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Doughnuts or donuts, Wall Drug treats are tough to beat

Kevin Woster.jpg

This interview is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.

It was an unwritten rule in the Rapid City Journal newsroom that when you stopped in Wall — or just passed through — while on assignment, you were obligated to bring back doughnuts.

Wall Drug doughnuts. For the newsroom to enjoy.

“You didn’t bring doughnuts?” Ron Bender asked me once when I strolled into the newsroom after covering a story in Wall. “Hey everybody, Woster was in Wall and didn’t bring doughnuts.”

As I recall, there was a round of boos and a couple of hisses from the other reporters, editors and copy desk staffers.

Bender was one of the Journal editors and the main enforcer of the Wall Drug doughnuts rule. In that instance, he determined that I could be forgiven for showing up without the widely advertised treats since I was a new staff writer at the paper back in 2002.

Well, Kind of new. I’d written free-lance stories for the paper when I was living in Pierre in 1979 or 1980. Then, after working for the Argus Leader in Pierre and Sioux Falls for a few years, I hired on as the Journal’s full-time capital reporter in Pierre in 1988.

I moved to Sioux Falls to go back to the Argus in 1992, but then moved to Rapid City to work for the Journal again in 2002, this time out of the home office. I was there until 2013, when I resigned and went to work for Keloland News as the TV station’s western South Dakota reporter and cameraman.

Which is when I proved that TV news doesn’t have to be another pretty face.

After KELO, I went into retirement for three months, got bored with just hunting and fishing and took an offer from Larry Rohrer that I couldn’t refuse — blogging and doing radio commentary for South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

But I digress, which is a Woster family propensity when it comes to storytelling. It’s in the genes.

Back to Wall Drug, the Rapid City Journal newsroom and the doughnuts.

I like Wall Drug doughnuts — the maple topped first and foremost — better than any other. I’m a cake-doughnut man. My mom made great homemade cake doughnuts back on the farm. And, oh my gosh, were they outstanding when they were still warm and crispy and sprinkled in sugar.

It sort of turned me into a life-long cake-doughnut guy.

Doughnut sales top 1 million a year

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My wife, Mary, who also worked as a Rapid City Journal reporter, specialized for many years in an interesting combination of covering food and religion. She would tell you that people typically favor cake doughnuts or raised doughnuts. I favor cake. Krispy Kremes and their like are fine. They’re just not Wall Drug cake doughnuts.

I’m not the only one with a powerful affection for the doughnuts, either. Wall Drug has sold hundreds of thousands of doughnuts a year for years. And in 2021, the operation topped 1 million doughnuts for the first time, says Wall Drug Vice President Sarah Hustead.

“We’d come close but we hadn’t quite made it,” she says. “Last year we surpassed one million. And I think we’re on track to sell a million this year.”

I intend to help, one doughnut at a time.

The favorite Wall Drug doughnut overall among visitors to the store isn’t the maple top, however. It’s the chocolate top. But anecdotally, based on comments and testimony from people like me, Hustead has concluded that South Dakotans would pick maple as the No. 1 doughnut.

“I think it’s by far the favorite among South Dakotans,” she says. “But chocolate wins out every year overall.”

Hustead thinks that’s because visitors from other states who haven’t tried the maple doughnut prefer to go with something they know and trust: chocolate.

“They’re not sure if they’d like the maple, but they know they like chocolate,” she says. “And the kids like chocolate.”

The flavor ranking among Wall Drug customers overall is chocolate, maple, plain and vanilla.

“But there’s really no bad choice,” she says.

Defining “once in a while” for doughnut consumption

That has been my feeling about Wall Drug doughnuts since I was a kid and we made our obligatory Wall Drug stops on our trips from our Lyman County farm to the Black Hills.

Which does not mean I’m suggesting that Wall Drug doughnuts are a form of health food. My wife, Mary, knows that better than I do, because she watched them being made many years back for a story in the Rapid City Journal.

So Mary knows what goes into them, ingredients upon which I’m not inclined to dwell. But whatever they are, the combination creates a treat that surely tastes like it’s good for you. And maybe it is, in certain ways.

My next door neighbor, Margaret Watson, a retired Episcopal priest, put it this way on Facebook recently when I ran a picture that Mary took of me enjoying a doughnut in Wall Drug: “Donuts may not be good for the body, but they sure are good for the soul — sometimes!”

