Donut Den dims the lights after more than 30 years

Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 11:44pm
Joel Anderson with Anderson Design Group. Inc. captured the Donut Den's iconic neon sign in this Spirit of Nashville poster.

It’s hard to fathom a sweet shop sign eliciting as much delight as the sugary goodies it serves.

But with the recent removal of the Fox’s Donut Den Delicious Donuts neon sign, fans of the Green Hills business are dismayed. They claim the quirky sign — believed to be between 40 and 50 years old and removed as part of a retrofitting of the Hillsboro Plaza strip center from which the treatery dispenses tasty ice cream and donuts — is an important visual icon in a commercial district not known for its distinctive architecture and signage.

“The sign represents an era of mom and pop businesses,” said Jeff Bauer, who enjoys a trip to Fox’s two to three times per week. “The loss of the sign would represent a loss of character for Green Hills.”

At this point, property owner Brookside Properties is weighing various options for the sign, according to David Crabtree, the company’s executive vice president.

Crabtree said Brookside must consider what is fair to all the tenants of what will be called Greenbriar Village. To allow the Donut Den to return its sign while requiring the other approximately 19 tenants to have uniform signage could be perceived as unfair, he noted. In addition, Crabtree said many citizens have expressed interest in improving the aesthetics of Green Hills signage in general.

No doubt, some folks feel neon is tacky and no more appealing than a stale donut. They would not miss the sign.

“It is our challenge as the developer of the property to balance the needs of the community with the needs of each individual tenant,” Crabtree said.

Still, Crabtree acknowledges that many people find the playful sign oddly charming, its neon elements mentally transporting fans back to a time when Green Hills’ built environment wasn’t as homogenized and unadventurous as it is today.

“I respect that and understand those points of view,” Crabtree said. “I’ve asked my sign company to see what we can do with the sign— what modifications can be made to help us make it more compatible with the project.”

Crabtree said the new Greenbriar Village signage will be tastefully compatible with the signage common to upper-end Green Hills retailers. Stressing Brookside’s positive business relationship with the Donut Den, he said, the alternative sign for Fox’s would feature the recognizable and cherubic Dutch boy.

Old timers contacted for this story fondly recall a Green Hills with buildings home to Greene Animal Hospital, Western Auto and venerable tavern Joe’s Village Inn — structures that offered an element of grit and funk that the popular suburban commercial district has basically lost the last 25 years.

Newcomers are immediately drawn to the sign’s five “rolling” donuts and little Dutch boy, images that contrast wildly with the upscale and cosmopolitan Green Hills shops selling items related to health and beauty and geared toward a sophisticated clientele.

In short, supporters contend the Donut Den sign represents an old-school indie retail vibe that tempers the sometimes overly chic, corporate chain and status-oriented tone of contemporary Green Hills.

“People from all over come to Nashville and are delighted by this sign,” said Kelli Hix, a Donut Den patron. “Pictures of it are posted all over the Internet from people’s trips to our town. There are probably hundreds of shops called The Donut Den, but this sign is something special. It is uniquely Nashville.”

Hix said she was first drawn to the Donut Den not by the tantalizing scents wafting from the treatery but, rather, by the diminutive Dutch boy figure and the neon rolling donuts.

“Not being from Nashville, I never would have noticed and gone in had it not been for the wonderful sign,” she said, adding that the sign has become an important marketing tool that, in theory, benefits all tenants at Hillsboro Plaza.

Hix said it is “vital” Nashville maintain a sense of place.

“The Donut Den has the best donuts and the best staff, as far as I am concerned, and that will remain,” she said. “But this sign is an expression of their vision and of the memories of locals and visitors alike. If [losing our history] continues, we will be able to exchange Nashville for any other city. There will be nothing left of our real history — only caricatures and re-creations.”

The Donut Den opened at 3900 Hillsboro Road (next to Hillsboro High School) in 1977. That year, owner Dr. Norman Fox bought the sign for $1,200 from Harlow’s Honeyfluff Donuts in Memphis. Since then, it has likely become the most recognizable Green Hills sign, given its age, neon and prime location. In fact, Anderson Thomas Design Inc. featured the sign in its The Spirit of Nashville, a collection of prints celebrating the city’s history and focusing on Music City icons. The shop offers shirts with the Dutch boy.

Fox politely declined comment for this story, citing the positive working relationship he has with Brookside and his fellow tenants. When this writer visited the Donut Den recently, however, Fox’s employees said that hundreds of customers have expressed their desire to see the sign returned.

