In 2001, the Times Square McDonald’s introduced an item on their menu unavailable at any of the other drive-thrus and corner fast food joints scattered through the country: the McDonut. Mixed, stamped, fried, and flipped at a regular clip by a shiny machine displayed in the front window, the McDonut was petite and un-super-sizeable. It was a breakfast food served all day before that was a thing; it was made fresh in the window with no frozen elements; it was an exclusive to that franchise; and, for goodness sake, it was a doughnut in a hamburger box. Franchise owner Irwin Kruger redubbed the “Speedee” character on the box “Danny Donut,” and hoped that his machine would evoke a bit of the old world charm of the Long Island donut shop that had inspired him. But little did he know that he was just bringing mechanized doughnut making back to its birthplace—Times Square has, historically, been the doughnut machine capital of New York City. In fact there was an era when the intersection of Broadway and 45th was officially dubbed “Donut Corner.”
Adolph “The Donut King” Levitt was the first doughnut baker to do things the Rube Goldberg way, as his granddaughter Sally Levitt Steinberg likes to put it. According to the “donut princess” herself, her Russian Immigrant grandfather, who had been through the Ellis Island machine that changed his name from Yudalevich to Levitt, was also responsible for the streamlining that made the “doughnut” into a “donut.”
But when it came to the first ever doughnut machine, though, things got much more complicated before they got simpler. While Levitt was desperately trying to keep up with the demand for donuts that veterans brought back from their doughboy days in WWI, he met an engineer on a train. After the pair had worked through eleven unsuccessful prototypes, they finally hit on one that brought cake dough through the shaping, frying, flipping, and serving process smoothly. This machine was dubbed “The Amazing Almost Human Automatic Donut Machine” and was displayed in the window of Levitt’s bakery.
The operation quickly outgrew the original Harlem shop and by 1931, Levitt had opened up the first donut exclusive retail bakery, Mayflower Donuts, in what was to become his flagship store. Times Square offered a central location, a steady stream of awed pedestrians, hungry theatre goers, budget lunchers, not to mention a perch from which to expand across the country. Mayflower was the Dunkin’ Donuts of it’s day, offering a much more elaborate and inspirational tagline than “America Runs on Dunkin.” The “Optimist’s Creed,” as Levitt adapted it from a dime store banner read “As you ramble through life, Brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut, not the donut hole.”
But great symbols of America don’t stay fresh forever and Mayflower donuts closed its main location in the 70’s. While McDonut briefly revived the trend, the machine was removed in 2010, and Times Square doughnut production came to a halt. Only time will tell who will cast donuts in a starring role again, so for the moment the thrill of the donut has to be in the eating rather than a Ziegfeld style leap into the fryer.