by Les McGehee • Photography by Dustin Meyer
The multisensory siren song calls like a spinning Julie Andrews on a nearby Alp. You are defenseless, pulled north, past the campus and up to Airport Boulevard. Ladies and gentlemen, get out of the way—in a Holy Grail not much bigger than the real Holy Grail, it’s 8:39 p.m., the magic red beacon has been lit and hot donuts are coming off the line at Mrs. Johnson’s Bakery (“Mrs. J’s,” if you’re a regular).
“8:39 p.m.” is not a typo. As if your own grandma was blessing your perhaps questionable nocturnal activities, Mrs. Johnson’s opens in the late evenings, and bakes fresh donuts for the dessert hour, the midnight snack hour, again for bar-closing time and even later for those scuttling across dark parking lots needing an epiphanic, predawn donut experience. Then they close at noon, rest up and do it all over again. On this particular evening, the inside of Mrs. J’s vibrates with energy like the atom we were in awe of the year this supreme donutarium opened in 1948. Anxious customers nod, offer knowing glances and rhythmically pace around the space. There’s no shame; we all know why we’re here. We need a fix. Luckily, we’ll all leave happy and serviced, often with a complimentary Mrs. J’s piping-hot glazed donut placed atop the box cradling our warm stash…“a little something for the ride home,” the staff will say.
Make no mistake, this IS your daddy’s donut. And probably your granddaddy’s, too, if you’re from a longtime Austin family. Once a baking empire with multiple locations, production centers, pies, cakes and big contracts like AISD schools (take that, healthy breakfast program), Mrs. Johnson’s is now whittled down to this one beloved store with a highly concentrated, achingly devout fan base. One such fan over the years has been the locally lauded noodle czar Freddy Lee of Michi Ramen on North Lamar. The story goes that as soon as Lee came to Austin years ago to attend the University of Texas and major in economics, he checked into his college apartment, promptly went to Mrs. J’s and never stopped thinking about it. Around 1980, two employees, Sarah and Greg Patel, bought the bakery and have been steadily at the helm for more than 30 years. Recently, though, Lee persuaded the Patels to let him shepherd the business anew—to honor the traditional recipes and try to restore the shop to its ’60s glory, when more Austinites knew it for birthday cakes than for donuts. Of course, he promised to protect and remain true to the original donut recipes and to make sure that the method and recipe for the classic glazed remained unchanged, just as the adoring throngs would expect.
One of the first things Lee did was turn over the baking reins to Head Baker John Cassaro and Production Manager Aubrie Kazal-Thresher. The duo knows what Austinites love about Mrs. Johnson’s donuts, and not just the famous glazed ones. “Simple favorites like our strawberry icing, Bavarian cream and apple fritters are made from the best products we can get,” says Cassaro. “We’re going to grow the business, yet we know we’re standing on the shoulders of tradition.” Cassaro then parades out a popular new item: the barbecue kolache. “We get the brisket from Johnny T’s in Pflugerville,” he says. “That other unique flavor you’re noticing is the smoked salt we bake on the kolache.”
Expect a few other surprises from Mrs. J’s, Austin. “We’re down with crazy donuts, yet we’re also purists,” says Kazal-Thresher. “We should be making pies and cookies by Thanksgiving. And for the pumpkin pie, we’ll use roasted, real, local pumpkins.” But don’t forget to make those donuts, y’all. Lots and lots of donuts. “You just never know who will show up,” says Cassaro. “At two a.m. recently, a bicyclist came up the drive-thru and said, ‘I am one of many.’ Then, over a hundred bicyclists showed up on a full-moon ride.”
Truth be told, though, the folks at Mrs. J’s know exactly who will show up—the steady stream of musicians, bar patrons, comedians, audience members, late-night snackers, weirdos and night owls that always have; appreciated old and new faces who’ve sought thousands upon thousands of hot donuts for over 66 years. It’s the only place in town that answers the question: “Who deserves a donut?” And if there’s a more joyful or satisfying purchase one can make for 65 cents in the middle of the night, we’d sure like to know what that might be.
Quotes included in this article are on-the-spot feedback from happy, longtime customers.
We’d drive up from our San Gabriel Avenue ‘college estate’ at two or three in the morning to watch them roll off the assembly line into the hot oil. We’d get them as soon as they came out. You could squish a whole donut into about a square inch. We would each eat about six. Yummmmmm.
They used to have an aerial photo on the wall that was taken by a pilot landing at the old Austin airport. One of the approaches passed right over the shop, and the pilots said they looked for the red ‘HOT DONUTS’ sign to be lit as they landed. They would stop by for donuts when they left the airport.
By far the best, pure donut in town! I have plenty of times (perhaps a little tipsy) stopped there late-night. I pick up a couple dozen for my kids to have a treat before school the next morning. It never hurts that they give you that warm donut for the ride home. Sticky goodness.
We used to go there in the ’80s after a night out. Then go across the street and sit on the railing by the school and eat warm donuts.