Ray Lamar, doughnut king of the Midwest, dies at 89

LaMar's Donuts franchises open in seven states

? Ray Lamar, who opened a doughnut shop 45 years ago in a converted downtown gas station and whose name became synonymous with the delectable O-shaped treats, died Thursday at his home in Prairie Village, Kan. He was 89.

The LaMar’s Donuts chain – now in the midst of a nationwide expansion – was sold by its founder in 1997 and Lamar himself retired in 2003, but 28 stores continue to sell a product lauded by locals and gourmands alike.

A Kansas City native, Lamar remembered his father feeding him yeast to treat a childhood illness. He declared he had “yeast in his veins” – a perfect condition for what would become a life filled with doughnuts.

At 17, Lamar started collecting a $12 weekly paycheck from the city’s Jack Frost Do-nut Shop, where he worked seven days a week as a fryer.

There were diversions – serving overseas in World War II and a stint as a stockbroker after college – but Lamar returned to his original love of doughnuts.

He became a partner at Jack Frost and experimented with new kinds of doughnuts, lamenting the fact that it was difficult to find much other than garden-variety powdered sugar or plain.

“We came up with a fruitcake doughnut and actually ground up citrus fruit and put it in the batter,” Lamar once remembered. “People didn’t like it too well.”

Still, Lamar took that ingenuity with him when he opened his namesake shop in 1960 in an old gas station on Linwood Boulevard. The store became a Kansas City institution and eventually offered 75 different varieties of doughnuts, up to 30 on a given day, including the most popular “Ray’s Original Glazed.”

Lamar appeared on “The Tonight Show,” venerated by Jay Leno as “the undisputed doughnut king of the Midwest.” Hallmark made a doughnut-shaped card in honor of him. And publications from The New Yorker to Gourmet Magazine to the Zagat Survey have given sparkling doughnut reviews.

The original LaMar’s shop enjoyed marked success, but stood alone for more than three decades before Lamar and his wife, Shannon, decided to offer franchises.

Within months of the offering, the store had 15 new Kansas City locations lined up.

In 1997, a majority interest in the chain was bought by Franchise Consortium International, which laid the groundwork for a national expansion. Stores are now open in Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Tennessee and Colorado, where Englewood-based Franchise Consortium has an ambitious plan to have as many as 1,200 stores open in the next decade.

The original LaMar’s closed with its founder’s retirement, but a new franchise opened a few blocks away about six weeks ago.

Lamar is survived by his wife, the former Shannon Herrin; three stepsons, Gerrin Rodriguez, of Denver, and Jason and Matthew Rodriguez, both of Kansas City; three brothers, Larry, of Minneapolis and Frank and Ed, both of Kansas City; a granddaughter; and several nieces and nephews.