It’s big, it’s pink-frosted, and it’s definitely a Long Beach landmark. But in the Long Beach tradition of tearing down its landmarks, the giant donut that has proudly stood on its edge above The Daily Grind Espresso Bar on 7th Street near Pacific Coast Highway for decades is in danger of being eaten up by corporate stupidity and a lack of civic pride.
That was the beginning of this article as I wrote it on February 6, a mere two days after a group of Retro Row merchants started their “Save the Giant Donut!” campaign in response to Dunkin’ Donuts’ plan to raze the Long Beach icon before opening a franchise on the spot.
But for now, at least, the question is moot, as Frontier Real Estate Investment announced at a February 7 Planning Commission meeting that their Dunkin’ Donuts franchise at the site would incorporate the donut into the new store’s design.
Why from the start they didn’t plan to take advantage of the obvious—they’re Dunkin’ Donuts, for fuck’s sake, and pink is actually the color of the word “donuts” it their logo!—all while helping to preserve and blend with the idiosyncratic Long Beach urban landscape, rather than becoming one more pressure trying to flatten Long Beach into just another generic Orange County/South Bay city, passes understanding. As reported by the Long Beach Press-Telegram, “Dunkin’ Donuts officials said they wanted to remove the sign because it conflicts with the company’s core business of beverages and breakfast food.”
That’s nonsense, of course. The company is called “Dunkin’ Donuts,” after all, and they sell (you guessed it) donuts. But donut is not exactly the healthiest of food products, and they do sell other stuff, so clearly this was an issue of shaping public perception.
Ironically, it’s public perception that may have saved the giant donut. As fate would have it, the 4th Street Business Improvement Association was convening in a timely fashion.
“We happened to have our monthly meeting the day it came out in the press that Dunkin’ Donuts did not want the donut and the City was going to put it in a warehouse,” says Kerstin Kansteiner, president of the 4th Street Business Improvement Association and owner of Portfolio Coffeehouse. “And we felt like, ‘Gosh, we’ve seen that many times, [when] things are dismounted and they end up in a warehouse.’ And it’s a huge effort to remove them from there to someplace else, so [often] it’s forgotten, and then it’s gone.”
The group began a “Save the Giant Donut” campaign, including a Facebook page that garnered over 1,000 “Like”s within its first 24 hours of existence. The plan was to bring the donut to Retro Row, a move that, for some, raised the question of whether ersatz preservationism is better than none. For her part, Kansteiner was sympathetic to reservations about moving the donut to Retro Row.
“Our motivation was not, ‘Hey, let’s bring the donut over here’; it was, ‘Let’s fight for it to stay [where it is],'” she says. “When we created [the campaign], we didn’t realize there was still room for negotiation with Dunkin’ Donuts; we thought it had already been decided that it’s going to come down, and we were under the impression that no-one had offered or even thought about an alternate location. So this was really just a gesture. […] This was about keeping old and vintage [Long Beach iconography] that otherwise would be wholly forgotten and never restored.”
Fortunately for all concerned, the City of Long Beach was already on the case.
“Since [the donut] is one of those beloved, kitschy landmarks, we floated the idea to [Dunkin’ Donuts] to see if they would be amenable to keeping the donut sign,” says Amy Bodek, director of Long Beach Development Services. “[…] Initially they had said it did not meet their business model. Then, when they understood the feelings that the community has for the donut, they realized they should save the donut.”
Bodek (along with her interviewer) gets the giggles here, but only because “save the donut” is a funny phrase, not because she doesn’t regard preservationism as serious business.
“These sorts of roadside vernacular pieces of architecture are disappearing in Southern California,” Bodek says. “There’s a whole subculture of folks who really enjoy that kind of architecture, and so we felt if Dunkin’ [Donuts] was not willing to incorporate [the donut] for the betterment of their project, we should try to save it and have somebody else reuse it who could appreciate it more. But obviously this solution [i.e., incorporating the donut into the new design] is much better.”
Bodek reports that the Planning Commission will not take final action on Frontier’s application until they are satisfied that the donut will be properly preserved.
“We’re going come back in about a month, and we will show the Planning Commission how the sign is going to be retained on-site and incorporated into the design,” she says
Bodek notes that, although the City’s ability to ensure that the donut remains “is not clear cut,” because the franchisee needs a Conditional Use Permit to allow for a drive-thru lane, the Planning Commission has some ability to dictate the conditions.
“The Planning Commission has to grant approval to the drive-thru and as part of that approval,” she says, “and they made it clear they want the sign incorporated into the site.”
Barring an 11th-hour reversal, the “save the donut” saga is not the standard “Long Beach loses another piece of its history” tale. Rather, it’s a story of how both history and progress can be served when residents, government, and business get on the same page.
Note: Neither Dunkin’ Donuts nor Frontier Real Estate Investment responded to RLn’s requests for comment.