All photos by David Law
A visit to the website for Bob’s Donuts yields a wonderfully mysterious tab labeled CHALLENGE. Click on it and you’ll find out why.
Per the CHALLENGE tab:
Eat one donut within 3 minutes. It’s as simple as that.
The catch? More on this in a few.
Bob’s Donuts has been around since the late 50s, but it’s been run by someone who doesn’t answer to the name Bob since 1977. The original “non-Bob” was Elinor Ahn. She wanted to own a manufacturing business. Turns out, donuts were the way to go.
It takes a special person to create a community staple. And yes, that’s what we’re calling Bob’s Donuts. You don’t live in San Francisco and not know Bob’s (even though you’ve probably never crossed paths with Bob himself), and you certainly don’t visit without grabbing one of the Bay Area’s freshest donuts before you leave.
Elinor helped build Bob’s into what it is today. During her nearly 30 year span of hands-on operation, she became a community emblem. In 2001, Elinor’s daughter-in-law and Bob’s co-owner, Aya Ahn, took command and has served as the head chef ever since. She’s also a mother of 3…no big deal.
Remember that part about a special person? How about special people making Bob’s a San Francisco commodity?
Building the Perfect Donut
The donut business is a deceptively time-sensitive game to play. Donuts don’t have long shelf lives (see: hours), even though a conversation with a Bob’s staff member yielded the cold hard truth: “Most of the time, when you buy a donut, it’s nearly a day old.”
No thank you.
The perfection that exists under the roof at Bob’s comes from an entirely different process. One of the business’s specialties is that they’re constantly making donuts, so a fresh product is guaranteed.
Need more convincing? Bob’s exists on Twitter as @whatsfreshest. Its Polk Street location is open 24/7, and a constant flow of donut fans helps both locations keep the pastries coming out hot during the day. (That second location…601 Baker St.)
A popular choice among customers is the apple fritter donut, which Bob’s website advertises as a “hunk of a donut that will scare away anyone who isn’t ready for some serious eating.”
It looks the part.
But if a colossal apple medley isn’t your cup of tea, Bob’s has a little bit of everything when it comes to donuts, with each one promising to be fresher than the last.
Bob’s Donut Challenge
Alright, it’s time for the catch. That “eat one donut within 3 minutes” schtick? It’s a true statement, so long as you can stomach the BIG ONE.
The Big Donut, which Bob’s also refers to as The Big Kahuna, The Belly Buster, or The Scale Breaker, is the donut that must be eaten in under 3 minutes. It has a 9” diameter (yes, you read that correctly), and is a true testament to the fascination that comes from stuffing one’s face all in the name of glory.
But hey, who doesn’t want a free t-shirt? (Though you might not fit in it when you’re done consuming The Big Donut.)
Finish the challenge in 3 minutes and you walk away with a t-shirt and your name forever included in Bob’s Hall of Fame. Do it in 2 minutes and you’re getting a $10.95 refund, free drink, t-shirt, and Hall of Fame indoctrination.
Don’t be fooled by the long list of victors in Bob’s Hall of Fame though. Hear it from a Bob’s insider, “It’s probably over 90% that fail.”
That being said, James S. – who are you? And how did you eat The Big Donut in 1:15?
Supporting a Community That Returns the Favor
Bob’s donut challenge is just another facet of the business that makes it special and part of the community. In recent months, this very same community’s helped keep the kitchens busy.
Bob’s lost a lot of its typical corporate and tourism business, but generous local support has allowed the shop to sustain itself and provide.
Donuts lend themselves to grab-n-go dining, a fact that’s more than welcomed in the pandemic climate. And while there seems to be no hiding from third-party delivery apps these days, Bob’s has been fortunate in negotiating fees with Grubhub. Otherwise, like so many other restaurants, the partnership would produce little to no profit.
There’s a strong case to be made in favor of change when it comes to how we order food and how its delivered. Fortunately, Bob’s Donuts resides in an industry that seems to always be evolving.
Being set in one’s ways simply doesn’t work in the restaurant game. On top of using new marketing strategies to reach a digitally-minded community, Bob’s also wants its menu to reach diverse eaters.
An increased frequency in orders for vegan donuts prompted Bob’s to make its own recipe. There have also been requests for gluten-free products; however, right now Bob’s is limited by a single kitchen in each location. There’s no space to keep ingredients properly separated, and the only way Bob’s is going to do something is if the staff is able to do it right.
For now, gluten-free remains on the to-do list.
A New Style of Donut
There’s another donut worth mentioning. Meet: The Designer Donut.
Think of these guys and gals as having a little more “pizzazz” than the average fare. They’re still delicious but serve an additional purpose: They make for great Instagram content.
Bob’s staff will be the first to tell you that these donuts don’t sell as much, but they do draw people’s attention. And when these same people come through the door, they have plenty of options.
Designer or not, Bob’s has the goods. And admit it, you’ve spent time looking at pictures of pastries and other desserts on Instagram before. No judgment here.
For what it’s worth, a quick perusal of Bob’s Instagram won’t disappoint.
Bob’s Message to the Community: Thank You
Bob’s has a simple message for its community: Thank you.
Honestly, what more is there to say? Sometimes, it seems like we live in a society that’s completely forgotten about those two words. Bob’s Donuts begs to differ.
43 years of hard work has cemented the donut shop’s place within the community, and San Francisco residents couldn’t be happier to support a business that bakes with passion, markets quality over quantity, and looks for ways to know the people who eat its donuts.
After all, they sure know Bob’s!