Two things about that: With “sometimes,” Margaret is counseling moderation, which is good advice. And I wouldn’t want to start every day with a maple-topped doughnut from Wall Drug, although if I lived in Wall I’d have to resist the urge.

But “sometimes” they are an absolute delight (After maple-tops, I like the plain Wall Drug doughnuts, best, then chocolate topped. The vanilla-tops don’t move me, although I’m sure they have their fans).

A doctor friend of mine who pushes healthy eating and regular exercise (what doctor wouldn’t?) gave me the go-head to eat a Wall Drug doughnut “once in a while.”

When I asked him what “once in a while” meant, he said “about once a year.”

To me, that stretches “once in a while” to an unnecessarily austere degree. That doctor’s advice aside, I’m convinced that you can have more than one a year. I do. I have. I will.

Over the years that I’ve lived in Rapid City, I’d guess I’ve averaged about one Wall Drug doughnut a month, which tends to complete a stop at the iconic drug store for me and doesn’t seem out of line for my physical well-being.

“Donut” lives on after copy desk has gone

Top it off with a 5-cent coffee — yeah, it’s still a nickel — and spend some time admiring the impressive display of western art and you have the full Wall Drug doughnut experience.

But back to part two of our neighbor Margaret’s Facebook comment: “donuts.”

I think that’s the official Wall Drug spelling of doughnuts. And I have to admit, I prefer that spelling. But it was so consistently rejected by the copy desk at the Journal that I stopped using it for most references, even casual Facebook talk.

Those copy desk folks can get in your head, after all, which is part of their job — to keep you thinking about words and language and style and grammar and proper usage.

And spelling.

I should say that used to be part of their job. There is no copy desk at the Rapid City Journal anymore. Not the way we knew it, with a half dozen or more people scrutinizing stories, writing headlines, laying out pages.

The copy desk staff was eliminated some years ago along with other positions in the newsroom. Now a single copy editor reads stories before they are sent off electronically to a design center in another state.

This didn’t just happen at the Journal. It happened across newspaper land, sadly enough.

Newspaper copy desks were essential institutions that now exist mostly in memory, which is a sad thing for readers and reporters. Especially reporters.

Other than a nose for news, an appreciation of the written word and some skills in storytelling, there’s nothing a newspaper reporter needs more than a good copy desk. As my friend and former Journal newsroom colleague Bill Harlan liked to say, writing without a good copy desk is like being a tight-rope walker or acrobat operating without a net.

Sometimes back in the day, that net would catch things like “donuts,” change them to “doughnuts” and advise the reporter to use the common spelling.

I don’t have to worry about that anymore. But I still use “doughnuts” most of the time. That’s partly out of fear that Phyllis Person, a long-time leader of the Journal copy desk, will find me and correct me, perhaps sternly.

I no longer have a copy desk to ferret out my brain cramps. But I still have a friend named Steve Miller, a retired Rapid City Journal news professional who ferrets for me in his free time. Steve had many jobs at the Journal, including reporter, agriculture writer, West River editor and managing editor.

Steve was good at what he did, loved the work and earned respect from readers, news sources and reporters like me. When he offered to edit my SDPB blogs and anything else I wrote, for free, I couldn’t have been happier if he’d given me a box of Wall Drug doughnuts.

Well, maybe a little happier, but only until the doughnuts were gone.

I like having Steve give my stuff a look before I send it to SDPB, where it gets another look before being published. But more than that, I like the feeling that I’m still working with Steve. The good connection we had at the Journal continues beyond its walls.

And speaking of those walls, what goes on inside the walls of the Journal these days is a much-scaled-down version of the old days. A much-reduced staff hustles to provide professionally produced local news to readers who still want and need it.

I admire that effort and support it. And, in fact, it occurred to me as I enjoyed a maple-top at Wall Drug with Mary last time we stopped that I should get a dozen doughnuts and drop them off at the newsroom, for old time’s sake.

But then it also occurred to me that there is nobody left working in the newsroom who would understand and appreciate the traditional value of the delivery.

I mentioned that to Mary and she said: “OK, but they still might like the doughnuts.”

Indeed they might. Historical perspective or not, it’s hard not to like a Wall Drug doughnut.

Or donut.

Sorry about that, Phyllis, I just couldn’t help myself.