St. Louis Standards: Donut Drive-In Has Been Making St. Louis Sweeter for Nearly 70 Years


The Donut Drive-In sign has been a beacon for St. Louis for decades. - ANDY PAULISSEN
  • The Donut Drive-In sign has been a beacon for St. Louis for decades.

St. Louis Standards is a weekly column dedicated to the people, places and dishes that make our food scene what it is.

When Kevin McKernan thinks back on his happiest childhood memories, the ones involving Donut Drive-In (6525 Chippewa Street, 314-645-7714) stand out the most vividly. On certain weekdays, he and his mom would head to the south-city doughnut shop — him rolling up on his big wheel — grab a couple of vanilla long johns and head to the nearby Francis Park for some quality time. It was such a simple outing, but it felt so special.

“I remember going up there with my mom and my dog after kindergarten,” McKernan recalls. “I had other siblings, but they were older and in school all day, so this was the time I had my mom all to myself. It’s one of my happiest memories. Everyone who grew up in St. Louis has their own little doughnut shop, and that was mine.”

A few decades later, McKernan can’t believe he is now the one in charge of keeping those memories alive at such a beloved institution. Since last year, he’s been the owner of the St. Louis Hills mainstay, where he sees himself as more of a steward than a proprietor of the 68-year-old shop. It’s a role he never thought he’d assume. A teacher by trade, McKernan got interested in business around the time he opened the Improv Shop in the Grove in 2009. That dip into entrepreneurship piqued his interest in other opportunities, and he would regularly check business brokerage sites to see what was out there. One day, he came across a posting that he assumed was for Donut Drive-In, and he knew he had to act.

Donut Drive-In has been bringing little moments of joy to St. Louis for nearly 70 years. - ANDY PAULISSEN
  • Donut Drive-In has been bringing little moments of joy to St. Louis for nearly 70 years.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s Donut Drive-In; I can’t let anything happen to Donut Drive-In.’ It’s just too big of an institution,” McKernan says. “I started talking to my wife to see if we could swing it to make sure it keeps going. We met the owner, who was selling it because he was retiring, and told him that we wouldn’t change it.”

McKernan has stayed true to his word, keeping everything exactly as it’s always been at the nearly seven-decades-old shop and staying out of the way of the longtime employees who serve as a living history of the place. At this point, that’s the best window into its past he has, since much of Donut Drive-In’s origin story has gotten lost over the years. What McKernan does know — and what he stresses is passed down by oral tradition and not confirmed by any records he’s come across — is that the shop was built in 1953 by Wachter, Inc., a construction company that built several of the little white doughnut shops scattered around the city. From what McKernan has gathered, the owner of Wachter left the shop to his daughter, who was married to a man named John Harter; to the best of his knowledge, the two of them ran it for a while before selling it at some point to Thomas Charleville, then-owner of Thomas Coffee Company. Charleville was at the helm until 1996, when he sold it to the Schwartz family, who ran several St. Louis-area Dunkin’ Donuts and operated Donut Drive-In until selling it to McKernan last year.

Long johns and glazed twists are some of the most popular items at Donut Drive-In. - ANDY PAULISSEN
  • Long johns and glazed twists are some of the most popular items at Donut Drive-In.

“To me, swooping something up a year ago is less cool than the people who have dedicated years of their lives to that place that know what they are doing,” McKernan says. “My piece is so much smaller than the people who run the place and work hard. It’s a 600-square-foot building; everything is done in-house, and it’s tough. It’s a lot of work, and the people who’ve worked there for decades are happy and still going along for the ride with me. I’m so thankful for that, because they are the rock stars.”

McKernan is clear that the longtime employees who’ve stuck with Donut Drive-In through the years are the key to its success. However, he also believes that the place wouldn’t be what it is without its outstanding namesake product, which, to his knowledge, hasn’t changed at all since the shop opened nearly seven decades ago. The recipes remain the same, and the bakers still hand-cut all of the doughnuts — a necessary technique because the tiny workspace precludes mechanical equipment. Those two factors, combined with the impressive skill of the bakers, mean the doughnuts are consistent, so that customers can count on the same quality time and again.

The apple fritters are a customer favorite. - ANDY PAULISSEN
  • The apple fritters are a customer favorite.

But for McKernan, the unquantifiable things make Donut Drive-In so special. Whether it’s putting smiley faces on the long johns for kids on the weekends or watching parents walk away hand in hand with their little ones, he and his team see their place at the shop as more than a job; they feel that they are preserving a little piece of St. Louis history — one apple fritter at a time.

“We can never make enough of those apple fritters, and it’s cool to have a thing that people are excited about,” says McKernan. “This may sound ridiculous, but when people get an apple fritter, they are so authentically happy. It’s just a random thing in someone’s day, but you can tell it means something. It’s just a little thing and a treat, but when they get it, you can tell what it means to them. It’s pretty cool to be part of that.”

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