Dunkin’ Donuts hands fans of giant doughnut sign a sweet victory

Fans of a giant doughnut structure atop a cafe sign in Long Beach have succeeded in convincing new owner Dunkin' Donuts to keep the local landmark.
(Steve Harvey / For The Times)

It was a sweet -- if unexpected -- victory Thursday night for fans of the iconic Long Beach doughnut.

The story began earlier this week when many became aware that a beloved city landmark -- a giant doughnut sign that sits atop a coffee shop -- might be getting tossed.

The sign’s weathered facade has nowhere near the same following as that holey grail of rooftop dunkers at Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood, and doughnuts haven’t even been on the menu at the Long Beach cafe or more than a decade.


But for more than 50 years, residents have navigated the city’s grid with the pale-pink doughnut as their compass, and they have a fierce loyalty for local landmark.

With a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise getting ready to move onto the lot, there were plans to knock the coffee shop down.

Despite repeated pleas from the city’s planning department, Dunkin’ Donuts had no use for the faux-nut atop what was once one in a chain of 20 storefronts named Mrs. Chapman’s Angel Food Donuts.

Developers explained that the company is now more focused on coffee and breakfast than doughnuts and that the old sign could confuse customers.

They agreed instead to hand over the doughnut to the city, which pledged to house it for safekeeping. But worried that the doughnut would be left to languish in a warehouse, never to be savored by Long Beach residents again, its fans took action.

A save-the-doughnut Facebook page was launched, and thousands of “likes” procured. Truck companies offered their services to move the oversized confection to a new location. A museum in the San Fernando Valley threw its hat in for the sugary ring.

Business owners along the city’s “Retro Row” -- chock full of vintage clothing shops and record stores -- began a spirited campaign to bring the giant ring there.

Rumors flew that crews were already surreptitiously dismantling it. City inspectors were summoned to the site several times, finding each time that all was well.

Preservationists insisted that the doughnut should stay where it is, for history’s sake, and the L.A. Conservancy implored citizens to call City Hall and Dunkin’ Donut’s East Coast headquarters.

“This doughnut, as ridiculous as it may be, tells a lot about the development and growth of Southern California and Long Beach,” said Adrian Fine, director of advocacy for the conservancy.

The sign is one of few remaining Southern California examples of the kinds of big, campy signs that rose with the car culture, enticing passing motorists along thoroughfares, Fine said, and “that’s a story worth telling.”

Not everyone understands the hoopla. Lisa Townsend once owned the cafe where the prized pastry stands, and even paid a premium to have it painted in its now-signature frosty pink.

Even then, she said, patrons offered unsolicited opinions of her work. “Why did I paint it pink, why didn’t I use some other color -- I couldn’t win,” Townsend said.

But she said she took pride in the refurbished sign, a symbol of her own childhood, and did her best to shoo away ever-present pigeons.

She added, though, that she can understand why Dunkin’ Donuts wouldn’t want the sign.

“I have $30,000 invested in that doughnut, and I don’t care if it stays or goes.” (But she was careful to add that she thinks anything that well-loved should find a second life in the city.)

Dozens of residents piled into City Hall on Thursday, armed with historical factoids and ready to do battle.

As the hours of doughnut debate stretched on, there were more than a couple of glazed and confused looks from citizens who had come to speak on the usually more-sticky topic of medical marijuana dispensaries.

The interior of the doughnut itself was said to be crumbling, and questions were raised as to whether it could even be moved.

“The integrity of the doughnut,” said a representative of the Dunkin’ Donuts developer, “is pretty suspect.”

History buffs demanded that the structure be deemed a “historical resource,” and that an environmental impact review be completed to assess its value.

“The doughnut is more than just a silly sign,” said Shannon Carmack, a resident and member of the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission. “It represents some of the things I love about this city -- it’s big, it’s quirky, and it’s beautiful. ... I love that eccentricity and I want to keep it.”

To the surprise of some, the doughnut kings relented.

“We want to be good neighbors,” said Dan Almquist, a managing partner of Frontier Real Estate, the Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee behind the proposal. “We understand now that there’s a lot of emotion around the doughnut. ... The last thing we want to do is be viewed as the guys that killed the doughnut.”

With that, city leaders pledged to protect the beloved giant doughnut. The planning commission, meanwhile, has decided to shelve the matter until March.

And Retro Row business leaders, for the moment satisfied, are no longer calling for its removal to Fourth Street. That includes Kerstin Kansteiner, owner of Portfolio Coffeehouse and ringleader of the save-the-doughnut campaign.

“It’s always been about saving the doughnut, not stealing the doughnut,” she said.

Twitter: @cmaiduc