By Martina Guzmán
Walk into Donut Villa on W. Vernor Hwy. and Cavalry St. in Southwest Detroit, and you’ll see shelves filled with donuts. There’s blueberry, old-fashioned, glazed, and their famous apple fritters. Long-time customers sit around the orange Formica counter. They order double-doubles and maybe buy a scratch-off.
Donut Villa has existed in the same spot since 1975. It’s more than just a donut shop, it’s an institution. Like Duly’s Coney Island and Evie’s Tamales, these iconic establishments make up the character of the community.
In 2018, Gabriel Gutierrez, then 26 years old, bought Donut Villa from the original owners. Several other parties were interested in buying the business, but he was the only one who wanted to keep it as a donut shop.
“If I didn’t buy it, it might have been turned into a dentist’s office,” Gutierrez said.
But barely a year after he purchased the donut shop, Covid-19 swept the country. Hundreds of small businesses in Detroit closed because of a dine-in ban.
“I couldn’t serve customers because no one was allowed to enter the facility to get their coffee and donuts,” Gutierrez said. “I did have some people show up, which was great, but I needed another way to serve my clients.” Gutierrez had an idea—a drive-thru window.
A drive-thru would allow him to sell donuts in case of another dine-in ban. It’s also an area of growth that would increase sales long after the pandemic. The idea would start a year and a half-long process of permits and plans with architects, the zoning department, the appeals department, and building safety engineering.
“I thought you just knocked a hole into a wall and set up a little computer, and you got yourself a drive-thru,” Gutierrez said. “But no, all kinds of schematics and approvals have to happen.”
In the fall of 2002, W. Vernor Hwy was reclassified as a historical mainstay, making it difficult to alter the structure of historic buildings.
Gutierrez comes from a long line of successful entrepreneurs. His parents, Lydia and Richard Gutierrez founded Hacienda Mexican Foods in the early 1990s, and his father’s family established La Michoacana Tortillas, which the family has run for four generations.
Determined to get his drive-thru window, Gutierrez, with the help of Unfolding Architecture, appeared before the board of zoning appeals with signatures from members of the community and the support of ten local organizations.
Not only did he have community support, but he also showed that long before it was a donut shop, Donut Villa was an ice cream and burger shop that had once had a drive-thru.
“There was a window there; you could see how it was bricked over,” Gutierrez said.
He also presented several other examples of businesses with drive-thru windows along W. Vernor Hwy. “You have a McDonald’s with a drive-thru, a Checker’s with the drive-thru, and there’s a PNC Bank with a drive-thru on the corner,” Gutierrez said. “All these franchise businesses can have a drive-thru, but a longstanding business can’t?”
Gutierrez ultimately got permission to have not only a drive-thru but also some long-needed renovations like taking off some exterior paneling and replacing it with bricks.
“Things need to be upgraded, but I’m still trying to hold onto the feel and identity of the place, Gutierrez said. “In the end, people will let me know if they like it or not. I just want this business to be there for decades to come.”