

    1. Note to self, go to Nelson’s Donuts next time I’m in Lake Charles. It doesn’t surprise me that your best doughnut experience is in Lake Charles. EVERYTHING is good to eat in Lake Charles. Why should doughnuts be any different?

  10. this is MUCH like the time i waited 45 minutes for the show at ollivander’s wand shop at harry potter world only to find it was a 5 minute show with horrible special effects and the volunteer selected was an eight year old boy and not me. it was MY 26th birthday, KID. – the romantic

    1. This story does not surprise me in the least. Kids today aren’t raised with any manners. If he’d been raised right, he would have refused and insisted that you, the 26-year old Harry Potter fan, be the volunteer. Such a shame. Kids these days. I’m so sorry to hear your tale of woe.

        1. You’re very welcome. I understand situations such as yours all too well. Donut Plant…I can get behind that.

  11. Love the story. Sorry the donuts were not up to scratch! I LOVE that you are a donut aficionado though! I LOVE DONUTS! They are one of my favourite things. We LOVED it when Krispy Kreme opened in London. We got given a massive box by our boss and a group of us headed out to Greenwich for a picnic. I lost count of the amount of people that wanted to buy one off me. I got offered 50 pounds by one guy. Was sooooo tempted if it hadn’t been for the fact that I would have been killed as there were only enough for 1 each! Crazy what people will do for donuts though! Will take advice and avoid this place though. Might just take photos of crazy people in line and then go round the corner to buy boot leg ones from you! lol. Where does one get the best donuts in the USA??

    1. Despite the size of my ass, I’m not sure I would call myself a doughnut aficionado. Although, I have eaten my fair share in my younger years when my metabolism wasn’t as slow as the Doughnut Vault line. 🙂 HOWEVER, my favorite is from a place in Marble Falls, just outside of Austin, called the Bluebonnet Cafe. And as a side note, they also have a pie happy hour. You get a giant piece of homemade pie and a drink for $3.50. Now, that place I’d stand in line for an hour and a half.

  12. just another reason Chicago is the second city… this doesn’t happen in NY. Scams, oh yes they occur in New York, but food – nope… if you wait in line in NYC, you can guarantee it will be worth it.

    stay adventurous, Craig

    1. Uh-oh, Craig. Is my comment section going to turn into a Chicago-NYC battle? If so, let me go grab some doughnuts from Shipley’s, a very fine doughnut establishment here in Texas.

  13. Must be popular donuts. Quite a few places in the city you have to wait that long for: Hot Dogs, Kuma’s, Longman and Eagle, etc. But all those places are worth the wait. I don’t think I’d ever wait more than 5 minutes for any donut (especially because you can get amazing ones as deserts at many restaurants).

    1. Oh, I agree, Alex. I *might* wait in line that long for a hot dog, but probably not. I’m totally convinced that the bottle neck at the counter and lack of coordination on the part of the Doughnut Vault greatly contributed to the line. If there was a more efficient system the line wouldn’t have been so long. I simply don’t think that the quality of the doughnuts alone was the only reason for the line. Of course, there were a lot of other people taking photos besides me. Perhaps they read the same damn Food and Wine article that Raul read. We’re all SHEEP!

      1. Ooops, forgot wrote Hot Dogs instead of Hot Dougs. Believe me, if there’s any restaurant to wait in line in the city of Chicago, it’s that one. They have things like Smoked and Spicy Alligator Sausage with Shrimp Remoulade and Goat Cheese, Chicken and Ham Cordon Bleu Sausage with Sweet Onion Mustard, Fried Prosciutto and Hickory-Smoked Sweet Swiss Cheese, and Boudin Blanc with Sauce Moutarde and Truffle Affinois Cheese

        1. I heard about Hot Dougs. Isn’t it by Wrigley Field? We didn’t have time to get over there, especially after the fiasco at the Doughnut Vault.

  14. LMAO!!! I absolutely hate long lines, not to mention standing in them in the rain and being let down in the end. I haven’t hit the Vault yet (it’s just not on my way anywhere really), but I’d like to try just to see for myself. But only if there’s no line. Not falling for that, nah huh.

    1. You’re going to have to get there really early, Pola. And who knows? Maybe the line isn’t so bad on a Tuesday, but I won’t be the one finding out. You let me know, if you ever do.

    1. Being called a born story teller is one of my favorite compliments. Thank you from the bottom of where my heart is supposed to be. 🙂 Yep, I agree, Ana. Two hours is not a problem at the Bradly Cooper kissing booth. Put me out of my misery if I’m ever tempted to wait in a line for doughnuts like that again.

  15. I know I didn’t wait in line with you that morning but, even on the day in question, it feels like I did. I wholeheartedly concur that the doughnuts were good, but definitely not worth waiting in any line for! I’d take a Dunkin Donut any day over one from the Vault. A couple of thoughts:

    If there’s one person working inside the joint, who’s updating Twitter / Facebook for Doughnut Vault?
    Craig, easy on the Chicago bashing! :-p
    Alex, I’ve done it before and I’ll wait in line again at Kuma’s!
    Leah, where is this Bradley Cooper kissing booth you speak of??

    1. You were one of the lucky ones who got to try the Doughnut Vault without standing in line. I’m glad to know it just wasn’t me who thought they were meh. I’ve got no idea about who’s updating Facebook/Twitter. Perhaps the person frying the doughnuts has a smart phone clipped to his belt?

