Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Donut Man: Still Baking the Old Fashioned Way

The final project in my magazine writing class was to write a profile on someone in the community. I decided to bake donuts with The Donut Man. The result can be seen below.


A white van painted with foot tall sprinkled donuts sits outside the tiny donut shop called The Donut Man off of Route 9 in Hadley, waiting to be filled with the next morning’s delivery of donuts. Inside hot glaze dribbles off the rows of skewered donuts like icicles melting off a rooftop. Mike Napolitan, who is 47 and has spent every day for the last six years in this cluttered kitchen, stands a few feet away banging a Led Zeppelin drum solo as he rotates another sizzling batch of donuts with drum sticks. He is surrounded by hundreds of donuts, some complete and others waiting to be frosted, dipped, or filled.
Napolitan, also known as “The Donut Man” is the only baker at the donut shop of the same name. He doesn’t own the shop, but is proud to say he has full control over everything related to hiring, staffing, recipes, and baking.

“I don’t really have a boss,” Napolitan says proudly. “The owner Tony just let’s me run the show.”

At 5’7” Napolitan’s forearms bulge; his upper body swells like that of a strongman contender. The Donut Man’s black size 12 shoes are white with flour, and Napolitan is wearing his usual uniform of corduroy pants and a t-shirt. Except for his constant references to the good ole’ days of real rock concerts, the only signs of Napolitan’s age are two missing front teeth and specks of gray in his jet black hair and stubbly, unshaven face. Often The Donut Man attributes his youthful jubilance to a complete freedom from stress and the desire to stay active.

In the six years since The Donut Man opened Napolitan has never had a sick day. Without him, the store along with a group of local businesses that order from The Donut Man would have to fend off donutless, dissatisfied customers. Napolitan has been making donuts for more than 32 years, and is perfectly content with the fact that he’ll bake donuts every night for at least another quarter century. Napolitan may be constantly moving, but his work record proves he’s endlessly loyal to his employer.

Since Napolitan started baking at the age of 15 he’s made an estimated 1,920,000 pounds of dough. If he continues at the same rate for another 25 years (and he plans on baking donuts much longer than that) The Donut man will have handled more than 3,420,000 pounds of donut mix.

“I’m always on the move, and just can’t sit still,” Napolitan readily admits. It’s his explanation for his life as a baker, the rationale for a room strewn with clothes, and the reason for owning a desk that allows him to stand up while paying bills (a task reserved only for Mondays).

The middle child in a family of five, the Napolitans moved around Western Massachusetts constantly. Napolitan’s life began in Granby but as the family migrated from town to town the one constant for Napolitan was his kitchen.

“By the time I was four I was making biscuits,” Napolitan says. “My mom and dad and brother and sister, they ate them and didn’t say anything so I guess they were alright.”

Growing up, Napolitan learned the importance of innovation. He says his father boasted an IQ of 160 but mostly drank. He didn’t interact with his three kids often so Napolitan was often left to solve his own problems. To compensate for the lack of treatment for a lazy eye (which he learned would be a problem during neighborhood games of baseball) the boy simply taught himself to become ambidextrous.

By age 12, Napolitan was stealing needles from his mother and India ink from school. With it he tattooed a marijuana plant on one arm, a cross on the other. Today most of the ink is faded, but you can still see the beginning of various girls’ initials and a faded cross on his defined forearm.

During the day Napolitan used to walk around warily, his eyes half shut. At night though, he would burst with energy. He slept through school as much as possible and after his freshman year barely had enough credits to scrape by. To this day Napolitan requests his funeral take place at two in the morning, when he feels he functions at his best.
“I don’t know if I was supposed to be born in China or if it’s just the sun, but night is when I’m really awake,” Napolitan says.

After one year of high school Napolitan decided to wake up in time for class and apply himself to school so he could graduate. During his sophomore and junior years he earned honors status, and by the time senior year rolled around Napolitan only needed to take classes until noon. Then he’d depart for work.
Napolitan, who remembers dates with precision applied for a job at Dunkin’ Donuts on Columbus Day in 1975. At the time only five stores existed. Each shop only sold donuts, and they all made its own daily. Napolitan started by cleaning floors, but before long a fellow employee brought him into the back room and taught him how to bake.

