When Clare police officers heard the 113-year-old bakery was closing, they bought the place. What came next was a miracle for a struggling small town. This is the amazing story of Cops & Doughnuts.
Featured in the January 2019 issue of Traverse Magazine. Get your copy.
There is a bakery that sends me time-traveling to my newspaper days, when I was chasing headlines on deadline. I occasionally gathered updates from the local police station, which fellow reporters had dubbed the Cop Shop. Those coppers you saw on a regular basis might summon you over with a wave to the table in the kitchen next to the coffee pot. There may have been doughnuts. There typically was black humor, but more often than not, the jokes were so corny and full of puns it was criminal.
Every time I visit Clare, Michigan—the gateway to Up North, about 100 miles southeast of Traverse City—I go to a place that reminds me of that buzzing Cop Shop. It’s called Cops & Doughnuts, and there’s an unmarked table the locals know is reserved for them and the local police officers who pop in for coffee, camaraderie and custard-filled long johns. Or the cops actually may be running the joint.
In fact, Clare cops do own the bustling bakery just a block up the street from the police department offices. During its busiest weeks, visitors to the doughnut shop surpass the number of people who live in the town of 3,100. Tourists are brought in by the busload.
It all started 10 years ago, according to Alan White, aka Bubba, co-owner of Cops & Doughnuts. He and some of the officers were having pizza for lunch at the police department one day when talk turned to the topic of the local bakery. It was about to close after 113 years of providing breads, cookies, cakes and doughnuts for the community.
“We decided as a group we couldn’t let that happen,” Bubba says. “It was 2009 and this is small town America. That bakery had been there since 1896. And 11 other storefronts had already closed. Clare was struggling.”
So they checked in with the other officers—there were nine of them altogether on the Clare police force that year—and so they decided to pool their resources. “And we wrote a business plan on the back of that pizza box that day,” Bubba says.
The police officers took a lot of ribbing. The joke immediately spread: The doughnuts were in jeopardy, so the cops came to the rescue, but they would probably eat all the profits. They took the gag and ran with it, changing the name from Clare City Bakery to Cops & Doughnuts. The shop’s logo is a police badge encircled by a frosted doughnut covered in sprinkles. Then they applied the punny humor everywhere, from the names of the doughnuts (Felony Fritter, The Nightstick, The Squealer) to merchandise including hoodies, sweatshirts, T-shirts, coffee mugs and bumper stickers. The stenciled-on sayings include “Cereal Killer,” “D.W.I. (Doughnuts Were Involved),” and “Don’t Glaze Me, Bro!” There’s even a mock jail cell door visitors can step behind to peer between the black iron bars for photos.
“We do have a sick sense of humor,” Bubba says. “But we try to keep it G-rated for the merchandise.”
Now, a decade later, those nine officer-owners hold monthly business meetings. Bubba and co-owner Greg “Ryno” Rynearson, retired from the force to run the day-to-day business and marketing of Cops & Doughnuts. One of them is usually in the bakery every day.
And there is only one vacant storefront in Clare.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Cops & Doughnuts Headquarters
Location: 521 N McEwan St., Clare
Hours: 5 a.m. to midnight, daily
Facebook Followers: 56,000
“Precincts:” Five across Michigan, including Lansing, Mount Pleasant, Gaylord (inside Jay’s Sporting Goods), Ludington and Bay City
They ship, too! Most popular mail-order item: Salt-rising bread, from an old-fashioned recipe that very few bakeries make any more, according to Alan “Bubba” White, co-owner. “When we make it, it smells like the boys’ locker room.”
Cops & Doughnuts serves 15 core doughnuts daily including The Bacon Squealer, a long john without filling topped with maple icing and two crispy strips of bacon. Jailhouse Rock is a peanut butter-filled Bismark with banana frosting. The Nightstick is a long john with custard, chocolate frosting and chocolate chips.
Doughnut holes are offered only on Thursdays. The lines start forming in the morning. Other offerings include plate-sized cinnamon rolls, Amish berry-filled fried pies, cookies big enough to share but so good you probably won’t, plus pies, breads and rolls.
