Originally published June 6, 2013 at The Los Angeles Beat
Doughnuts have been around far longer than our city, or even our country for that matter. Ancient Greeks and Romans served fried dough bits with honey, Medieval Arabs dipped theirs in sugar syrup, Renaissance-era Europeans began stuffing their version with either sweet or savory fillings, and the Chinese… Well, they had everyone beat, apparently making little fried cakes way back in the Neolithic age. We’re talking 5,000 BC, here. So, as we fast forward through time to pop-culture obsessed Los Angeles in the middle of the 20th century, you know we had to do something oversized to stand out. This is Los Angeles, home of the attention whore, the photo op, the land where bigger is better and better is who’s getting the most publicity. Façade exists everywhere, but only here do people make successful careers out of it.
So in 1950, in a burst of post-war enterprise, a young doughnut machine salesman named Russell C. Wendell opened a small store on S. Normandie and Century Blvd in South Central L.A. which he called the Big Donut Drive-In. In order to get attention he mounted a gigantic doughnut on the roof, measuring 32 1/2 feet in diameter. It was made of rolled steel bars, covered with gunnite, a material used in building swimming pools- basically mortar sprayed through a hose at ultra high velocity. He painted his Big Donut name across the front and Boom! instant business success. This Big Donut is still in existence, having gone through many ownership changes. It was re-named Kindle’s in 1977 when a baker named Gary Kindle purchased this location. It has kept its second name even though the owners have since changed.
Randy’s Donuts, which opened in 1953, has achieved iconic status mainly because of its visibility en route to the Los Angeles International Airport and because of its use in various films and videos. Located on Manchester Avenue in Inglewood, many Angelenos are unaware of the city’s other Big Donuts and do not realize that this was the second store in Russell C. Wendell’s chain. The building was designed by Henry J. Goodwin, who was also responsible for Kindle’s, but credit for the Big Donuts at both locations goes to Robert Graham. This particular Big Donut Drive-In was re-named Randy’s in 1976, when it was purchased by Robert Eskow who named it after his son, Randy. Eskow sold the business in 1978 to cousins Larry and Ron Weintraub, who kept the name and still retain ownership.
Throughout the 1950s Russell C. Wendell opened a total of 10 Big Donut Drive-ins, all featuring a larger than life donut perched upon the roof luring sugar & grease craved fans from afar. Located on Western Avenue in Gardena, Donut King 2 was the third location. Thankfully it is still in business serving hot and tasty goodness. The fourth Big Donut store, located on Washington Blvd and Sepulveda in Culver City, was demolished sometime after 1978. Also gone are four other branches. A store located on Magnolia & Laurel Canyon in North Hollywood was the sixth Big Donut and was demolished sometime after the mid-1970s. The others that were destroyed were the ninth location that opened in 1959 on Kester and Sherman Way in Van Nuys, the tenth in Reseda and the seventh Big Donut on Imperial Highway in Inglewood.
Still remaining today is the fifth Big Donut located on South Atlantic Blvd in Compton. It has been re-named Dale’s Donuts. By the mid-1960s Russell C. Wendell grew weary of the donut world and looked toward new business horizons. In 1965 he opened the first store in a chain of fast food restaurants serving hot dogs and tacos that he called Pup ‘n Taco. He eventually opened one hundred Pup ‘n Taco locations before selling the chain to Taco Bell in 1984. Meanwhile, the Big Donuts had to go. By the 1970s he sold each location off, one by one, to individual owners, none of whom kept the Big Donut Drive-in name. Luckily today we have five Big Donuts left. This final location I visited isn’t a donut shop anymore, although they do sell donuts.
Bellflower Bagels on Bellflower Blvd in Bellflower repainted its Big Donut to somewhat resemble a bagel. Well, they are both round, so it’s not a far stretch. This was the eighth Big Donut shop opened by Wendell and it’s 32 1/2 foot diameter was scaled down to a mere 22 feet. Even though they changed the type of food they serve here, the big spirit still remains. This shop might represent the last of the true Big Donuts, but another chain in Long Beach called Angel Food Donuts has joined the Big Donut craze. The three locations of Angel Food Donuts do bear large donuts over their roofs, but they were never part of the Big Donut Drive-in chain, and are significantly newer in vintage. Their big donuts, while definitely interesting, are much smaller in circumference than the originals- my guess is about 12-15′- and are made of a different material, perhaps metal ductwork.
Our final stop on the giant donut tour of the Los Angeles area falls into a different category than the roof top models, but is extremely important nonetheless. Any article about giant donuts would be amiss without mentioning The Donut Hole in La Puente. Built in 1968, it is truly one of a kind. Designed by John Tindall, Ed McCreany and Jesse Hood it is unique in that instead of bearing a giant statue to advertise their product, the building itself actually is the product. The Donut Hole is a drive-though shop that is actually shaped like a giant donut.
On both sides of the small bakery are 26-foot fiberglass donuts. So basically you enter through one side of the donut, do your ordering in the center, and exit through the other side. Although it was originally part of a 1960s Donut Hole chain that is long out of business, it was the only one of its locations to bear the giant drive-through donuts.
So now that you know that Randy’s isn’t the only Big Donut around, I hope you feel a little inspiration. Bigger is not always better, but it definitely can attract more attention. Go ahead, take the Los Angeles donut tour yourself. It’s a fun way to dive into our city’s bizarre pop-architecture past and cure your sugar fix at the same time.
Randy’s Donuts: 805 W Manchester Blvd Inglewood, CA 90301; (310) 645-4707
Kindle’s Donuts: 10003 S Normandie Ave Los Angeles, CA 90044; (323) 756-8548 Donut King 2: 15032 S Western Ave, Gardena, CA 90247; (310) 515-1319 Dale’s Donuts: 15904 S Atlantic Ave Compton, CA 90221: (310) 635-2667 Bellflower Bagels: 17025 Bellflower Blvd., Bellflower, CA 90706; (562) 866-8672 The Donut Hole: 15300 Amar Rd La Puente, CA 91744; (626) 968-2912