Munchers Bakery has been tucked away in Hillcrest Shopping Center at 925 Iowa, or nearly 30 years and was awarded first place for doughnuts in the Best of Lawrence 2006. The place is a haven for sweet-toothed insomniacs, late-night workers and early risers because it's open 24 hours daily. It just celebrated its 18th anniversary under the ownership of Mike Tennyson, who started baking at Dillons general bakery during his high school years. After graduation, he worked at Rusty's, where the Community Mercantile now stands.
"I always wanted to be a baker and own a no-frills, old fashioned bakery where people could eat great pastries and feel at home," he explained.
He's got his wish and takes pride in the fact that everything is baked from scratch on his premises.
"We use fresh eggs and real butter - none of the powdered stuff for us. People can tell the difference in the taste when you use fresh ingredients," he said.
The bakery is a family affair. Tennyson generally bakes from midnight to 8 a.m., his daughter Sunday takes over on his nights off, and his sister Gayle oversees the cake department. She makes and decorates everything from simple sheet and wedding cakes to more specialized themed ones like Thomas the Tank, footballs, and the ever-popular Jayhawks.
"Gayle is willing to take risks and experiment with different designs and themes to meet customers' requests," Tennyson explained.
She once did a bikini cake for a surgeon who did breast implants.
The award-winning donuts are oven-fresh every morning and include strawberry knots, long johns and blueberry fritters. There's also a wide variety of croissants, including pecan, custard and chocolate, a selection of rolls and even rum balls. The regular-sized donuts and pastries cost between 70 and $1.20 cents, but you can get miniature cinnamon, chocolate and orange rolls for 40 cents. Hot beverages are more limited. There's regular or decaf coffee priced between 65 and 99 cents depending on size and one black tea for 99 cents, all served in styrofoam cups. Many regulars bring their own mugs.
The place has a warm, welcoming atmosphere even though it's pretty basic and harks back to '50s-style bakery shops. Seating is plentiful and well-spaced. Tables are often pulled together for larger groups. There's a strong pool of regular customers who braved freezing conditions and ice-storm warnings to meet. Members of the Garcia clan gather there every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning.
"We've been coming here for nearly 20 years in all weathers," Bob Garcia explained. "It helps us keep connected as a family. We sort out the world and each other on neutral territory over fresh donuts and coffee."
"We also get to meet lots of new people," added his wife Josephine, whose sister Ethel is married to her husband's brother, Andy.
Irene (Garcia) and husband Buddy Langford love the old-fashioned, friendly atmosphere of the bakery.
"There's plenty of room, great parking; and we can stay all day if we want," said Bob between bites of a cinnamon mini-roll.
Conversation focused on the weather, the on-going excitement generated by the Orange Bowl, and was punctuated with waves and greetings to customers gathering at nearby tables and others queuing for to-go orders.
Another group of regulars call themselves the "therapy group."
"We sort each other out," joked Tony Mohr as he bantered with Dick Raney, a retired pharmacist and former mayor, and Rupert Pate originally from Georgia.
"We trust one another with our stories, and share personal challenges and concerns," Mohr said in a more serious tone.
Mary and Brower Burchill love the diversity of the group and the richness of shared perspectives.
"There are people from every walk of life here - from eminent professors to retired CEOs and farmers," added Brower. "We invite anyone to join us ..."
".. we just tell them to pull up a chair," said Mary finishing her husband's sentence.
The informal, low-key atmosphere at Munchers is a throwback to the intimacy and friendliness experienced in small-town bakeries of bygone days. In the midst of icy conditions, I was warmed by scrumptious freshly-made donuts and the friendliness and authenticity of the people I encountered.