Jim Swift: A man, a doughnut, a dream.

Rocket Donuts’ owner wants shop to harken back to the carefree days of his youth

BBJ photo/MARK MALIJAN
HE TAKES DONUTS VERY SERIOUSLY: Jim Swift wanted to open a donut shop for years, but the time was never right — until now. Swift’s Rocket Donuts has opened, already expanded into its neighboring space on Holly Street, and a second location, a drive-through on Samish Way will open soon.

Heidi Schiller
   Ah, the simple times.
   When doughnuts were wholesome, drive-ins were king, and Kennedy-era science fiction movies all the rage. It’s a time Jim Swift has evoked in his new doughnut shop, Rocket Donuts, at 306 W. Holly St.
   Swift is an entrepreneur who has made his childhood passions mouthwateringly tangible again by reintroducing traditional doughnuts from the ‘50s and ‘60s to Bellingham’s orbit.

Doughnut evolution
   In 1952, when Swift was 6 years old and living in Buffalo, N.Y., he tasted his first doughnut at the local Spudnut Shop, a doughnut chain that still has a few lingering locations around the country.
   “They were yummy, yummy donuts,” he remembered.
   In Swift’s present-day shop, doo-wop hits blend with black-and-white Flash Gordon movies playing on flat-screen TVs. A collection of original ‘50s and ‘60s science fiction posters hang on the wall. Films like The Earth Dies Screaming, The Day Mars Invaded Earth, Invisible Crusaders and The Hideous Sun Demon, have been framed, and monster heads perch on bright yellow corner ledges. Gort, the 8-foot-tall animatronic robot replica from The Day the Earth Stood Still, guards doughnut fans as they sample the shop’s wares.
   As a child, Swift discovered the fun of fried, sweetened dough, and wanted to share that love with Bellingham.
   “Kids just love doughnuts. Especially the sprinkled ones,” he said, gesturing to a pigtailed girl in pink, eating a doughnut at the window counter with her father.
   At that moment, an employee asked the father-daughter duo: “How is everything?”
   “Oh it’s just great, as usual. She always gets the sprinkled doughnuts,” the father replied.
   “See, see?” Swift said. “It’s just incredible, it’s like a magnet. They come in and they see the sprinkles and they just want those doughnuts. Hopefully they’ll eventually graduate to something more sophisticated.”
   Like a raspberry Bismarck, Swift’s favorite.
   Born in Los Angeles, Swift and his family moved to Buffalo so his father could attend dental school. Back in L.A. a few years later, Swift found himself in the era’s doughnut Mecca. He remembers doughnut shops rising from the heat waves with giant, 30-foot doughnut statues.
   In the ‘60s, doughnut shops exploded, Swift said. But then the craze faded in the ‘80s due a to decline in doughnut chains’ product quality and freshness and a national increase in health and nutrition awareness. In other words, doughnuts didn’t jive well with Jazzercise.
   “I think what happens if there isn’t a really conscious intention to create really delicious, high-quality fresh doughnuts, and just make as much money as possible out of a doughnut shop, there’s sort of an insidious philosophical corruption that occurs,” he said. “People started to skimp on the quality. They didn’t throw away the old doughnuts, they served them. They just cut corners on quality, and sales declined.”
   But then in the late ‘90s, Krispy Kreme began a major national expansion, and hunger for the treats piqued again.
   “I think a lot of people remembered, especially when they were younger, having good doughnuts, and maybe didn’t even notice that they were gone,” he said. “And then, all of a sudden, these interesting, novel doughnuts come back and they got excited again.”
   However, when Swift moved to Bellevue from L.A. eight years ago with his wife, Lucky, his reconnaissance revealed a dearth of quality doughnuts within a 40-mile radius.
   At the time, he considered solving the problem by opening a doughnut shop in the Seattle area.
   “I vetoed the idea,” Lucky said. To her, it didn’t seem like the right thing to do at the time.
   And when the couple moved to Bellingham in 2005, Swift encountered the same problem. This time, Lucky felt the time was right, and gave him her blessing to open up a rockin’ doughnut shop.

Gort, the evil robot from "The Day the Earth Stood Still," now guards donut eaters on Holly Street at Rocket Donuts.

