Oldtime Santa Rosa doughnut maker ‘tired’ after 78 years working so selling his shop

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When flour-dusted Frank Whigham shuts his bakery shop in a few weeks, he’ll leave a hole in a whole lot of lives.

At 89, Whigham is an old-school doughnut maker whose finickiness delights fans of his and his wife’s simple Donut Cafe on Santa Rosa’s Montgomery Drive.

“I don’t use no cheap flavors,” said Whigham, whose hair matches the white of his apron and his coconut-frosted cake doughnuts.

He recalled Thursday of taking to heart, as a young man, the directive of his uncle the baker: “Make the best product you can — and charge for it. People will pay for quality.”

Whigham gets $1.95 for his oversized apple or blueberry fritters and real cinnamon cinnamon twists, $1.25 for his airy French crullers and 95 cents for his cake and raised doughnuts.

If customers say anything about the price of the yummies, it’s typically to ask why they don’t cost more.

“They’re a couple notches above everywhere else you go,” Joe Kennedy, a Donut Cafe regular, said from the small counter in the shop in a strip mall near Howarth Park.

Kennedy said he’s there often to know that some people drive long distances to eat what Whigham and his wife, Champa, make.

Oh, yes, Frank Whigham said. He’s got customers who travel from Marin County, from the Sonoma County coast.

“A couple of them come from Napa,” he said. “I’ve got them coming from Clearlake.”

So the shock will be felt widely after a planned sale is completed, renovations are made and his cafe becomes a different sort of restaurant.

Until then, Whigham will keep making his old-fashioned doughnuts for people who think they’re something special.

On-duty police officers often are among the first customers in the door when the Whighams unlock it at 5:30 a.m. every day. No surprise there.

But Whigham gets a kick out of all the health-conscious doctors and hospital workers who also buy his goods.

He said, “Even my own doctor comes in once in a while. He wears a hat and different glasses and I don’t even recognize him.”

Eating his own doughnuts and strudel and butterhorns and other sweets hasn’t seemed to hurt Whigham’s health. A year short of age 90, his eyes are as bright as his smile and he manages to put in about 18 hours of work every day with Champa.

Is that even possible?

Whigham said he and his wife, whom he met on a trip to Cambodia, are just doing what they have to do when they begin making their 50 or so varieties of doughnuts and baked goods at about midnight. They welcome customers at 5:30 a.m., close at 3 p.m. (2 p.m. on weekends) and then spend several hours cleaning.

For years, Whigham has donated whatever doughnuts and pastries remain unsold at day’s end to organizations that serve people in need.

He has given too many dozens to count to the Vet Connect program and Victory Outreach for Women, and now donates exclusively to the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Room.

Whigham has worked pretty much the same hours for 78 years. After learning the basics from his uncle, he owned and operated a succession of four doughnut shops in and or near San Francisco.

When he started out on his own in the early 1960s, he called his shop Doralyn’s, after his first wife. He’d retired but decided he didn’t like it so in 2008 he and his business partner at the time, his son, Cliff Whigham, opened the Donut Cafe in a former used-book store on Montgomery Drive.

All these decades later, now it’s no wonder that the inhuman demands on a mom-and-pop doughnut maker unwilling to take shortcuts has Whigham feeling the way he feels.

“I’m tired,” he said. “My wife’s tired.”

So they’re selling the business. The Whighams are in the process of transferring ownership of the enterprise to Kanha Kien.

Like Champa Whigham, Kien came to the United States from Cambodia. She runs Yo Panda, a restaurant on Sebastopol Road at Corporate Center Parkway. She’s eager to expand.

Kien, 31, plans to offer bagels, croissants, Vietnamese sandwiches and other foods — and of course a selection of doughnuts.

When exactly the business will change hands is not certain. Frank Whigham said he expects to keep his doughnut shop open through at least the end of February.

It pleases him that Kien intends to make doughnuts at her yet-to-be-named cafe. Said the old master, “I’ll give her some hints.”

You can contact Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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