Friday, September 16, 2011

[EID Feature] Cops and Doughnuts: Here's One for the Good Guys

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

People love to joke about cops and doughnuts. Thankfully, so do the cops at Cops and Doughnuts.

When the historic Clare City Bakery, a small family bakery smack dab in the middle of Michigan in the small-town-cute city of Clare, announced it would be closing in July 2009, the officers of the Clare Police Department - all nine of them - rallied together to save the bakery.

"I said to Bubba [one of the nine], 'You know the bakery is going to close?,'" explains Greg Rynearson, another one of the full-time officers behind Cops and Doughnuts (all nine are also still full-time employees of the CPD). "All nine of us came together and said, 'Do you think we can save this?' The original plan was done on a pizza box we were eating for lunch!"

They met two Sundays in a row, got the books from the previous owner, hired one full-time and a handful of part-time employees, and when the bakery closed down on June 30 they re-opened as Cops and Doughnuts on July 1.

While the name is deliciously cheeky (and really shows what a great sense of humor these guys have), the story begins with the bakery itself. Built in 1896 by the Foss family, it was a little from-scratch bakery and that was all it was ever meant to be. Over the last 115 years the bakery has never closed. For several generations families have gathered here and enjoyed the made-from-scratch breads, doughnuts, and pastries - it was even a hangout of the Purple Gang, who would stay at the historic Doherty Hotel and drink rum-and-cokes at the soda fountain-cum-makeshift speakeasy in the pharmacy next to the bakery (that space is also now part of the bakery). Cops and Doughnuts pays homage to this little bit of history with Purple Gang paraphernalia throughout, which includes the bathroom made to look like a cell block.

The Clare City Bakery was a local institution; not just a place to buy bread but a place where the community would come together, a place that each generation of children and adults had fond memories of throughout their lives. It wasn't just a bakery; it meant something more. It was a part of the local culture and history, a testament to small town entrepreneurship and community. The officers of the Clare Police Department knew this, they knew how important this place was to and for the people, so when the opportunity came and the numbers worked out well enough the police force joined forces to save the bakery, becoming the first all-cop-owned bakery (which they did completely with their own money using no grants, no incentives, and no tax breaks).

It didn't take long for the human interest story here to get noticed. One day to be exact. "The Associated Press caught on to it and a guy from Washington called," Rynearson says. "He said, 'You guys better hang on; you’ve never had publicity like this.'" CNN filmed a segment here, followed by Fox News, followed by countless other media outlets. "Four weeks into it people were lined up out the door; we ran out of room!" Which is when they acquired the space next door to expand their operations.

Cops and Doughnuts now gets customers from around the world, and nearly all the non-local visitors come because they either read about it in a magazine or saw it on TV (a quick perusal of their "guest book" just over the last few days prior to my visit showed guests hailing from all over Michigan as well as Florida, Texas, California, Arizona, North Carolina, and about half a dozen more). They now serve between 7,000 and 9,000 people every week with 11 full-time and 10 part-time employees. "Our staff is bigger than the whole police department!" Rynearson laughs.

They've been so successful in the venture that they won the "Small Cities' Most Innovative Business in Michigan" award in 2010, then in 2011 were named one of the "50 Companies to Watch in Michigan." Their operation has expanded from the bakery to an exclusive private label "Cops and Doughnuts" coffee roasted and distributed by Paramount Coffee in Lansing. Roasts include "Day Shift," a regular roast; "Night Shift," a dark roast; and "Off Duty," a decaffeinated coffee.

Their self-referential sense of humor has served them as well as they have served the community. They now have a full line of men's and women's apparel - T-shirts, hoodies, tank tops, shorts - as well as coffee mugs, shot glasses and other clever gift items with witty phrases like "Cuffed and Stuffed," "DWI: Doughnuts Were Involved," and "Don't Glaze Me Bro." The clothing is a hit, and now customers will send in pictures of themselves wearing the Cops and Doughnuts label at famous sites all over the world - the Great Wall of China, the ruins of Rome, there's even one of a guy kissing the Blarney Stone (in honor of Clare's annual Irish Festival). They've got an online store and will ship anywhere in the world, so you can still wear Cops and Doughnuts even if you can't eat it. Their coffee is also available in 45 stores across four states, including Busch's and Hollywood Markets. 

The idea of cops embracing and in turn being embraced by the community has resonated with all those sworn to serve and protect all over the world, from other small town police stations to the Armed Forces serving overseas. Police departments from all over the country now send their badges to Cops and Doughnuts, which they then display. There is even a Cops and Doughnuts apron in a glass case, which was signed by the members of the 984th Military Police Company in Afghanistan - a particularly poignant piece as the company commander was later assassinated.

Rynearson is their in-house marketing genius, the man behind the spirited phrases that play up the "Cops and Doughnuts" name. Cops and Doughnuts isn't just a bakery; it's a brand. Even the doughnuts have tongue-in-cheek names: the Felony Fritter, the Night Stick (a cinnamon twist), the Squealer (a long john with bacon strips on top). To top it all off, they are still a 100% from-scratch bakery, and even use some of the same original recipes that the Foss family used over 100 years ago, even some of the same equipment. They use no preservatives in any of their products, and they charge only a fraction of what other trendy bakeries charge for their giant-sized cookies, doughnuts and pastries.

And even despite their success, they haven't forgotten their community roots. During the month of May, 50 cents from every bag of coffee purchased is donated to the Thin Blue Line of Michigan, which provides support to families of fallen officers. They provide a tremendous amount of food donations to local fundraising events for schools and churches, simply because they feel it's good business and good for the community. They try to buy as much of their non-food products (like wax paper and packaging) from Michigan companies to support the local economy, and they make sure all of their advertising specifically says "in downtown Clare" instead of an address, because "we want people to look for us and see what else is here; we want to support the community."

Rynearson (right) with employee Andy.

Police officers tend to get a bad reputation. "To serve and protect" also unfortunately means "to uphold and punish," which puts them in the position of being the "bad guys" even though all they're trying to do is be the good guys, strict parents in a world full of perpetual children who don't like to be told "no." Most people dread seeing those flashing lights and get stiff when they see a uniformed officer walk into an establishment, but at the end of the day these guys are just doing their jobs ... and people are a whole lot happier to have them once they see what it's like not to (feel free to visit the outer banks of Detroit for affirmation). Cops and Doughnuts really is more than just a bakery: yes, it builds the local community and yes, it is a funny brand and yes, the baked goods are from-scratch and fantastic ... but for all its playfulness what Cops and Doughnuts ultimately does is humanize these men and shows them in a light that makes them less "them" and more "us."

Want to see more? Check out the Flickr set here.