It's not a dream—it's Allie's!
Everyone loves doughnuts, but is it just our own geocentricity that makes us think that of everyone in the world, New Englanders love doughnuts more? And that of everyone in New England, Rhode Islanders love doughnuts the most?
It would be an exaggeration to say that you could throw a rock anywhere in Rhode Island and hit a doughnut shop, but gosh darn it, that doesn't mean there aren't a hell of a lot of them out there. In fact, as of 2015 Rhode Island has three Bess Eaton shops, at least twenty-eight Honey Dew Donuts, and 183 Dunkin Donuts, as well as a myriad of mom and pop bakeries turning out their own versions of the round pastries.
You may well ask, who amongst this tangle of confectionary foodstuffs offers a superior doughnut? Is there one that stands above the rest? Where oh where shall I go to tickle my tongue, please my palate, and gratify my guts? Ask almost any Rhode Islander and he'll reply, with a catch in his throat and a tear in his eye, "Allie's!"
The call of the donut
You might assume that Allie's was named for a woman, but you'd be wrong. Frederick Alvin "Allie" Briggs started the business in a converted grinder shop in June 1968 with only a bankroll of fifty dollars and a powerful hankering to make the best donuts anyone had ever tasted. During ten years spent learning his craft at Bonnet Market in Wakefield, he not only mastered the basics of the business, he also formulated his own ideas of what made a donut delicious. By the end of Briggs' first day in his own shop, selling handmade donuts at 39 cents per dozen, the East Greenwich native earned $38 and the invaluable esteem of his satisfied customers. Word spread and business boomed.
By 1984 Allie's was selling 400 dozen doughnuts every day—in winter. In summer they were selling a respectable 600 to 800 dozen. Stacked one on top of the other, 800 dozen doughnuts would stretch almost 100 stories into the sky! Of course the weight of the ones on top would crush the ones on the bottom and the whole construction would likely topple before the height of one story had been reached, rendering most of the doughnuts inedible, so we wouldn't advise attempting to prove this speculative fact.
Now it's not uncommon for people to drive all the way from Connecticut and Massachusetts to assuage their donut desires. Although the business passed on to Walter "Bud" and Anne Briggs Drescher (Briggs' oldest daughter) in 1986, the donuts are still handmade, fresh daily, and they come in all the usual varieties, from simple old-fashioned plain to those filled with jelly or custard. One of the secrets to their appeal is a special kind of flour imported from a small company, Dawn Foods, in Wisconsin. It's so secret that even the Dreschers don't know what ingredients go into it, although they know nutmeg, a common spice in commercial doughnut mixes, is not one of them. Another little secret, according to Briggs, is that, "You have to let the dough shrink enough so that when it hits the Fryolator, it puffs up but stays elastic inside."
Allie invented a ten-inch superdonut using the same amount of dough as a dozen. Now they come in every shape you can imagine. They're favorites at birthday and office parties, or any occasion where a honkin' huge donut might be appreciated.
Donut of Kings. Donut of the Gods.
A 1985 Providence Journal taste test pitted Allie's donuts against the four big chains at the time, Dunkin' Donuts, Bess Eaton (now substantially humbled following a 2004 bankruptsy), Mister Donut (now defunct in Rhode Island), and Honey Dew Donuts, as well as against other mom and pop shops like the Donut Kettle of West Warwick (gone) and Homestyle Donuts of North Providence (kaput). A food warehouse, Heartland of Seekonk, Massachusetts (extinct), was also thrown into the mix. Two varieties of doughnuts from each establishment were sampled—raised honey-dipped and old-fashioned plain. The result?
In our test, Allie's doughnuts quickly established themselves as the standard against which all other doughnuts were measured, and the majority of tasters concluded that no other doughnut—from another independent shop or chain—even came close to Allie's.
Allie's donuts were described as "Crispy outside, chewy and dense inside," as having a "subtle, nutty flavor," and a "full flavor—the way a doughnut is supposed to taste." Donuts from chain stores were described as "too fluffy," "tasteless," and "cardboardy" in comparison.
Here's another testimonial from Providence Journal writer Bernard Mendillo, in 1988: "Dunk the cruller into the coffee and eat it and you know why God let Adam survive Eden—so his descendants could taste this."
In 1999 Jane and Michael Stern of Roadfood.com named Allie's one of only two "real donut" places in all of New England. As of 2015 Allie's holds a ninety-five percent approval rating on the site, and is categorized as "One of the Best—Worth a Trip."
In 2008 Saveur magazine recognized Allie's as one of the twelve best donut shops in the whole country.
David vs. Goliath
In December 1988, it was reported that Allie's had been threatened with a lawsuit by Marriott Corporation. It seems Marriott felt it ought to have sole ownership of the Allie's name, merely because its hotels featured restaurants named for its co-founder, Alice Marriott. The action was apparently triggered by the Dreschers' attempt to trademark the name of their famous doughnut dispensary in preparation for taking the business to the franchise level. But Marriott Corporation had already applied for a trademark under the general name "Allie's," as well as for variants like "Allie's Bakery" and "Allie's Pantry."
