The stretch of High Street near the Ohio State University campus has long been synonymous with change. Buckeye Donuts, however, continues unabated, churning out tasty treats in a diner-like space that remains virtually unchanged since 1969. It's mantra: "Open always. Closed never." Andy Downing decided to put this slogan to the test, setting up camp in the shop for 24 hours. Here's his diary.
The stretch of High Street near the Ohio State University campus has long been synonymous with change - a status further amplified by the recent closing or relocation of established businesses like Used Kids Records, Johnny Go's House of Music and Bernie's Bagels.
Buckeye Donuts, however, continues unabated, churning out tasty treats in a diner-like space that remains virtually unchanged from the day it opened as Jolly Roger in 1969.
"Someday it's going to be like a museum, because on this campus everything is new," said Jimmy Barouxis, who owns and operates Buckeye Donuts, just like his father and grandfather before him. "There's a little history to this place, and it means something to me."
Most changes have been of the smaller variety. Some years ago, the family removed a cigarette machine that used to rest in the front corner of the store. Then in 2002, with sales flagging, Jimmy introduced a fuller menu, complete with gyros, hummus, breakfast sandwiches and more to round out the doughnut lineup. (Business is strong these days, he said.) The shop's around-the-clock hours haven't changed, though, and are even broadcast on the back of one of the Buckeye Donuts' T-shirts worn by staffers: "Open always. Closed never."
I decided to put this slogan to the test on a recent Thursday in late May, setting up camp in the shop for 24 hours. Here's a running diary of my day spent living within the fluorescent-lit glow of the campus doughnut destination.
8:00 a.m. Barouxis family matriarch Toula has already been hard at work for more than an hour when I roll into the campus institution at 8 a.m. She takes orders, sweeps the floor and carries fresh-made doughnuts from the rear kitchen to the front counter, where they're displayed in long, shallow metal baskets, or, in the case of specialty doughnuts like the namesake Buckeye (a chocolate and peanut butter concoction), in a glass case by the front register. It's a role she's served for more than 25 years since she and her late husband, George, took over the family-run operation in 1991 (George's father, Jimmy Barouxis Sr., first opened the shop as part of the Jolly Roger doughnut franchise in 1969, rebranding it Buckeye Donuts sometime in the late '70s.) "It feels like home here," she said. "It's my home."
9:06 a.m. The homelike feel can be attributed to the plethora of Barouxis family members currently staffing the joint, namely Toula's three sons: owner Jimmy (who purchased the store from his father in 2001, two years before the elder Barouxis' death), Pete and George. Seated at the restaurant's u-shaped front counter, Jimmy, 40, recalls accompanying his father to work on weekends beginning at age 13, where he'd be tasked with sweeping and mopping the floor. But his earliest memories of the store date back to early childhood, when the shop ditched Jolly Roger's pirate theme in favor of its current setup. "I remember we had the pirate logo when I was a very small boy, and when it came down the buckeye logo went up," he said. "My dad said he came up with the idea for the name [Buckeye Donuts], and it was a no-brainer. It's a doughnut shop right on one of the biggest campuses in the world. What else are you going to call it?"
9:14 a.m. John "Johnny Boy" Stefanek, 78, has been frequenting Buckeye Donuts since it opened as Jolly Roger, though his stays have been longer and more frequent since he retired from the food service industry in 2002. Most days, the Cleveland native walks from his nearby apartment on King Avenue, purchases a coffee and an old-fashioned doughnut, and spends time sitting outside the shop in a row of 18th Avenue-facing chairs (weather permitting) or perched on a corner stool at the front counter inside. "It's a good atmosphere," he said. "[Ohio State University] has really changed. It's all new buildings and all that. But this place is still the same."
9:35 a.m. According to Jimmy Barouxis, the lack of change is purposeful. On a stretch of High Street where change has become the new norm (a scant few blocks away the empty corpses of Used Kids, Johnny Go's House of Music and Bernie's form an architectural graveyard of sorts), Buckeye Donuts stands out. "We don't ever want to change the look. I've had people tell me, 'You should remodel and rip down the u-shaped [counter],' but that's the charm of this place. The u-shaped counter and the goofy red stools - you don't see that anymore," he said. "What are we going to do? Put in little tables and be like Cup O' Joe or Starbucks? [The counter] is open for conversation. You might make eye contact. You might meet people. So many people have met here. Every six months or so I hear, 'You know, I met my wife here.'" Jimmy knows what he's talking about, too. He met his wife, Nora, working the night shifts here in 2004, marrying her in 2010.
