Cynthia and Mark Pullum operate what may be the sweetest spot in Cookeville — Ralph’s Donut Shop —where they churn out well over 5,000 yeast and cake donuts a day. That rounds out to about one-and-half million donuts a year.
The wife-and-husband team has been the guardian of the legacy business for the past nine years. They took the reins after the death of Cynthia’s father, Ralph Smith, the “Ralph” who started it all.
The only downer about Cynthia and Mark’s success is that they rarely sample these delicious, deep-fried hunks of sweet dough.
Asked how many donuts he eats a day, with a smile on his face, Mark answered, “None. My wife doesn’t either. The donut shop is run by two diabetics. I might eat one a year.”
Nevertheless, they know about everything there is to know about donuts. Ralph’s Donut Shop was voted the best in Tennessee in a 2015 online “Donut Brawl” poll, and its glazed donut was selected one of best 25 donuts in America in 2016 by The Daily Meal.
(By the way, the average American eats 31 donuts a year, while U.S. donut shops make more than 10 billion donuts annually.)
Much of the credit for the success goes back to Ralph, who was born in Carthage and grew up on a farm in the Smith County community of Buffalo Valley. The World War II veteran and his wife, Evelyn, owned and operated the shop for 48 years, until Ralph’s death in 2010 at the age of 84.
Describing her dad, Cynthia said, “He was kind of gruff. He scared a lot of people with his voice, but he was jolly and loved to have fun. He was a big cut-up and loved to be the center of attention.”
She shared that their donut recipe was concocted by her father and Dallas Frazier, who also worked at the shop 48 years.
“My dad and Dallas came up with the recipe themselves. Dallas is every bit as important as Ralph,” said Cynthia.
Ralph and Evelyn sold their first donut in September 1962, and Ralph’s nephew, James Smith, was an eyewitness to the transaction.
“I can remember going up there the day they opened with my parents and my two aunts. One of the aunts said, ‘I want to be the first customer.’ She orders up a donut and a carton of milk, and it was less than a dollar. Ralph took that dollar bill and laid it on the counter beside the cash register and said, ‘That’s not going in the register.’ Later they had it framed and put on the wall,” said Smith, who lives in South Carthage.
“That place was a blowing and going back in the ’60s. Ralph and Evelyn put in some hours. A lot of the success was because of their willingness to work. Ralph was always smiling,” added Smith, noting that his uncle would not sell a donut over 24 hours old.
At first, the shop held only six stools for customers to sit on while they fueled up on donuts and coffee. In 1974, the couple remodeled the shop, and the result was 26 stools parked around two long U-shaped counters. Most mornings before 9 a.m. or so, it is not unusual for every seat to be filled.
From its inception until 1992, the donut shop operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Nowadays it is open 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Nobody knows how many donuts have been produced here over 57 years, but Frazier, who also made and decorated cakes, takes a guess: “I’d say it’s up in millions or billions.”
He remembered that his first day on the job, Ralph told him there was a little problem.
“Ralph said, ‘I’m working two types of donut mix. I cannot get a good one out. One’s too tough, and one’s too slack.’ I asked, ‘What are you mixing?’ He said, ‘Eighteen pound of each mix.’ I said, ‘Let’s mix nine pounds of each dough and see how it comes out,’ and that’s what they’re running today,” said Frazier.
“I’d been in a bakery a long time before Ralph. When he said one was slack and the other was tough, I knew there got to be a middle of the road.”
As for how Ralph entered the donut business, Cynthia shared the details.
“My mom’s brother, my uncle Bill Elam, had opened a donut shop in Dayton, Ohio, in 1960. Mama and Dad went up to Ohio for seven months and learned how to make donuts. Then they came back, and he drove a gas truck for Apple Oil Company. They saved their money and opened in September of 1962,” she said.
(Cynthia’s uncle’s bakery, Bill’s Donut Shop, is still in business, run by two of his children and now located in Centerville, Ohio.)
Quizzed about her early memories at the shop, Cynthia said, “I remember telling my dad when I was 8 years old I was ready to come to work, and he put me on a Coke case washing pans every Saturday.”
