A NYC Donut Mystery!
Plus! Classified Ad Contest!! What's Up With the Missing Hand?!?!?
Welcome to Issue #95 of CAFÉ ANNE!
It’s been a while. There’s so much to discuss!
First, to illustrate the last issue, which featured an account of my effort to go a week without lying, I took a stab at using AI to generate an image. I went to Microsoft Bing’s Image Creator and issued a request: “Draw me a picture of a lady telling the truth in New York City, in the style of a 19th century ink drawing.” It spit out the following illustration, which I found quite delightful:
I was even more delighted when a closer inspection revealed something strange: the truth-telling lady was, for no apparent reason, missing her right hand! Would anyone notice?
Upon publication, only one person, reader Appleton King in Maine, commented on the missing limb. “BTW—did that woman lose a hand in an industrial accident?” he wondered. “If so, how will Anne hold a coffee cup?”
So now I’m curious—how many others noticed, but did not say anything, just to be polite? Also, why is the lady missing a hand? Is the AI trying to make a point? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
I also wanted to thank everyone for your thoughtful feedback on the no-lying experiment, especially the readers who suggested the very short and very relevant Lying by Sam Harris.
I read it. Twice! And while I don’t agree with Mr. Harris on everything, it did inspire a new goal: to become the sort of person who always tells the truth, without hurting anyone’s feelings. This may not even be possible, but it’s for sure something to aspire to. Meanwhile, I still reserve the right to exaggerate if it makes a story better!
In other news, I got to play guestie on another podcast, writer Gabe Hudson’s “Kurt Vonnegut Radio” show. Mr. Hudson is a very good interviewer whereas I am just learning how to talk, so the episode is really something.
I’m also pleased to report that my experiment with a classified ad section is going well. The extra $$$ will help ensure I can keep every word of CAFÉ ANNE free for everybody—no paywalls ever!
I’m also hoping, of course, that the section will be extremely entertaining. To that end, I’m running a classified ad contest!
Please send me the most intriguing ad you can write and I’ll run my favorite for free in the next issue.
Your ad can promote an organization, a service or a product for sale. It could be a help-wanted post, a personals ad, or a shoutout to a friend—anything you can imagine. But it must:
Be real (no phony joke ads please)
Include one link and/or email address
Not exceed 60 words
Include a short headline
Please send your submission to email@example.com with the subject line
”Ad Contest.” Deadline is Friday.
And if you’d like to pay for an ad, please check here for deets.
Finally, huge Autumn-In-New-York-It’s-Good-To-Live-It-Again shoutouts to new paid subscribers Larry S., Kevin D., Edward S., Andrew P., Mark P. and Karen K. That’s enough $$$ for 51 round-trip expeditions to Inwood Park for a final round of leaf-peeping!
I’m very excited for this week’s issue, of course. The feature is a rerun, as I was away on a retreat last week, but it’s one of my favorite stories ever—an account of my efforts to find the source of NYC’s street cart donuts. Please enjoy.
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A NYC Donut Mystery!
Like snowflakes, no two NYC breakfast carts are the same. There’s the old-school sidewalk cart with a minimalist menu of pastries and coffee and the newfangled variety featuring fluorescent food photos and exotic fare like oatmeal. Many are manned by a single, grey-haired proprietor, others by ladies in headscarves. But one factor is constant—the donuts.
Whether the cart is in Brooklyn or the Bronx, Midtown or Wall Street, you’ll see the same donuts—sugary, glazed monsters of astonishing heft, six inches in diameter, stacked on metal shelves behind the cart’s cloudy glass.
I’ve always wondered about these donuts, and I’m not alone. A CAFÉ ANNE reader recently wrote to ask, “Where do they come from and why do they exist?” I found a NYC subreddit thread with folks asking the same question.
I started making half-hearted efforts to investigate about a month ago. One coffee cart guy gave me the address for his donut supplier, but my email to the company got no reply. A Google search unearthed some promising leads in Queens, but no one answered the phone. Finally, last week, I had what felt like a promising conversation with Ahman Khalifa, who runs a breakfast cart in Downtown Brooklyn.
Mr. Khalifa used to run his own restaurant—a Manhattan hotel coffee shop—but he had trouble making the rent. He bought his coffee cart in 1992, but that didn’t solve the rent problem. Because the city no longer issues new food cart permits, he said, most operators have to rent a permit on the black market. The going rate is about $6,000 a year.
Every morning before dawn, he drives from his home in Bay Ridge to a garage near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he stores his cart overnight. He loads the steel wagon with breakfast supplies, hitches it to his truck and drives to Downtown Brooklyn where he sells egg sandwiches, bagels, coffee, tea and gigantic donuts from 5 am ‘til noon.
“It’s hard. If I had a choice I wouldn’t do it,” he said.
I asked what he’d like to do instead.
“Now it’s too late!” he laughed. “You know what I’m saying? You’ve been in the business too many years, you want to stick with it. Plus, it’s your own business, no one will push you around. Nobody tells you what to do.”
“I’d love to retire but I don’t know when,” he added. “I told my friend, ‘We’re going to drop dead here I think!’”
Still, he seems to have a good time with his customers, many of whom are regulars. The most popular order, he said, is an egg-and-cheese sandwich with coffee—$4.50. And the top-selling donut is his personal favorite, the $1.25 glazed.
