Sitting in a plain old house in a plain old neighborhood just south of the Manhattan Municipal Court, Vern’s Donuts never looked quite like the average doughnut shop.
But little remained at an estate sale Friday and Saturday of the locale’s storied past, when hundreds of college kids would line up for blocks to get a chance to peek into the house’s small basement, where nine workers would fry up thousands of doughnuts at night.
“Down here in this little basement, every night, for 70 years or so, we probably put out more doughnuts than any other 10 doughnut shops combined,” said Alan Hill, grandson of LaVerne Brannagan, who founded the doughnut shop in 1937. Hill worked in the family shop as soon as he was tall enough to reach the counter. “Our doughnuts were in every grocery store, gas station and restaurant in Manhattan and Junction City. There’d be lines of people coming down the stairs coming to buy the doughnuts.”
The basement walls are now bare, revealing scratches and scuffs left from decades of glazing and frying machines butting against the basement floor. In this doughnut shop, everything was made from scratch, but it was still hard to imagine the industrial-sized operation from the cottage-sized home. Every other day, a truck driver would stop by to unload 40- to 50-pound bags of flour, and a fleet of drivers would make their doughnut delivery rounds between 3 and 10 a.m. every morning.
“At night, people would come to watch us flip dough around and put the dough into the fryer and pull them out and glaze four dozen doughnuts at the same time,” Hill said.
In one corner, the more immobile fryer hood still hung from the ceiling, and Hill turned it on. The sweet smell of glazing sugar permeated the house again, and on rainy days, Hill said the neighborhood can catch a wafting memory of a not-too-long-ago past when doughnut met domicile.
Now students and Aggieville barhoppers wind down a different alley to get their late-night fix at Varsity Truck, but it’s only the latest in Manhattan’s infatuation with after-hours doughnuts, with even another doughnut operation called Swannie’s Back Door operating at 225 Poyntz Ave. in the ’70s and ’80s.
It’s a tradition that goes back to 1937, when LaVerne Brannagan opened Vern’s Do-Nuts at a house on North Ninth Street. A farmer by trade, Brannagan stumbled into the doughnut job when he accidentally made a few too many doughnuts in his personal batch, Hill said. When he shared the extras with his church, the only way he could oblige the sudden requests for Vern’s doughnuts was by starting a shop.
Brannagan mostly sold his doughnuts wholesale to local shops, but when his daughter Janice and her husband, John Hill, took over in 1969, they began a retail side catering to the college kids who would walk the mile or so from Aggieville to get their late-night doughnuts.
The couple expanded into cake-making in 1978, with Janis making a name for herself in the cake-making world. She took first place in the International Cake Explorer Society’s worldwide competition in 1988, and Ronald Reagan even commissioned her to make a cake for him, Hill said.
When John lost a leg in 1998, the doughnut side closed shortly after, but Janis continued making cakes until 2012, when she “retired,” At least for a month. Hill said that she couldn’t stand that life and took a position at Hy-Vee as the grocery store’s head decorator until doctors forced her to stop working in 2019.
A few bits and pieces of the cake-making operation were out on tables for the estate sale. Much of the doughnut equipment was sold in 1999, and Hill said he had taken most of the doughnut shop’s other mementos back to his home in Topeka already, particularly a large rolling pin that had been passed down through the family.
The family’s cakes and doughnuts now live on mostly in memory, particularly in the minds of thousands of K-State students who frequented the shop after a late Friday night. Hill’s family members have found people around the world who remember Vern’s Donuts as one of their favorite memories from their time at K-State. A question on an edition of Trivial Pursuit even asks, “Where can you find the world-famous Vern’s Donuts shop?” The answer: Manhattan, Kansas.
“My brothers and sisters and I, we’ve all laughed and talked about, ‘What if we got all together to make one last batch of doughnuts?’” Hill said. “We’ve never done it, because we know that even that would be an all-night job, and as soon as we fire up the fryers, we would be back to where my grandpa was in 1937, when he first made doughnuts and he made a few too many.”