Mark did not get his hands into the dough until 2010, the year they married.
“I got plunged into it. My wife and her brother (Jimmy) inherited it. She called me and asked me if I would run it. I been here ever since,” said Mark. (The couple took full ownership in 2011.)
Mark made his first visit to the shop more than half a century ago.
“I came here in my mama’s womb,” he said. “She used to say she was eating donuts here when I was in the womb.”
As a boy, Mark would come with his dad to town on Saturdays, and his father would give him a quarter and send him to Ralph’s to get a donut. “I would buy a donut, and Ralph gave me my quarter back and would say, ‘Don’t tell your dad.’ ”
As for what it takes to make a great donut, the donut man said “patience and learning how to work with the dough.”
The shop, which employs a staff of 20, turns out 40 varieties of donuts and pastries. Their best seller is the butter twist, followed by a tie between the apple fritters and lady fingers.
Cynthia holds a day job in the Putnam County clerk and master’s office, but works at the shop on Saturdays panning donuts and waitressing while Mark tends to farm chores.
She says the best thing about owning a donut shop is “watching somebody who has never had a donut before they take their first bite.”
About their tasty, doughy morsels, Mark said, “We just try to take our time and do it right. It’s all done by hand. Nothing has changed since it started. We’ve added a few things (to the menu), but otherwise it’s exactly the same as when Ralph was here.”
Retired donut guru Frazier explains that he had to bargain with Ralph before he was hired.
“I was working at a donut shop up the street, and he sent for me to come down there, and he wanted me to work for him. So, I told him, ‘I got a job.’ He said, ‘Well, I need you.’ I said, ‘What do you pay?’ He said, ‘I can pay a dollar and a quarter an hour. I said, ‘Naw, I’m making that where I am. I have to have a dollar thirty anyway.’ He said, ‘I can’t pay that.’
“I started for the door, and Evelyn said, ‘You better call him back.’ He said, ‘I’ll pay you.’ I went to work for them about a week later.”
This morning, Cletus Spivey works with gusto in the kitchen making chocolate twists and cinnamon rolls. The Cookeville native clocks in between 1 and 2 a.m. and hits the ground running.
“I make donuts,” he said, stating the obvious. “I seen donuts come and go. I’m a third-generation employee. My mama (Michelle) worked her for 32 years, and my grandfather Harry worked here before I was born.”
Dana Garrett of Bloomington Springs proves another veteran hand in the shop.
“I worked here 15 years ago for Ralph and then went to work at the car wash. Every time Cynthia came by she said, ‘Come back and work for us.’ I’ve been back about six months now.
The old-fashion are the best by far,” she says, referring to the buttermilk donuts. “I eat about two a day.”
The shop might be compared to the “Cheers” bar from the famed TV series, except Ralph’s regulars are hooked on donuts and coffee rather than beer and pretzels.
About the early morning crowd, Mark said, “We have a lot of old guys cutting up, aggravating everybody. We try to have fun with the customers. The older customers are like family. I’ve got a lot of their phone numbers, and if one of them doesn’t come in after a few days, I call them.”
Mark said his favorite moments at work are when the youngsters come in. “When they look at that showcase and see sprinkled donuts, they just light up,” he said.
Meanwhile, some of his most loyal customers make pilgrimages to the shop from many miles and even many states away.
“I’ve got one lady who comes from Knoxville once a month and gets 14 dozen that she takes back to her office. And there’s a lady from New Hampshire who comes every Christmas. Last time she brought me maple syrup. She wants me to open a shop in New Hampshire,” said Mark, who has no plans to make donuts in New England.
Dallas Frazier, Ralph’s right-hand man across five decades, provides some final words. He stops by the shop every now and then and admits, “Oh, yeah, I eat a donut, but I don’t pay for anything.”
Asked what made Ralph’s Donut Shop such a popular place, he answered, “It’s got to be the merchandise. If you make something bad, people are not gonna buy it, but if you got something that’s good, people will keep coming back. They do make a good donut.”