By ANNE KADET
On a recent New York City visit, Kristie Garduno took her kids to Doughnut Plant, a tiny Lower East Side shop. A friend back home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., had recommended the place, she explained. After taking photos of the fry cakes offered like jewels in the display case and ordering for the whole gang, she took a bite of her modestly portioned tres leches donut. "Awesome!" she exclaimed. It better have been. The tab for four donuts: $12.50.
Used to be, you could count on donuts for two features: They were cheap, and they would kill you. But now, you can depend only on the latter. Most big cities now boast at least one shop offering exotically flavored donuts (chili mango, apricot cardamom) at prices heretofore reserved for something more substantial -- like a Cadillac. Those Doughnut Plant desserts, for example, cost three times what you'd pay at the train station coffee shop.
The James Beard Foundation named artisan donuts one of its 2012 trends to watch, and there are plenty of places to watch it. Glazed and Infused in Chicago says one of its best sellers is the $3.25 Maple Bacon Long John, topped with an entire strip of bacon. In San Francisco, folks line up for pricey vegan donuts at Pepples. Pub crawlers favor Gourdough's Big Fat Donuts in Austin, Texas, where treats max out at $6.25. And at Brooklyn's Do or Dine, the $11 foie gras donuts sell out every night.
The craze comes amid a larger donut renaissance. Supermarket sales rose steadily after the recession, and revenue at Krispy Kreme and Dunkin' Brands grew 17 percent over the past two years. When times are tough, we crave comfort food, says Anna Mowry, an editor at the Beard Foundation. And nothing puts you in a coma faster than a deep-fried wheel of flour and sugar.
But there's more at stake: What folks really want, trend watchers say, is a small indulgence that can compensate for the bypassed vacation or new car. Thus we have the rage for microbrews, exotic soaps, pedicures and, yes, gourmet donuts. Ryan Palmer, a Gourdough's founder, says that when he raised his prices by a dollar last year, nobody blinked. Five bucks is a lot for a donut, but it's not too much for a special treat.
We're also looking for treats that simultaneously fulfill our cravings and assuage our guilt. The new-new donuts fit the bill, says Kara Nielsen, a food trendologist with CCD Innovation. They're often made from organic, locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. They are gluten-free, trans fat free and, of course, pesticide-free. They walk blind ladies across the street and end apartheid. When you eat one of these donuts, you're not pigging out, you're doing the world a favor.
And there's a reason for the high prices. While most mass-market donuts are made from prefab mix, the artisan donuts are made by hand. Even at $3 a pop, the profit margins are lower than those on the $6-a-dozen donuts at the big chains, says Megan Brown, the business consultant who cofounded Glazed and Infused.
But that leaves a metaphysical question. If a donut costs more than a dollar, is it still a donut? Licking their fingers at Doughnut Plant, Garduno's gang seemed unsure what they'd just eaten. "It's a little refined," said her boyfriend, Sanford Rinda. "More like cake." Still, he finished every crumb.