I remember my first time. I was new in town and a little lonely.
It was late. I didn’t plan it. It just happened. It always just happens, right? I don’t recall many of the details, but I know I left happy and satisfied, with a big smile on my face. From that moment on, I was in love – with Buckeye Donut that is.
For the uninitiated (assuming there are any of you out there) Buckeye Donut is a 24 – hour restaurant located in the campus area, on High Street. It’s a place to grab a quick meal on the cheap. But for a Columbus girl like me, Buckeye Donut is so much more than just a place to eat. It’s a local institution. Nothing says “home” to me more than driving down High Street and spotting its big, red sign with the picture of a giant donut on it.
Because of its round the clock service and its location (nestled between campus and the Short North), some crazy stuff goes down at Buckeye Donut. There was the time one late night customer had to use the restroom and when the guy behind the counter tried to escort him, he got as far as the dining room wall and prepared to do his business right there. Another incident occurred in which a customer, known in Buckeye Donut lore as Crazy John stole some money from the tip jar while high. After he took a swing at the nightshift manager, the manager grabbed the custom pool cue he brought in that day to pawn in order to pay for his divorce and took a swing at him. Crazy John managed to get hold of the pool cue and ran off with it. Five years later, the manager is still married. (Let’s be honest: If Hyde Park Steak House were open 24 hours a day, some crazy shit would happen there too).
But in the end, Buckeye Donut is a gathering place to sit and talk about the weather, politics, or just about anything else on your mind over a plate of some very satisfying, down home comfort food. Eat there often enough, and the staff will start treating you like family.
So, one day, when the editor of this magazine came up with the idea to write about some of Columbus’ finest round the clock institutions, I shared my idea: I would try my hand at working there – for 24 hours straight! “Go for it,” he said. Somehow, the good folks at Buckeye Donut agreed, and before I knew it, I was there, ready to make it happen.
“Go wash up or put some gloves on,” says Jimmy, the owner of my new place of employment for the next 24 hours. I chose the first option and headed off to the bathroom at the back of the kitchen, where I scrubbed like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator. Beats a pair of latex gloves, two sizes too big for my hands.
1970’s disco pours out of the sound system. The percolator pops in time to the beat as coffee bubbles out onto the burner. Bacon and eggs hiss and sizzle on the grill. Cookware clatters. Above the chaos, Jimmy’s mom Tula shouts out orders in Greek. It’s busy and the breakfast crowd is full of regulars. Jimmy introduces me to one named Johnny Boy. Johnny Boy has eaten there every day – sometimes twice a day – since the place opened in the 1970’s. He drinks ten coffees a day and eats four donuts. You do the math.
I meet Yanni, the head baker. He has been working here since 1977. He holds out a floury hand for me to shake. He is a master donut maker and the backbone of the operation. I also meet Victor and Miguel, the first shift cooks. They are master chefs in their own right and their grill game shows it. I can already tell they will be great teachers.
Jimmy asks me if I am ready to try my hand at preparing a couple of orders. Um, no. He convinces me to frost some freshly baked buckeye donuts instead. The iconic item is a crowd favorite, along with newer offerings like the maple bacon cream filled variety. Beside me, dough is being rolled out in giant sheets and glazes of all sorts are being prepared in vats. Frosting donuts seems simple enough: fill a spoon and spread. It melts on contact and oozes down the sides and onto the countertop, leaving me with a chocolate mess. Yanni comes to my rescue.
I switch to the grill and squirt a generous amount of liquid butter (literally the grease that keeps the wheels of Buckeye Donut spinning) onto the surface. My first hash browns look decent but I flub the omelet flip, so into the trash can it goes. Victor nudges me aside and prepares a textbook version.
The restaurant slows down enough for Jimmy to give me a crash course on sandwich prep. I do my best to turn out gyros, Philly steak and Greek sausage. After rolling five or six, I feel like I’ve got the hang of it. At least, if I’m making one order at a time.