“It just clicked,” said Napolitan as he hugged his arms around a huge mass of dough, 32 years after he started at Dunkin’ Donuts. “At the time minimum wage wasn’t even two dollars, but bakers were making $4.50 so I was making a pretty good living for myself.”
Outside of work Napolitan spent most of his time traveling the country and bowling. It was exhilarating to live without a plan, and on spontaneous drives he would find himself in Canada and then decide to drive home again. On other nights Napolitan bowled. A respectable player, Napolitan earned a reputation in Springfield and also gained extra income from professional tournaments. Napolitan was a professional bowler and baker who had traveled to almost every state in the U.S. by the time other people his age were graduating college.

“I did everything I ever wanted to do in life by the time I was 22,” Napolitan explained. “It’s because there are people who act and people who react. And I fall in the category of people who act.”

Napolitan worked at Dunkin’ Donuts for 25 years. He always preferred the vibe of nights, but when a store opened on campus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Napolitan jumped at the opportunity to work with students and head the store. He loved the atmosphere, and looks back on it with nostalgic affection.
“I knew what everyone wanted,” said Napolitan about his regular customers in the Mullin’s Center. “I didn’t know them by name, but I knew what they wanted, and they always ordered especially from me because I melted the sugar in their French Vanilla iced-coffees and my iced-coffees never had crystallization on the bottom.”

Napolitan quickly bonded with the college students who frequented his shop. He often gave them extra food and let his employees take home frozen bagels. When his regulars were too broke to pay sometimes he would give them their orders for free, paying for them out of his own pocket. Then someone told on him and Napolitan was fired.

Napolitan, whose motto is “never stress out,” didn’t. He thinks his generosity stopped matching Dunkin’ Donuts increasing obsession with the bottom line, and that was alright. It wasn’t long before Napolitan saw a “Help Wanted” sign on the outside of an old bank being converted into a donut shop.

It’s been six years since Napolitan first cussed out his boss about the baking equipment he was introduced to his first day at The Donut Man.
“I took one look at the donut cutter and told my boss that he had to choose between the machine and me. So they took that machine right out to the dumpster and I went and bought my own cutters for $29.95. Now we’re one of the only places left that hand-cuts almost every donut we make.”

The kitchen in the Donut Man looks like a piece of the past. Nearly everything automatic has been unplugged for years. The scale, which most donut bakers use religiously, serves as a resting place for piles of boxes and donut mix. Unlike mixers made with gates and safety buttons, The Donut Man’s mixer is an antique that allows him to pour water directly into the vat of dough. Even Napolitan’s small boom box that blasts rock every night is a prize he won from Dunkin’ Donuts decades ago.

The Donut Man cooks with real cinnamon and genuine sugar. Recipes for donuts and orders from other stores are scribbled on napkins and taped to the side of an oven where they bake bagels because Napolitan refuses to sit down long enough to learn to use his computer.

Napolitan finishes his shift around five a.m. every morning. Usually he’ll sleep for a half hour in his truck and then drive down the street a couple blocks to his house. In the winter Napolitan will chop wood with his landlord to heat the house. When summer rolls around he’ll tend to his garden and ride his bike to his mom’s house in Springfield. Then he’ll check off a list of chores at the bank, the store, or the post office. Around four in the afternoon Napolitan starts to get sleepy again, so he’ll head to bed and set his alarm to start again by 9:30 at night.

Whether Napolitan is at work or on errands, he never sits down. He’s always moving, always looking for an excuse to strike up a conversation. Whether he’s talking to a local judge or a small child, Napolitan treats them like an equal. After all, they all eat the same donuts, and most people in his side of Hadley can pick him out of a crowd.

“It doesn’t matter what I do, I always smell like a donut,” said Napolitan laughing. “It just gives me a way. I gave up getting the smell off years ago. I mean, I can take six showers and I still smell like donuts. And everyone on this side of town knows me, so when I ride my antique Lotus Éclair bike and then walk in to the post office or the bank everyone knows it.” Wherever Napolitan goes he will always be The Donut Man.

Currently listening to The Fireflies.