From India to Lawrence: Businessman creates community around beloved doughnuts
photo by: Kathy Hanks
Selling doughnuts is the only job Sonny Patel has ever had.
Considering his upbringing, it’s surprising that he has such a passion for the sweet little rings of dough. After all, growing up in Unjha, India, Patel, 50, had never tasted or even laid eyes on a doughnut. That didn’t happen until he arrived in the U.S. and began working at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Chicago.
On New Year’s Day, the Lawrence businessman was pouring coffee and serving up warm doughnuts alongside his staff.
“I love people; they make me smile,” Patel said. “Even if I don’t get sleep, they make me happy.”
Jan. 1 marked the beginning of Patel’s 30th year with Dunkin’ Donuts and his 29th owning a franchise in Lawrence.
After so many years in the doughnut business, people ask him if he ever gets tired of the product. They might as well be insulting a loved one.
“My weakness is the chocolate glaze,” he said.
Here in Lawrence, Dunkin’ Donuts is a family affair. Patel purchased the franchise on West 23rd Street with his brother Dee in 1991, and they were joined by their brother LaLa in 1993. The three brothers are equal partners. In 2011, they built their second franchise on West Sixth Street.
That’s where Sonny Patel was on Tuesday morning, just as he is seven mornings a week.
“We cook doughnuts all day,” he said.
The objective is for customers to have soft, fresh doughnuts into the evening hours.
Dunkin’ Donuts began in 1948 in Quincy, Mass. Its owner, William Rosenberg, served doughnuts for 5 cents and coffee for 10 cents. By 1950, Rosenberg was calling his restaurant “Dunkin’ Donuts,” and five years later the first Dunkin’ Donuts franchise opened, according to the company’s website.
Fast forward to 2019, and the company is dropping “Donuts” from its name and will simply be known as “Dunkin’.” Locally, the rebranding will take place, Patel said, when it’s the franchise’s turn on the list. He didn’t know a date.
Dunkin’ Donuts is something of a Patel family tradition. Back in the 1960s, Patel’s uncle opened a franchise in Chicago. In the late 1980s, a cousin had a shop in Topeka, which led Sonny and Dee to Lawrence.
“We fell in love,” he said of the town, where he felt he wanted to put down roots. “We worked hard.”
Patel and his wife, Alka, also from India, have a daughter, Meeli Patel, who is studying pre-medicine at the University of Kansas. Patel became a U.S. citizen 25 years ago.
He didn’t speak English when he arrived in the U.S. He learned by watching television and through conversation, he said.
“A lot of people in Lawrence have helped in so many ways,” Patel said. “They are very close to us and will do anything.”
After a morning at the Sixth Street store, he hops over to the 23rd Street shop; he wants to visit with people. He likens his customers at both stores to people who have a favorite bar. Instead of a beer, they sit and commiserate over coffee. It’s where he knows everyone’s name. He can even recognize the voices of those who don’t come inside but place orders at the drive-thru window.
“I even know the names of their pets,” he said.
Feeling connected to his customers is a lesson he learned in India from his grandfather, who taught him at a young age that it’s all about community.
“I enjoy people,” Patel said. “I’m not here for the money.”