TravelSkills 08-24-22: “The ‘Cheers’ of doughnut shops”: Why Red’s Donuts in Monterey has drawn regulars for over 72 years

The wall of fame behind the counter at Red's Donuts in Monterey features many famed doughnut lovers who have come through or called the Monterey Peninsula home over the years. 

The wall of fame behind the counter at Red's Donuts in Monterey features many famed doughnut lovers who have come through or called the Monterey Peninsula home over the years. 

Photo By Andrew Pridgen

What makes Red's Donuts, a 72-year-old Monterey institution in the Central Coast, stand out among the thousands of independent California doughnut shops? And were they really the purveyors of Betty White’s favorite morning treat? I just had to find out.

But it wasn’t easy, initially, to get myself there. Like many folks of a certain age, I have slipped into a Not a Big Breakfast Person repose over the past several years. 

Sure, I’ll take a few bites of a special pancake every now and then, but as far as the standards go: the breakfast meats, the eggs, the potatoes, the sliced fruit, all of it can miss me — with one notable exception: the doughnut. 

I found out recently that this onset middle-age doughnut fixation may be genetic. My father, notoriously a non-breakfast guy (or non-food really ... with the exception of a pair of hot dogs on the grill while listening to Giants games: one for him, the other for the dog) was a fiend for doughnuts — especially in his later years. 

He and my sister shared an office shortly before his retirement and every day — EVERY DAY — without fail, he’d come into their place of business at around 9 a.m. clutching the sugar-stained white bag filled with his prized treats. On Fridays, the bag would morph into the pink box. He’d always say that he was just trying to keep the doughnut guy in business. 

A full case at Red's Donuts at their original location on Alvarado Street in Monterey is a rare sight as most days Red's sells out by 10 a.m. 

A full case at Red's Donuts at their original location on Alvarado Street in Monterey is a rare sight as most days Red's sells out by 10 a.m. 

Image via Yelp

The love of a doughnut, I’ve come to accept, is my cross to bear, my legacy. 

When I travel, I try to make the local doughnut shop my first stop. It’s where things happen, the buzz of any town on any day starts there. 

Doughnut shop people, I’ve found, are friendly, kind, open and loose. They are patient. They have great nicknames and they tip well. They also don’t complain about the coffee. In fact, doughnut shop coffee apologists are a different breed altogether. Though I’m sworn to secrecy about what I know of their coven, I can say this: their patron saint Ben Affleck has been in a good place the last few months.

And while there are dozens of notable doughnut shops on my travel roster, there is one that stands out among them: Red’s Donuts in Monterey. 

There’s a few reasons why Red’s is the place for doughnuts on the Central Coast. It’s old: Red’s started in 1950 on Alvarado Street, the main drag in downtown Monterey, when Hermann “Red” O’Donnell (the nickname came from his shock of auburn hair) bought it for three grand on a whim

It’s original: While a second location, which now houses the baking operation, was opened in nearby Seaside in the mid-1980s, the original Alvarado Street shop is still bustling today. Same cushy vinyl stools and sunbeam yellow countertop, same framed newspaper clippings and janky clown-themed art on the wall, same coffee machines and even — same employees. Red’s is a constant in a neighborhood of ever-changing bar and restaurant store fronts. 

It’s prolific: Red’s bakers crank out up to 350 dozen doughnuts a day, more when special events like the recent Concours d’Elegance car show or AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am are in town. 

And if you can’t make it to either Red’s location before they sell out in the morning — and they do sell out fast — chances are you’ll be close to a Red’s drop zone if you’re in the area, from Acme Coffee Roasting Co. in Seaside to Nielsen Bros. Market and Deli in Carmel. 

Most of all, the doughnuts are delicious.

The famous Red's Donuts apple fritter makes for a sizable breakfast. 

The famous Red's Donuts apple fritter makes for a sizable breakfast. 

