August 21, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 Encounter.

Let us now observe the urban jungles of Heartlandia and the Omaha teen, as he and she migrate to a small hole-in-the-wall in Little Bohemia where the coffee is cheap and the doughnuts are even cheaper.

The Donut Stop is a rite of passage for these social creatures, with its promises of late hours, caffeine, and perhaps most appealing to a teen’s loitering nature, places to sit. It’s a powdered-doughnut mustache meets a real one—a first honest attempt at a night life.

It’s been that way since the beginning—at least that’s how owner Marlene Rodgers says she remembers it. She and her late husband, Donut Stop founder Hal Rodgers, opened their doors in 1988, and throughout the nineties, naughts, and tweens, hand-stamped concertgoers and brain-cramped scholars have polluted the nighttime atmosphere with wild conversation and restless banter. They used to pollute it with other things, too.

“Back when you could smoke in here, you could cut the air with a knife,” Rodgers says on a very clear and quiet Friday evening. “Sometimes you couldn’t see the table next to you.”

As reminders of this slight barbarism of yore, the half-textured walls of the Donut Stop still radiate a decrepit yellow probably not unlike the color of the Marlboro Man’s 80-year-old fingernails, or the paint’s closest Pantone match. But that’s just an afterthought to the clowder—cat posters, cat calendars, and cat ceramics—that adorns the walls and shelves throughout the shop. It’s a space so carelessly decorated that it both epitomizes the hipster aesthetic and destroys it.

“Since we like animals, a lot of our customers find us things and give them to us,” Rodgers explains unapologetically about her business’ eclectic décor, “so we hang them on the walls.”

If it couldn’t get any more or less cool, the Donut Stop doesn’t accept “plastic” (an archaic term for credit and debit cards once used around the time of the car phone). It doesn’t roast a single origin bean in-house or brew it through a Rube Goldberg machine, either. No, a self-serve cup of Donut Stop coffee is secure in its flavor profile of gas station Folgers as it proudly sits on a warming plate like a throwback brew should.

But when you’re so engrained in Omaha lore that you unofficially rank among the zoo, Warren Buffet’s house, and the pedestrian bridge as places to visit when in town (and, more importantly, you provide a safe haven for those still coming of age), none of your adequacies or deficiencies matter. You just keep doing what you’ve been doing all along, Rodgers says, and you do it until you can’t anymore.

“I’d just hate to close it [Donut Stop], but you know I’m not getting any younger, and it can’t go on forever,” she admits with a sigh of regret. “It’s tough, but I’m going to keep it going as long as I can.” Rodgers pauses as if waiting for an answer from within. “As long as I stay healthy, it’ll be open—I have a lot of loyal customers I’d hate to disappoint.”

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