11:30 a.m. Buckeye Donuts has long been a regular stopover for OSU football players like Terrelle Pryor, who used to frequent the store when he suited up for the Bucks between 2008 and 2010. According to Toula, coaching legend Woody Hayes used to visit "two or three times a week" in the late '70s, placing the same order each time. "He liked coffee with double cream and a peanut doughnut. That was his favorite," she said, pausing for a quick break. "And he always tipped me well. A coffee and doughnut was 74 cents, and he always gave me a quarter. And a quarter was a lot then." Indeed, when the store first opened, a dozen doughnuts cost just 85 cents. Now a single regular doughnut sells for $1.05 and a dozen runs $9.99, or $12.49 for fancy varieties.
11:37 a.m. Johnny Boy Stefanek has some football-themed memories of his own, most notably the year - "It had to be in the late '60s or early '70s," he said - students ripped down the goal posts at Ohio Stadium and dragged them down High Street "all the way to the Statehouse."
12:30 p.m. A customer who identifies himself only as "Bear" takes a seat at the counter, as he has on most afternoons for the past nine years. "When I retired my doctor told me I had to go for a walk every day, so I was like, 'I'll walk to the doughnut shop,'" he said, and laughed. "That's probably not what he had in mind, but I rarely eat doughnuts." Instead he orders toast and eggs and spends an hour or so completing a word search and socializing with other regulars before making the return trip home, a total distance of one-and-a-half miles.
3:20 p.m. OSU alum Jason Schneider, who graduated in 2010, is visiting from his home in South Carolina and decides to spend the morning trekking his old High Street stomping grounds. It's been an eye-opening experience, to say the least. "I walked up and down High Street ... and it's been gutted," he said. "There's nothing there that used to be, so I decided to pay my respects and get something to eat here. This place has been around as long as I remember … and it still has the same feel."
5:35 p.m. With the university out for summer, early evening business in the shop can be relatively slow. Several people swing in and grab a doughnut or a coffee to go, but the place is otherwise empty save for longtime regulars Johnny Boy, Ron Deem and Charlie Schoyer, who worked at the Blue Danube for 25 years and is currently employed as a janitor at the university. All three have frequented the shop for decades. "We have those regulars that have been here since day one," Jimmy Barouxis said earlier in the day. "Charlie, he knew my grandpa and my dad, and now he knows my kids. That's four generations! Four generations, one customer. That's mind-blowing."
7:35 p.m. Not every customer is a gem to be treasured through the generations, as anyone who has worked in retail or food service can attest. To that end, it's unlikely the livid patron who slams a container on the counter and insists his salad "has more hair in it than Bob Marley" will be embraced like extended family in future years.
9 p.m. Four uber-fit visitors decked out in athletic apparel take a break from the CrossFit regionals taking place at the Convention Center across town to order a box of doughnuts, grabbing a seat at the counter to divvy up the spoils. As one of the four puts it between bites: "Hashtag cheat day."
10:30 p.m. When Jimmy Barouxis discussed the numerous things about the shop he'd be hesitant to change, one thing he noted was the fluorescent lighting, which gives the room an audacious office glow after dark. "The lighting during the night shift is ridiculous. You can see it from a mile away," he said. "It's worse than office lighting, but it draws people in like flies." That's certainly the case now, as a growing line of early 20-somethings stretches from the counter out onto the sidewalk.
11:05 p.m. Things finally slow down enough for night manager James Entler to wander over and chat for a few. "It's a common occurrence to have everyone come in right at 10 when we do shift change - especially college kids who are always getting a late dinner," said Entler, who's been working the overnight shift for nearly three years. "Then when 1:30 [a.m.] hits it's bar people until about 3:30 [a.m.]. But the best thing to see is around 5 a.m. That's when you have the people who are still up [from the night before] and the people who are just getting up. It's the one time where they come together and mix, and some of their interactions can be comical." This reminds me of something general manager Eric Bretschneider said earlier in the day: "The people who come in early on the night shift are drunk. And the people who come in late, they're either really drunk or there's a reason they don't see daylight."
11:50 p.m. While things are slow in the front of the house, production in the rear kitchen is ramping up. Baker Dave Lee mixes dough, rolls it into a large rectangle and cuts doughnuts by the hundreds (all of the store's doughnuts are cut by hand rather than machine). Most nights this process begins around 1 or 2 a.m., but a special order of 42 dozen doughnuts shipping out first thing in the morning necessitated Lee's early arrival. In short order Lee will be joined by longtime baker Yanni Agolos, a man of few words who has been employed by the company since he emigrated from Greece in 1977. I can safely count on two hands the number of syllables I hear from Agolos on this night.