Allie's Donuts has a good leg to stand on, though. They can prove continuous use of the name for at least a decade before Marriott began using it for food operations in its hotels. Which may mean that Marriott has no right to the name in Southern New England in the first place. Should Marriott ever go ahead with its threats, it may find itself on the losing end of a judge's decision—one that might bar Marriott from using the name Allie's in any of the states where Allie's Donuts has a forty-year history of name recognition.
But perhaps it will never come to that, as Marriott Corporation has so far refrained from carrying through on its threats.
Despite the threat of a lawsuit from a multinational corporation hanging over their heads, Allie's experimented with franchising in the early 1990s. Around seventy people from all around Rhode Island, as well as from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Florida, Oregon, Michigan, and Minnesota expressed an interest in opening their own Allie's shop, but the Dreschers were picky. "I'm not looking for investor-type people," Bud Drescher told the Providence Journal. "What I want is a mom-and-pop situation just like my wife and me. I'm looking for clones of us. I'm looking for people that have the same commitment my wife and I have to quality."
It's not just a matter of plugging in a donut-making machine, then sitting back and letting the money roll in. At Allie's, every donut is still made by hand; no shortcuts. And one of the Drescher's more stringent requirements for successful applicants was completion of a four- to six-month donut cooking class.
The first attempt was made by Middletown resident Robert Paschoal. He opened a shop at 770 Aquidneck Avenue on February 14, 1992... and closed it in mid-June of the same year with no public explanation.
That must have been a disappointment to the Dreschers, but even worse was what happened when the franchise's equipment was auctioned off. A legal ad erroneously listed the business under the Allie's Donuts name, instead of the legal name under which Paschoal had operated, prompting unknown numbers of loyal Allie's customers to believe their favorite donut shop had closed. To counter this publicity nightmare, the Dreschers outfitted a mobile home with a take-out window and hit festivals, fairs, charity walks, and campgrounds, spreading the good word of Allie's continued existence, along with coffee and donuts. Two years of that was enough to re-establish Allie's good name, and the mobile home was retired.
Yes, the business was put up for sale in September 2002. But although the Dreschers declared themselves ready for retirement, they were yet unwilling to let the business go to just anyone. Displaying the same level of pickiness toward prospective buyers as they had toward prospective franchisees, they declared they were willing to wait as long as it took for the right buyer to show up. That buyer has to be willing to work hard and keep baker's hours—3am to 3pm—every working day, while maintaining the high level of donut quality that Allie's is famous for. That and the $1.5 million price tag have scared away countless potential donut kings and queens.
The property has been relisted and then taken back off the market a number of times since 2002. As of 2012 the business is once again off the market and still firmly in the hands of the Drescher family. Many family members have been involved in all aspects of the business for decades, and the possibility remains that a daughter or son, a cousin, or a niece or nephew may decide to take the reins going forward, thus negating the need for a sale outside the family.
In a 2014 Facebook Christmas message, the family reconfirmed their commitment to the business:
Happy Holidays, Rhode Island! Just wanted everyone to know that Allies Donuts is—and will always be—owned and operated by the descendants of Allie Briggs, who blessed us with the opportunity to serve such a wonderful group of Rhode Islanders and donut-lovers alike. We could not be more honored to carry on his tradition, and during this holiday season, we want to thank you all for being proud supporters of the Allies tradition. With love and admiration; Anne and Buddy, Julie and Matt, Jane, (and Lucile, too!)
Additional stuff you should know
- Allie's idiosyncratic business hours—closing at 3pm weekdays and 1pm weekends—are a holdover from Alvin Briggs' days as a Babe Ruth league baseball coach. He always closed down early in order to coach in the afternoons. He even closed the business for a week in 1976 so that he could coach the South County all-stars in the New England Babe Ruth Championship in Keene, New Hampshire.
- Besides donuts, Allie's also offers muffins, cupcakes, turnovers, fruit squares, and coffee.
- There is no interior seating, only a few picnic tables beside the parking lot.
- They don't take credit cards or checks; it's strictly cash and carry.
- Make sure to call a week or two ahead—during business hours—if you want to reserve one of their famous donut cakes. If you catch them at the wrong time with only a few days notice you may find yourself SOL.
- In August 2015, Allie's Donuts announced on Facebook: "Allie's Donuts and Narragansett Beer have teamed up to create something delicious this fall; the 'Allie's Double Chocolate Porter'! Look for it in tallboy cans at your local package store coming soon!"
A short (twenty-four-minute) documentary about Allie's by Sage Ficazzola and Kenneth Proudfoot was released in early 2016:
Allie's is open Tuesday through Friday, 5am-3pm; Saturday and Sunday, 6am-1pm.
- Best Doughnuts, Rhode Island Monthly's Best of Rhode Island, 1991.
- Best Doughnuts, Rhode Island Monthly's Best of Rhode Island, 1992.
- Best Doughnuts, Rhode Island Monthly's Best of Rhode Island, 1995.
- All Stars, Rhode Island Monthly's Best of Rhode Island, 1998.
- Best Bakery in South County, Rhode Island Monthly's Readers' Poll, 2002.
- Best Muffins in South County, Rhode Island Monthly's Readers' Poll, 2002.
- Best Muffins in South County, Rhode Island Monthly's Readers' Poll, 2003.
- Best Muffins in South County, Rhode Island Monthly's Readers' Poll, 2004.