      And I’m not telling you where the Bradley Cooper kissing booth is. I don’t need the lines to be any longer. Because, as you know, I hate standing in lines. 🙂

  16. Great story, haha, funny how some of the worst moments make amazing stories, isn’t it?! I find that I’m often let down by some of the things people say are so wonderful. I recently went to The Stanton Social in Manhattan, a place everyone loves – the place is constantly packed! Luckily, I went on a week night and didn’t wait long, but let me tell you, the food was okay, not great, not the best I’ve ever had, it was good at best. I totally understand your anger! 🙂

    1. That’s what Aaron and I kept telling ourselves…at least it will make for a good story. Aren’t you glad you didn’t suffer the same fate at the Stanton Social? Any time I want to try some trendy place, I normally try to go during a week night like you did. That way I’m not waiting too long and if it sucks, I didn’t waste an entire evening. 🙂

  17. Haha!! Dupe Gal! Yes you could have gone to Krispy Kreme and had one that was fresher, better and cheaper. Oh my, patience is a virtue true, but not when it comes to average food. 🙂 Thanks for the tip though; I’ll cross the Doughnut vault off my bucket list.

    1. To heck with Krispy Kreme! I’m a Shipley’s girl. You ever had those? They’re all over Texas. Surely you have.

  18. Leah, there is a pizza shop in Brooklyn called Grimaldi’s that supposedly has the best pizza in the area…and the lines are always enormous! Same with Carlos’ Bakery (you know, Cake Boss?) in Hoboken. What do you say…it comes down to good marketing. And then there’s the poor service aspect (check out my post on Village Tea Room in Catskills where I went to with @MyMelange: http://su.pr/3YD74U ) which is appalling. But, every city will have these, I suspect. Best to wave and avoid!

    1. Let me tell you, Charu, I have to say that Grimaldi’s is excellent. I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan one February night for the experience, but also had plans for dinner at Grimaldi’s. I was with a friend that lived in Brooklyn at the time. We got one look at that Saturday night line and about flipped. We decided to get one to go and eat on the waterfront. As we were looking at the menu on the window, the manager (or owner) came out and said he had a table for two. The line wasn’t paying attention, so I said, “We’re two, but we’re not in line.” He asked me where I was from, and I told him “Texas!” Next thing I know, we’re sitting at a table. Would I have waited in that line? NOPE! Is it awesome pizza? Amazing!

    1. I just saw Voodoo Doughnuts on the Travel Channel this weekend. I’d heard of them before, but this was a new piece. At least at Voodoo they have plenty of choices. The Doughnut Vault is so limited. I would like to try that maple bacon doughnut, but I’m not waiting longer than 15 minutes for another doughnut again.

  19. I love donuts, but an hour and a half, no way. I only waited 15 minutes do Top Pot donuts in Seattle, and they were pretty freakin good.

    1. I didn’t realize Seattle was such the hot-bed for famous doughnut shops. Voodoo and Top Pot have both been on the Travel Channel and Food Network. I love ’em, but I’ll never make that wait again. Now, I might wait in line that long for a great breakfast taco. But doughnuts? No more!

    2. Top Pot does make great donuts. My brother lives around the corner from one so we always go when I visit. He said that they are now making donut flavored ice cream. I can not wait to try that.

      1. Ok, so doughnut flavored ice cream? I’ve heard it all now. It sounds delicious, I’m ashamed to admit.

  20. I can now verify that Doughnut Vault is NOT the best doughnut in Chicago. See, I just had a taste of a few doughnuts from Glazed And Infused and OH MY GOD I don’t want to eat any other doughnuts ever again.

  21. Leah, I was reading in anticipation, thinking that those donuts would be awesome, what a shame! Keep up with that writing style of yours, loving it! xx

  22. You are my anti-line soulmate. I hate lines and have yet to find a good reason to stand in one past 10 minutes. And I agree that the owners probably LOVED the great buzz the long line gave them (who can blame them?), but I would have been frustrated beyond words!

    1. Happy to meet you, my anti-line soulmate. I was frustrated, but luckily I had a friend to keep me company and make me laugh. After about 10 minutes it became comical. I had to see how the story would end.

  23. I am pretty sure I would not have waited that long…the huge, non moving line would have put me off in 5 minutes or less! I worried when I arrived at Cafe du Monde to the same thing…lines of people everywhere. Everyone said that I HAD to try these mouth watering beignets…lucky for me, they were totally worth it! ps – no one seats you at Cafe du Monde – I ended up walking straight in and napping a table in less than 5 minutes! Deep fried powdery goodness was mine!

    1. Oh, Cafe du Monde is a totally different animal. I’ve waited in line there and it’s totally worth the hype. The Doughnut Vault? Ridiculous!

  24. Chicago also has a couple of Jewel’s (our grocery store) where you can buy good doughnuts and even go through the express do it yourself line and be out in 5 minutes. It won’t make any top ten list, but you won’t waste an hour of your life and be disappointed for years.

    1. Damn right, Ted. Too bad you weren’t with me that morning to sway me from making that foolish mistake.

  25. When I saw the title of your blog post, I was brought back to the time a friend and I waited in the same freakin’ line early one Saturday morning. I’m like you where I’m not a doughnut connoisseur, but if something is good then it’s good & and the dozen doughnuts we left with were…..okay. Just okay. Nothing to write home about, as you know. Sigh. -Fellow DV Sucker

    P.S. If you happen to be in the area, Hot Doug’s is worth waiting in line for IMHO. The food tastes even better when you go during a non-peak hour (like 3PM on a Tuesday – ha).

    1. Haha…I’m sorry,Diana. I wish we could have helped one another before being sucked in. I have heard about Hot Dougs. Perhaps I’ll skip breakfast and go for a hot dog the next time I’m in Chicago.

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