The Donut Division

First, at Pittsblog, there was the Custard Class, through which I expressed my surprise that Pittsburghers who prefer custard-filled donuts demand only one flavor of custard.

Next came the Cupcake Class, a phrase and concept that ranks among the most influential of Pittsblog products (even if the phrase itself, like the Custard Class, owes a great deal to Chris Briem).  The Cupcake Class is a pseudo-Floridian parody of the Creative Class concept that in a backhanded way speaks to what really matters in regional economic development.  The success of $4 cupcakes in Pittsburgh means in small part that there are people in town doing so well (or behaving so irrationally, or both) that they have cash to burn on overpriced pastries.  The success of $4 cupcakes in Pittsburgh means in much larger part that there are some clever and hardworking entrepreneurs among us, and kudos to them.

Today comes the Donut Division, so named because Dunkin' Donuts is back in town in a big way, and the local DD store across the street from my school in Oakland seems to be wiping the floor with the competition.  Every morning when I arrive I look across the street to see whether the line is short enough for me to squeeze inside and grab some coffee and a donut; usually, I have to pass.  In my classroom I survey the sea of student faces and do a silent, mental survey of coffee cups.  Where once there was an abundance of Starbucks, now the room is awash in Dunkin'.  There are some Panera's holdouts -- but the students confirm that they've made the best of a bad situation.  They, too, couldn't get into Dunkin' Donuts.

My Oakland location means that this particular DD is patronized almost exclusively by Pitt students, with a sprinkling of Pitt faculty, Pitt staff, UPMC faculty and staff, and the folks who work along Forbes Avenue.  Calling this group the "Donut Division" seems unfairly anecdotal and an empty vessel for economic or sociological observation.

But that sort of limitation belongs in academic journals, not in blogs.  So:

One possibility is that the Donut Division, rather than the Cupcake Class, represents the future of Pittsburgh.  Donuts or no donuts, college students and college graduates are one key to Pittsburgh's future, of course, whether or not they come from Pitt.  If those students are smart enough to spend $1 per donut rather than $4 per cupcake and to spend $1.50 on a cup of joe rather than $4 per latte, then they're as smart as we want them to be.  The future's so bright, I've gotta wear shades.

A second possibility is that Oakland's Donut Division is representative of a broader equilibrium in Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh is a region of $1 donut lovers, as family-run pastry shops around the region will attest; the attention that I and others have given to cupcakes in recent years may be an inauthentic and inappropriate distortion of regional preferences.  Some here remember the ill-fated effort by Krispy Kreme to expand into Pittsburgh, a strategy thwarted by corporate greed more than anything else.  Even Dozen, the local cupcake-based empire, has acknowledged the limits of local snobbery: it has sold a beer-flavored cupcake. The DD awaits the ultimate re-validation of its premier status:  not coffee cups in Oakland classrooms, but a China Millman review of the best donuts in Pittsburgh.  Nothing over $1 should be considered.

The truth, of course, is that none of this matters.  (Sorry to give away the joke, but I keep getting interview requests from writers who want me to really tell them why cupcakes are so popular.)  The Custard Class, the Cupcake Class, the Donut Division:  these are all the same thing.  It's breakfast, or a snack; tastes vary.  So-called "behavioral" economists will tell you that not every dollar in our wallets is valued the same in our weird semi-rational brains, just as not every calorie is equal in our imaginations.  We keep informal running accounts (of both dollars and calories!); some "count" against our overall wealth or health.  And some don't.  Discretionary spending at the margin, and discretionary eating, is somehow necessary, and maybe even efficient (not to say healthy), to living a tolerably happy life.

The Custard Class, the Cupcake Class, the Donut Division -- all of them, in other words, are keeping Pittsburgh from having a collective meltdown over the miserable excuse for a baseball team that masquerades as a once-proud franchise.


1 Response to "The Donut Division"

Anonymous said... 9/22/2010 8:36 PM

When I came to work in Oakland about 18 months ago, I was shocked at what little choice I had in supplying the team with morning niceties.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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