Bob Kramer, a Green Hills resident since 1997, typically visits the Donut Den every Sunday. A musician, Kramer sometimes is on the road and welcomes a Donut Den apple fritter upon his return.

“The Donut Den sign tells me I'm home,” Kramer said. “It’s the heart and soul and center of Green Hills.”

Even without the sign’s “heart and soul,” Donut Den fans concede the business will continue to flourish.

“The Donut Den could be in a shack on one of the worst streets in Nashville,” Hix said, “and people would still go there.”


11 Comments on this post:

By: MeretriciousCreation on 8/14/09 at 8:13

This breaks my heart, the sign represents the "old Nashville" that has been swallowed up in our race to become a "modern" city. (not that I am against progress, I am just against tearing down/paving over/remodeling every bit of our history to do it) I have so many pleasant memories of the Donut Den and all of them start with me smiling at the sign as I pull into the parking lot. It made me grin every time I saw it, it was just so cheerful and kitschy. Some people may see it as tacky, but I see it as a reminder of a bygone age. It is one of the more distinctive and iconic signs still in existence from that era here in town. It is up there with the Weiss Liquors sign in East Nashville and Wendall Smith's on Charlotte, I hope that something can be worked out. In this era of recycling and reusing, surely some compromise can be made...

By: nnoseworthy on 8/14/09 at 8:24

This is just ANOTHER example of the Man tryin' to keep us down.

Maybe they could be given one of those fancy moving, brighter-than-the-sun, LCD signs to recreate the sign.

By: YokoChanel on 8/14/09 at 9:51

I really hope they don't settle on a compromise solution. Our historic landmarks are not enhanced by being "modernized."

The sign is what it is: one of the few things remaining things in Green Hills that makes Nashville unique. That kind of charm can't be had in beige faux stucco.

Would the Dairy Dip be a must-visit destination if it looked like a Brentwood Maggie Moos?

Seriously, Brookside, let's get this right. You can't un-demolish our city's landmarks!

By: slzy on 8/14/09 at 11:35

i remember when leroy nieman was here to paint the steeplechase,during the oilers campaign.

he asked then,why do you want to be like everywhere else,there is much unique in nashville?

the question remains.

By: frenchpress on 8/14/09 at 7:13

We just left Donut Den with some superb treats - sorely missed the sign.

A more serious problem for them, I think, is the overwhelming acrylic fumes from the nail salon next door. They seem to be coming straight into the Den and we could hardly smell the donuts.

Left with the beginnings of a headache.


By: jps13pat on 8/16/09 at 2:12

Bring back the sign! Bring back the sign! Bring back the sign! Bring back the sign!

By: ToddlerTN on 8/17/09 at 4:13

It's not just "old-timers" who are disappointed.

I'm 39, and I've lived in Nashville all of my life. I grew up in Green Hills, within walking distance of Donut Den. A few months ago, I took my kids there to get a taste of my childhood, and we all got a kick out of the sign.

What is this developer thinking? Let's remove every bit of distinction and whimsy and fun from the area. No need for nostalgia--this is Green Hills, and only the future is welcome here.

This is EXACTLY the kind of reason I almost NEVER go to Green Hills anymore.

There are few places in Green Hills where I enjoy spending my time and money. I know it's just a sign, but it's part of the character--which is really why I go there. I can find good donuts a lot of places, but there aren't many places where you can find nostalgia and charm.

Scratch one more off the list.

By: Lonthaniel on 8/18/09 at 7:50

Thanks for reporting this. Noticed this a week or so back and was really mad. Figured they were just doing new structural work and thought SURELY they'd put the sign back up when the work was done. I don't like the building management's iffy tone in this article. They're fools if they think this isn't an obvious selling point for the shopping center. Removing the sign permanently would be bad for business and bad for the historic landscape of Green Hills (which needs to keep as much as it can get). Hopefully there's not any sort of weird politicking going on among the tenants. This is a NO BRAINER. KEEP THE SIGN!!!!

By: kategreen15 on 8/21/09 at 12:03

This is shameful. That sign really is a part of Nashville heritage. Eliminating it for the sake of attempting to force the local shops to a particular style means losing something meaningful to Nashville. Under no circumstances should the Nashville public be deprived of that sign.

By: kategreen15 on 8/21/09 at 12:04

By the way, I'm no "old-timer," either. I'm 21 years old. And ALL members of the younger generations that I know agree with my point of view.

By: Wordgeek on 8/26/09 at 1:06

Keep the DoNut Den neon sign! Seriously, have they no respect for individuality or creativity? Why must everything be so homogeneous? Differentiation is the key to successful brands, not sameness.

Removing that sign for good wold be a disgrace!