12:40 a.m. Third-year student Allan Labanowski has been coming to Buckeye Donuts regularly since early in his second year at OSU. "It's probably the closest, cheapest coffee shop [to campus] and the service is fantastic. The thing is, they recognize me, and it's really nice getting that personal attention," said Labanowski, who started frequenting the shop with the editorial staff of The Sundial Humor Magazine, a student-run OSU comedy publication. "Bunny over there working the counter, I'm Facebook friends with her and I've never even talked to her outside of the store."
1:30 a.m. Prince isn't walking through the door tonight. But one evening in 2001, the late musician did roll through at this very hour - a tale that has become part of Buckeye Doughnuts lore. Here's a slightly abbreviated version of the story Jimmy told earlier in the day: "It was so dead in here. We were just sitting around ... and a limo pulls up and the bell rings - ding! - and this limo driver walks in like, 'Do you guys have a bathroom?' Then he goes outside and comes back and opens the door, and Prince walks in. He was dressed in dark purple, and he had the frilly [sleeves and collar], sleek, slick shoes and his hair looked amazing. He was just looking to have a coffee and a doughnut. I was nervous. I never addressed him by his name. 'What can I get for you?' He was like, 'A cup of coffee with cream.' I get the coffee and I'm like, 'Would you like anything else?' He's like, 'I'd like a custard doughnut.' 'Chocolate custard or powdered?' And he just did this [wiggles the fingers on both hands in a gesture mimicking snowfall], 'Powdered custard.' And my jaw just dropped. I gave him this powdered custard doughnut. He was here 10 [or] 15 minutes. He had a couple bodyguards who were like, 'What do we owe you?' And I was like, 'You know what, guys? Tonight it's on the house.' We actually needed the money. That would have been our biggest sale of the night. Then they got in the limo ... and drove off north into the moonlight."
1:35 a.m. Clearly the bars are starting to let out. One woman orders a gyro in the midst of a crying jag (she leaves before her food comes up), and the average customer appears sweatier, more glassy eyed and far less steady than during the early-evening crush. "We don't even drink alcohol," slurs one patron. "What's alcohol?"
3:15 a.m. The fluorescent lighting is starting to make me feel a bit like Al Pacino struggling with the around-the-clock Alaska sun in "Insomnia."
4 a.m. Novvy, who has worked at Apollo's Greek Kitchen for seven years, stops in for a post-work bite - something that has become part of his late-evening routine. "I always look for a place that has a Cheers-like atmosphere," he said.
5:10 a.m. TNT is currently replaying the Golden State Warriors-Oklahoma City Thunder game from earlier in the evening, so I'm watching the last five minutes of the game for the second time in less than 8 hours [insert something about time being a flat circle]. Meanwhile, Entler switches the soundtrack from '90s rock (farewell and goodnight, Sublime) to jazz, which he finds better suited to these late night/early morning hours.
5:30 a.m. Another celebrated evening in Buckeye Donuts history didn't actually unfold as depicted on television. When comedian Dave Attell swung by the shop with his TV show "Insomniac" in 2003, viewers were led to believe the visit occurred "around 1 or 2:30 in the morning," Jimmy Barouxis said earlier in the day. But Attell and his camera crew actually arrived at 5:30 a.m., shortly before sunrise. "We waited and waited … and we weren't sure they were going to come at all," Barouxis said. "Some people stayed. There were some campus celebrities, or campus characters. 'Help Is on the Way' was here; he was called the rapping bum. He was awesome. They filmed the show, and [Attell] said the place reminded him of a bus station. At 5:30 in the morning the strangest people come out of the woodwork." On this particular night, the strangest person I encounter is a rough-looking dude who could pass for an extra from "Mad Max: Fury Road." He hangs around outside the shop and alternates between friendly (offering beers to strangers from a six-pack he's carrying) and menacing (screaming and getting in the face of anyone who declines his offer).
7:10 a.m. Attorney Jacob Schlosser has been coming to Buckeye Donuts daily for "three or four years" for a trio of reasons: (1) The food is very good ("I'm sort of a junk food guy," he said); (2) the wait staff and counter people are great, and (3) he considers fellow customers his friends. "It's sort of like a fraternity," he said. "But there's no initiation." The shop's vibe and history inspire nostalgic recollections of Schlosser's days growing up in the university area, like the time he was seven years old and sneaked off to the long-closed Alhambra Theater (on High Street just north of Lane Avenue) to watch the 1945 film "Son of Lassie" while all the adults were preoccupied with celebrating the end of World War II.
7:55 a.m. With the 24-hour clock finally winding down, I get in line and order my first and only doughnut of the day: a peanut butter and chocolate Buckeye. And while High Street isn't filled with revelers celebrating the war's end or elated college students dragging goal posts down the center of the road, I'm feeling a similar sense of joy knowing a comfortable bed awaits me at home. A new day might be starting for the family-led crew at Buckeye Donuts, but for me it's finally reached an endi … zzzz.