One fine day
   Over the course of a year, the couple traveled all over California, New York City, Florida and Washington to taste doughnuts.
   Swift, who owned a Mexican restaurant in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and an ice-cream franchise with more than 40 stores, as well as a company that produced wholesale pies, bought the building on Holly Street about two years ago and decided to use the first-floor space to launch Rocket Donuts.
   Creating a nostalgic environment was important to Swift when he opened Rocket Donuts. He didn’t want to reinvent them; he wanted to recreate his favorites from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
   The store brings out the kid in Swift, especially memories and associations with that era and the simplicity of that time.
   “Doughnuts are a simple treat. They’re not complex French pastries. They’re a somewhat basic product,” he said.
   Like science-fiction movies, doughnuts represent fun and playfulness and, therefore, the store’s retro feel was fitting, Swift said.
   “When I was a kid, I was wild about science-fiction movies, and I saw a lot of them at Saturday matinees. They’re fun and they’re silly,” he said. The store’s theme attracts a pan-generational crowd. “It seems to work for people my age and it works really well for the new generation of kids.”
   Part of recreating the doughnut world of his memory involved focusing on quality and freshness. Swift’s bakers make several batches of doughnuts throughout the day.
   Dressed all in white and topped with a chef’s hat, Jake Port, one of Rocket Donut’s three bakers, looks like a cotton-swathed astronaut with stainless steel clamps he uses to lift and lower the donut tray into a bubbling vat of oil.
   Port said he makes three or four batches of doughnuts each day.
   The case out front is replenished with ring-shaped doughnuts sprinkled with a pink candy solar system; frosting-covered, monolithic maple bars; glowing pink oozing Bismarcks and a bulbous asteroid mass of apple fritter.
   A minefield for dieters one might say?
   Not so, apparently.
   For those who are concerned about caloric intake, Swift said they can opt for a cruller, which has 150 calories, or a glazed doughnut, which has 180. Compared to the calorie counts of muffins and bagels, some doughnuts even start to look like the healthier option.
   “People have an erroneous misconception about the caloric content of most doughnuts,” Swift said. “Maybe because they’re sweet and they’re so good, people think they have to be bad for you.”
   But Swift hasn’t worried too much about people perceiving doughnuts as unhealthy because despite Bellingham’s generally health-conscious community, the issue isn’t in most of his customers’ sphere of concern.
   People heading to the Old Town Café a few doors down for breakfast often stop at Rocket Donuts first, or on their way back.
   “There are a lot of people who are interested in eating healthy food and having a healthy lifestyle who will still stop in and have a doughnut and a coffee,” he said. “It’s a reward, and as long as people don’t overdo it and camp out here and make doughnuts their primary food source, they’re going to be fine.”
   For Lucky, however, the store’s opening has increased her sweet tooth.
   “It’s been a real curse, because our freezer is filled with doughnuts and when I have insomnia, it’s the first place I go. It can be disastrous,” she jokes.
   Swift’s enthusiasm for his doughnut shop seems boundless, and his wife attributes it to his entrepreneurial spirit and love of food.
   “Anytime in his life he’s wanted a food product and couldn’t get it, he’s started a business,” she said.
   After recently expanding the West Holly Street location, Swift is readying to open a Rocket Donuts drive-through on Samish Way. If that venture goes well, Swift would like to open more drive-throughs in the area.
   “But I certainly don’t have plans, like a lot of the creatures on these sci-fi posters, to take over the world, spreading doughnuts everywhere,” he said. “I’m not interested in growing a large business. I’ve already done that. I’m 60, I should be retired. You know, out playing golf. Except I don’t play golf.”

A brief history of the doughnut ‘giants’
   Spudnut Shop: The franchise started in 1946 in Salt Lake City, by brothers Al and Bob Pelton. The doughnuts were made from potato flour. Eventually, the parent company went out of business, but 35 of the shops still remain. The only Washington store is in Richland, according to www.spudnutshop.com.
   Winchell’s: First opened in 1948 in Temple City, Calif. by Verne H. Winchell, the company is now headquartered in City of Industry, Calif. and still operates 170 franchises in 12 states. Ten stores are located in Washington, but none in Whatcom County.
   Krispy Kreme: Vernon Rudolph founded the now ubiquitous doughnut store in 1937 in Winston-Salem, N.C. The chain opened stores in the Southeast until Rudolph died in 1973, and the company was sold to a larger corporation, Beatrice Foods. Then in the ‘80s, a group of original franchise owners purchased the company from Beatrice Foods and began a major expansion push outside the Southeast. There are now 299 stores in 41 states, according to www.krispykreme.com.

Related Stories