THE PASSING OF THE LONG JOHN
By ANDREW MCGINN
Matt Schroeder didn’t buy a doughnut shop.
He bought MGM from Louis B. Mayer, and got the ’53 Yankees, the 1985 Chicago Bears, a puppy and the cure for cancer as part of the transaction.
A decades-old recipe for chocolate frosting was quite literally the deal’s icing on the cake, and that just happened to be stored within the Ark of the Covenant.
One simply doesn’t just buy Bunkers Dunkers, the local doughnut shop that evolved over 37 years to become revered statewide.
Schroeder inherited an institution.
“It’s some big shoes to fill,” the 50-year-old Jefferson native explained recently.
“It’s not just the doughnuts,” he added. “It’s them.”
“Them” is Randy and Phyllis Bunkers, who shocked a whole swath of west central Iowa earlier this month with an almost-absurd notion that they deserve to retire like anybody else.
The secret doughnut recipes may not have originated with them — a man of Syrian descent named Saba Saba was the one who, in 1925, brought them to Jefferson from the land of milk and honey — but Randy and Phyllis Bunkers proved to be the right proprietors at the right time.
During their time as owners, they convinced a governor (Terry Branstad), a Hall of Fame shortstop (Ernie Banks) and the personalities at WHO Radio that the best doughnuts in the world are made in Jefferson, Iowa.
In late 2016, Bunkers Dunkers made Travel Iowa’s list of “Iowa’s Best Donuts.”
A 1985 graduate of Jefferson High School, Schroeder got it in his head five or six years ago that he’d like to be Bunkers’ successor.
Daughter Kara Schroeder, 18, who’s now working at the shop when not in school for massage therapy, said it’s all working out great.
“I thought it would be an amazing opportunity, but I thought he was slightly crazy,” Kara said. “It’s such a big thing. But it’s been his dream for years.
“I’ve never seen him so happy.”
Randy Bunkers — a Remsen native who came to Jefferson in 1980 after buying what was then called Darrell’s Donuts — picked Schroeder from at least nine suitors, all of whom were serious about buying the business.
“He’s a good people person, and I enjoyed the whole family. It’s a good family,” Bunkers, 65, said. “Who wants to buy a doughnut from a grumpy person? It sounds corny, but that’s important to us.”
Although Randy and Phyllis Bunkers retired Sept. 9, you might not know it.
To look around the shop, you might assume they’re merely on vacation. Even their personal pictures still adorn the wall.
“The name’s going to stay the same for a while,” Schroeder said. “Maybe up to two, three years.”
Eventually, things will change.
For tax purposes at least, his corporate name is already Dunkers By Matt.
Also, his son is working on a new logo to succeed Bunkers’ time-tested mascot, a welcoming, anthropomorphic doughnut that always resembled a more edible cousin of the Michelin Man.
For Schroeder, who spent 22 years on the Pella Corp. assembly line in Carroll, buying Bunkers Dunkers grew from a fundamental desire to be one’s own boss.
“I’ve been looking for a change for a while,” he said.
He hoped to finally work closer to home.
“If you look around,” he said, “there are not a lot of options, though.”
Sensing that Randy Bunkers might one day be willing to sell — like Darrell Blackburn before him and Saba Saba before that — Schroeder and Bunkers entered into secret talks.
The sale was kept quiet until just a week before the Bunkers’ last day of work “out of respect for Randy,” Schroeder said.
But what better business to buy than one at the top of its game?
“Bunkers is legendary,” said wife Lisa Schroeder. “At least you’re not starting from scratch.
“Pardon the pun.”
People, she said, have asked if they managed to get the recipes in their acquisition of Bunkers Dunkers.
“What would be the point of buying Bunkers if you don’t get the recipes?” Lisa asked. “He didn’t want just any doughnut shop. He wanted this doughnut shop.”
What the Schroeders bought goes far beyond fryers and glass cases.
“You buy the reputation of the business,” Matt Schroeder said. “It’s a well-known business for many miles around.”
Schroeder becomes only the fourth caretaker of Saba’s recipes.
Frankly, more people know who shot JFK and where Jimmy Hoffa is buried than what Saba’s doughnuts are fried in.
And that’s how it will stay.
“If I told you, you wouldn’t be able to write the article,” Schroeder said, only half-joking.
A Nebraska native, Saba had come to Jefferson in 1925 to start a bakery, originally called the Golden Krust Bakery, that survived the Great Depression and an involuntary bankruptcy in 1934.
When Saba died in 1976, Darrell Blackburn, a Saba employee of more than 40 years, carried on for another four years.
“This has got potential to grow,” Schroeder said.
He thinks there are more outside stores that could be added to a daily delivery route that already includes nearly two dozen gas stations and supermarkets as far away as Atlantic.
Schroeder said there could be expanded product offerings as well.
One immediate change, according to Schroeder, will likely be the acceptance of credit cards, hopefully by year’s end.
The doughnut shop has been staunchly cash-only all these years.
“I’m 50,” Schroeder said, “and don’t have cash at all.”
Perhaps more so than any of Bunkers’ other suitors, the Schroeders fully grasp just what they’ve gotten themselves into.
Both are lifelong Greene County residents who met on the Square in Jefferson, “back in the days when you could afford to drive around,” said Lisa, a 1988 graduate of East Greene High School.
“We’re just Greene County kids,” she said.
While they have five kids of their own, ages 5-23, and even two grandkids, the doughnuts they grew up on are now the same doughnuts that will pay their bills.
It’s sort of like being a fan of a certain band — then one day being invited to join that same band.
And in this case, the band just happens to be the Beatles, not Kiss.
“It’s not gimmicky,” Lisa said. “It’s not a trick to get you to eat them.
“They’re just that good.”