Images via Yelp

“We’re classic. We bake them old-school by hand and the recipes are the same since 1950, that’s what keeps people coming back,” Evelyn Rosales, a fixture who's worked at the flagship location for 29 years told me on a recent visit. 

I pressed Rosales a little about what makes Red’s offering special. Is it the ovens? The water tinged with a little Monterey Bay salt air? The dough? 

“All of it,“ she said. “We’re a yeast-raised doughnut, so that means you’re going to get a nice crispy bite and soft and fluffy center — light as air.”

And that’s it. If sausage aficionados have their casing “snap,” then surely doughnut people can talk about the consistency of their favorite food’s crust. 

You should feel the doughnut’s surface in your mouth, sugary, a little salty, and sweet and with a “tiny bit of crunch on the initial bite,” Rosales said. “From there it should be like easing into a doughy cloud.”

And that’s exactly what you get with a Red’s offering, every bite, every time. 

A maple bar injected with custard in the middle waits to be eaten on the signature Red's Donuts sunshine yellow counter. 

A maple bar injected with custard in the middle waits to be eaten on the signature Red's Donuts sunshine yellow counter. 

Photo By Andrew Pridgen

On my last visit, a too-bright Tuesday summer morning, I rolled up to the Alvarado Red’s as soon as I got into town. It was a quarter to ten, and while there was no line out the door (a rarity), I tripped over the threshold to find a nearly empty case in front of me. Rosales laughed, “We have a lot of disappointed folks who come out here after 9:30.” 

There was a single offering left, a custard-injected maple bar. The doughnut shop’s most popular flavors, in this order: the apple fritter and the cinnamon rolls followed by the yeast-raised chocolate, glazed and then the maple. They tend to fly out the door, even on weekdays. 

Notable patrons through the ages who otherwise might not have been known doughnut connoisseurs include the likes of Carmel full-time residents Clint Eastwood and Beverly Cleary. Ever wonder why Doris Day could light up a room with her smile? It’s because she started her day at Red’s. Ansel Adams and John Madden were known to partake. And while staying in her Carmel home, even Betty White, who earlier this year was posthumously awarded with a tribute doughnut, was known to enjoy a morning morsel from Red’s on occasion, Rosales said.

All of those notables plus “thousands of other actors, musicians, comedians and athletes at Pebble Beach,” have tucked into the Monterey Peninsula’s sweetest treat at least once a year Rosales said. “We cater that entire event. I don’t think anyone who plays in that tournament passes through here without having at least one Red’s [doughnut].”

But it’s the regulars at the Alvarado Street counter that continue to make the place feel special. 

Regulars at Red's Donuts enjoy a little morning treat, some coffee and some companionship in downtown Monterey. The doughnut shop has been there since 1950. 

Regulars at Red's Donuts enjoy a little morning treat, some coffee and some companionship in downtown Monterey. The doughnut shop has been there since 1950. 

Photo By Andrew Pridgen

“It’s the ‘Cheers’ of doughnut shops,” said Monterey-born Bob Jacques, who noted that he makes it to Red’s “just about every day” to catch up on the latest from his a.m. crew, read a couple sections of the Chronicle and do a crossword. “I’ve brought my sons here since they were little, and I never stopped coming. It’s a special place. The best part of my day is coming here.”

Indeed, family and community is a theme that creates a plum line through Reds’ 72 year narrative. While Red’s son Mathew O’Donnell decided to turn the business over in 2019 to Renee and Rose Reyes, who worked as head bakers for two decades before taking the reins of the shop, the two families, O’Donnell told the Monterey County Weekly, remain intertwined.

During a recent stay in Monterey, I was queuing up at Red’s at 7 a.m. along with several locals, tourists and members of the military stationed in Monterey. I delivered a white bag full of sweet treats to my eight-year-old, still lounging in bed. He took a gigantic bite of a chocolate yeast-raised with sprinkles and gave me a thumbs up. “But why do you always get doughnuts when we go somewhere?” he asked me. 

I guess he’ll understand when he’s a little older.

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