January 26, 2008
Authenticity and Linda's Donuts

Sometimes, your life changes when you don't have a car. I decided to work from home one day last week, to do some writing from home. Now that I live outside of Boston and Cambridge, though, out in Belmont here in the Boston area, it's not quite as easy to run out for some lunch on foot. But I had dropped my suit off at the dry cleaners' on the corner, the one who waved at us when we drove by--a move that was so Kentucky-like in nature that we decided to give that particular dry cleaners--Hemmingway--a try.

A couple of blocks away, there's a small little restaurant I noticed shortly after moving in here last summer, but I'd never dropped in. The restaurant opens at 6 a.m. each morning, but it's always closed by the early afternoon. I had driven by on the morning commute and especially on weekend mornings and seen a virtual traffic jam around this place.

It's name is Linda's Donuts, and the store touts that these particular donuts are "hand-cut."

I figured I didn't have much to lose, so I stopped in. It was about 30 minutes until closing, and there was just a man cooking in the back and what i figured was his son--about my age--sweeping up among the five or six tables the restaurant had as a seating area.

"You can order anything from the lunch menu, and the breakfast menu's over there," the younger man said to me, taking a break from his sweeping. I finally decided that I'd try a breakfast sandwich for lunch after all, and the man in the back immediately threw and egg and some sausage links onto the grill. As he cooked, I started a conversation at the counter. The younger man told me that his parents had bought the building 25 years ago or so and that Linda's had been his life, and a staple in the Belmont area throughout that time.

"We have people who drive across the state to have our donuts," he said. "We have someone who comes over from New Hampshire once every two weeks to buy a couple dozen of our donuts." We talked about the Boston area's obsession with Dunkin' Donuts, to which the man said that he thought, as the chain got bigger, the quality had dropped. "Dunkin' Donuts really wasn't bad until about 10 years ago," he said. "They just aren't as fresh anymore."

I relayed my own experiences with chains, and actually donuts, back in Kentucky, comparing the local IGA member's donuts against the ones they make at Wal-Mart, and we discussed the affect Wal-Mart has on small towns, to which the man said, "I heard the Wal-Marts down in that part of the country are huge." He doesn't know the half of it.

As I was about to leave, the man said, "But you haven't had the Linda's experience unless you've had one of our donuts. Have one on the house. You'll be back."

On the walk home, I realized that I was already determined to like this food. And it's all about authenticity. What I'd just had was an "authentic" experience, no doubt. But what does that mean? And what was it about that moment at Linda's Donuts that had me convinced, that had me somehow "rooting" for the quality of the food? Why did they get me on their side?

And then it dawned on me. It's really about passion. How often do you go to a store in which the employee not only has extensive product knowledge, but they seem to have a vested interest in whether you buy the product or not? And by that I'm not talking about those annoying experiences like at a car lot where you realize the person talking to you is working on commission and would tell you anything you want to hear, just so you drive off the lot and they get a cut.

I'm talking about a situation where the people serving or selling to you seem to authentically believe in their product, to feel pride in their job. Hard to do when you're making minimum wage for a chain, for sure, and easier to do when it's your family's livelihood.

I got home, and the Linda's didn't disappoint. I ended up looking on Yelp, where I found the following reviews, among others:

"The same people have been working there forever and the same locals have been hanging out there forever. My grandmother used to work there in her 30's! As the saying goes, anything that's been around that long - has to be good. Once you have a fresh made donut or breakfast sandwich from Linda's, you'll be thoroughly disgusted by Dirty Dunks."

"Linda's Sausage Egg and Cheese is retardedly good. I didn't know they got this good. They use lovely little links all sliced up instead of a patty, and the egg is perfectly set without being burnt or runny, which you just can't have with a breakfast sandwich. The guy who put it on the table in front of me also made it. He also smiled at me."

"This is the only place I would consider going to early morning - style. I don't want to talk shit about any international houses, cause they serve their purposes when you are drunk, or hungover, but - good breakfast is a good thing to know where to find."

Chains and franchises are everywhere, and I don't oppose them, because it's sometimes great to see a familiar place and have some indicator of the quality of food you're going to get when you stop in somewhere. I'm known to take my trips to the Olive Garden, or my wife to Red Lobster, or even an occasional KFC or Chick-fil-A, but the one thing that chains can rarely beat the local places on is passion, that rooting factor that I just don't feel for the big guys. I have seen chains find their way to deliver some degree of authenticity, but there's none of them out there quite like Linda's.

Just makes me wonder how all companies can think about how to make their experience a little bit more like Linda's, and by that I particularly mean customer-centered, passionate, and informative.

By the way, see the discussion about authenticity the C3 team had with Joe Pine awhile back.