“The apple-cinnamon, not too many like,” he said. “Whole wheat also. Some people like that, but most people don’t. When you go for the donut, you go for the donut!”
So where do street cart donuts come from?
“Mac Donut is the biggest one,” he said of the city’s donut wholesalers. “That’s where I order from. It’s famous! It’s a big bakery. For the whole Tri-State area—not just New York.”
Excited, I pedaled home and jumped online. And was immediately crushed. Mac Donut it seemed, had recently closed.
But I had another lead. That afternoon, I biked over to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, hoping to find the food cart depot where Mr. Khalifa told me the city’s wholesalers deliver baked goods to the coffee cart guys.
I found the depot—a dank garage between two auto repair shops—filled with several dozen food carts. It was oddly disconcerting to see the carts standing empty and unmanned.
Before long, a food vendor drove in to drop off his cart. As he unhitched the wagon from his truck, Gabriel Saad, who is from Egypt and has been operating in Manhattan since 1999, confirmed that Mac Doughnut is history. “That was a very beautiful doughnut.” he said mournfully. “The best donut.”
Where does he get his donuts now?
To my delight, he rummaged in his cart and produced a packing slip.
Most coffee cart operators now order donuts from Nice and Fresh Inc., a company in Queens, he said. The wholesale bakery delivers his order to the garage every morning before 2 am.
His favorite donut, by the way, is the eclair, along with the cruller and the Boston cream: “But I stopped eating donuts because I got a little fat.”
The next day, I considered calling Nice and Fresh Inc. to see if I could get the owner on the phone, then thought better of it. Better to just show up and see what happens.
The factory, it turns out, is located near the Steinway stop on the R train in Astoria. I passed a block of limestone tenements and a used car lot surrounded by razor wire before I found the right address. But there was no sign of a donut factory.
Still it seemed worth a closer look. I crossed the street and approached a man on a forklift. “Is there a donut bakery here?” I asked.
He nodded. That’s when I noticed the pallet on his forklift. It was loaded with cinnamon swirl donuts!
“I’m writing a story on where coffee cart donuts come from,” I said.
He nodded as if this happens every day. “You can go inside and talk to the guy there,” he said. “Ruben.”
Ruben Normatov was standing just inside the truck bay, smoking a Parliament. It was my lucky day—Mr. Normatov was the owner!
Mr. Normatov got right into it: “We’re a wholesale bakery, okay? We’ve been in business over thirty years. My father and my mother started the business, then me and my brothers continue running it. My older brother’s upstairs. We’ve been in business doing great product! Great product! Everybody’s happy about it!”
The whole family is from Tajikistan, he said. “You know where that is? It’s next to Afghanistan. One of the Russian republics. The old ones. Stupid Russia!”
His parents got their start operating a sidewalk coffee cart. He ran his own cart as a young man near Madison Square Garden. “I’ve been in the business all my life,” he said. “I never graduated high school. I did to tenth grade and then didn’t see that it was for me. I was alright with the education. I speak 4-5 languages!”
The company produces 15,000 donuts on a typical day, and delivers them overnight to food cart depots all over the city.
The factory operates a second shift producing muffins and other pastries. “53 varieties!” said Mr. Normatov. “But we specialize in donuts.”
Before the pandemic he was doing double the business, he said. But with many people working remotely, there’s far fewer office workers gobbling coffee and pastries from sidewalk breakfast carts. He’s been happy just to keep all 45 employees on the payroll.
“This business—there’s been so many people who have been competing, and they just die from heart attacks and serious health complications,” he said. “The business is very tough. You have so many employees, you have so many expenses. People think it’s gold over here. It’s not like that!”
The most popular donut is the glazed—his own favorite. And it’s very special. “Ours are very light,” he said. “Much less calories than most of the donuts. Because there is a process that we do with them. We actually don’t deep-fry them. They are floating on top of the oil. We have a donut line.”
Alas, he was not prepared to give an impromptu factory tour. The bakery is being renovated, he said. I could come back later and see everything.
“You want me to give you something to take a look at? Just stay here for a moment,” he said.
He disappeared behind a plastic curtain and came back bearing a large cardboard box.
‘What is this?” I asked.
The box was very heavy.
“Can I just take one donut?” I asked.
I thanked him and asked if I could photograph the exterior of his bakery. As I was snapping away, he came out and gave me the box again.
“I don’t want to take it back. I already gave it to you,” he said. “Call me! Call me! We’re re-doing the walls! Re-doing the floors! It’s not easy!”
I promised to return for a tour.
Feeling satisfied, I walked around the corner and sampled a donut. I’m not really a glazed donut fan, but I have to say, it was very delicious. I still have the sugar all over my tote bag, hoodie and cell phone to prove it.
I offered the rest of the donuts to some kids passing by, but they looked frightened. Then I spotted the Soft Bubbles Laundromat down the block. The owners were happy to take the donuts for their customers.
That’s all for now! I’m still planning to return to the factory for a tour. If you have any questions for Mr. Normatov, or have another NYC mystery you’d like me to investigate, please drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAFÉ ANNE is a free weekly newsletter created by Brooklyn journalist Anne Kadet. Subscribe to get the latest issue every Monday!