Lunch break. I have the falafel wrap – a pita filled with grilled veggies, onion, lettuce, tomato and tahini sauce. It’s pretty good, but the falafel is overcooked and the wrap comes undone, causing some to land in my lap. I’ve got no one to blame but myself – I made it.
The lunch rush is in full swing. Johnny boy is back, along with another regular, known as Yanni the Maintenance Guy. He got this name because he fixes things at the restaurant as often as he eats there. Jimmy pauses from his orders long enough to tell me the story about the time Andy, a nightshift manager who happens to live upstairs, passed out drunk with his shower running. Water came pouring through the kitchen ceiling right in the middle of donut production. It was Yanni who came and saved the day.
16 hours to go! My feet hurt and my face is greasy but thanks to all the donuts I’ve sampled, my blood sugar is soaring and I’m feeling pretty damn good.
The dinner crowd has begun to arrive and Dave and Gary, the second shift cooks are getting ready for action. “Want to clean the grill” Dave asks? Ugh. I roll up my sleeves and do it. Shower please!
Some other important customers have arrived. My kids. One laughs. The other two look shocked. Do I look that bad? I serve them perfectly formed glazed donuts and milk – no doubt the best ones I have made all day.
The dinner rush is still going strong. The next order is mine and I’m shaking. Seating is limited, so the goal is always to get people in and out quick. LOL! I give it my best shot.
My best friend shows up and I fix her a perfect veggie wrap and fries. She is impressed. Thank goodness somebody is!
It’s getting late and I’m getting nervous. Not too much longer before the crazies start coming. During a brief lull, the night crew takes a moment to tell me about the time a baller limo pulled up at 2am and Prince got out. “He spent half an hour in the bathroom and then ordered donuts for his entire entourage,” they explained.
The calm before the storm. As I brace myself for the bar rush, I remember that today just happens to be Friday the 13th. I start thinking about every horrible thing my friends and I did to restaurant employees back when we were teenagers. My karma is coming for me. I can feel it. I pray silently that Curtis, Bunny and the rest of the late crew will have my back.
I dare not sit down for fear of falling asleep. I start to open my heart and mind to the coming chaos. I need it. It’s my only hope of staying awake.
The witching hour is upon us. And just like that, they start to come. The talk is louder and orders crazier than during the day. There are tables full of booze soaked college students. Laughter rings out and F-bombs fly. The place is packed and I help out in the kitchen. My wraps are instagram-worthy! Bring it on!
An OSU t-shirt wearing kid orders and a few minutes later, his food is in his lap He is hunched over. I have come to call this the Buckeye Donut lean. He’s pale and in bad shape. Gary, the late cook fixes him a new plate, on the house. Once he gets some of it in his stomach, his color improves and smiles woozily at his friends. Thankfully, it all stays in his belly and he and his wasted buddies hit the door. All hail Gary, the savior of the night shift.
The late rush is over and the staff receives deliveries. Yanni is back and donut production is in full swing again. Overall, it was a pretty tame night. No fistfights or thrown food. Everyone who works at Buckeye Donut has stories. “Back in the old days, the cops would typically come rolling in around midnight, and the ambulance would get here by two,” Gary explains. But for now, all is well.
This period is little more in my memory now than a distant and faded spell of delirium punctuated by black coffee. I recall my ramblings on a litany of subjects ranging from the bizarre to the intellectual only because I’ve recorded them in voice memo.
I made it! 24 hours at Buckeye Donut! Jimmy is back and he slaps me a high five. I stumble to the bathroom sink where I had scrubbed in the morning before, splash water on my grease soaked face and somehow manage to drive home.
After 24 hours on the inside, I can still say that Buckeye Donut is one of my favorite places to eat. Why? Because its more than just a place to grab food. It’s an experience. It’s filled with people from all walks of life, all looking for a little bit of happiness and community – like a microcosm of the city itself. And although its not always perfect, it’s a beautiful thing. Just ask Jimmy.
Oh, and if you have never been there, get going! Trust me, you will never forget your first time. •