The last time I wandered into the doughnut shop, business was steady and two Clare County sheriff’s deputies were sitting in the adjacent room having breakfast with a couple of locals. As I was ogling the donuts, cinnamon rolls, cookies and bars in the bakery case, a young copper named Jax Fowler walked through the door. He was in his navy blue uniform, a Cadillac police officer badge pinned to his chest. The look on his face was evidence of a tragedy that had occurred earlier that day. He was looking for the solace he could only get from a visit to Cops & Doughnuts. That’s what his mother says, anyway.
“Jax’s grasshopper just died,” Jill Fowler explained while her seven-year-old son—Jax—and his three-year-old sister Kaia carefully studied the dozens and dozens of doughnut options in the glass cases before them. “So we decided we were going to drive—about 100 miles from Cadillac—for a visit to Cops & Doughnuts. He loves this place.”
Jax had worn his Junior Police Officer badge especially for the somber occasion. And he was greeted by Bubba with a special sticker and a handshake.
A chocolate-covered, custard-filled doughnut that Jax chose immediately had the desired effect of banishing his doldrums.
Or it could have been the sugar rush.
Jax’s preferred treat also happens to be the most popular doughnut sold in the shop. The doughnut makers who create them in the back of the shop keep an ongoing daily tally of the “from scratch” products. During the busy summer season, the bakery is open 24/7. On Labor Day it produced 1,200 dozen doughnuts. That’s 14,400 doughnuts that it didn’t have any trouble selling on that one single day to travelers looking for a last sweet taste of summer as they trekked home from Up North.
During the winter months, things slow down a bit, especially from January until Valentine’s Day, says Bubba. “That’s because everyone makes New Year’s resolutions to lose weight.” Even so, it’s always a gathering place for the locals. And an old-school friendly operation with a civic-minded sensibility.
In keeping, the police officer owners, whether retired or off-duty, don’t hesitate to answer a call for help. Cops & Doughnuts donates to local fundraisers including school bands, sports teams and community organizations. It helped pay for the funeral of a child.
They even offered up their exterior alley walls out back for creative artworks. Kim Kleinhardt, owner and artist of 515 Gallery next door to Cops & Doughnuts, was the ringleader for creating a massive doughnut sculpture on the wall behind the bakery. The 14-foot colorful doughnut is made up of about 200 round baking pans, from Bundts to cake pans to Jell-O molds to muffin tins. It was a community art project.
“I asked the community to donate old pans,” Kim says. “Then I had a doughnut painting day at the gallery. Lots of people showed up to paint. A local installer attached the pans to the wall with the help of volunteers.”
Now known as Art Alley, the area is decorated with other creative projects, including a stunning ceramic mosaic Kim and her art students created on the back wall of 515 Gallery and the mural of a train on the other side of the alley in a building owned by the bakery.
“The train mural was again a community summer art project,” Kim says. “Various artists helped with the design and volunteers from the community helped paint it. There was financial involvement from the local bank—Isabella Bank—and a grant from Michigan Council for the Arts & Cultural Affairs.
“Cops & Doughnuts have offered up their exterior alley walls for any and all art creations,” she says. “Sculptures, gardens, mosaics, paintings and celebrations have been created each summer with business and community interaction through the arts. Art Alley has become a destination for visitors and community alike, offering a creative surprise to those who venture around the block behind the main street businesses.”
Visitors are always welcomed, often with the chipper question, “What’s your favorite doughnut?” (I’m a maple-iced long john filled with fat fluffy white cream girl myself.) But the heartbeat of the shop is in its unofficial daily doughnut and coffee club. The officers and staff on duty keep pretty close tabs on the regulars. Most of them are retirees. Many of them come in at the exact same time of day and sit in the exact same spot.
“We call it the Round Table—or the B.S. Table,” Bubba says. “Our team has adopted those people. If one of the regulars isn’t coming in when they usually do, they know they have to call us. Because we literally keep an eye on them. If they don’t call or show up, we know where they live and how to get into their houses in case they need help. We’re community based. And we are part of this community.”
The Stages of Doughnut Delight
Jeanne Ambrose is a writer and editor whose career has taken her to jobs in Guam, Hawaii, Milwaukee and Michigan. She visits Cops & Doughnuts whenever she’s back home in The Mitten. [email protected] // Photographer Jesse Green shoots commercial, wedding and lifestyle photography from Detroit and Leelanau County.