One of the eeriest experiences in the first few weeks of the pandemic was the Times Square Cam, the website that broadcasted a live feed at all hours from multiple angles. Whereas for decades on end, Times Square had always been teeming with tourists, food carts, and knock-off Hello Kittys, it was now post-apocalyptically empty, massive electronic billboards beaming their expensive ads to no one, Broadway’s marquees dimmed. It looked like Children of Men B-roll. I hadn’t had a reason to go to Times Square since I saw Hadestown in February, and nor did anyone else, it seemed like. So when I read that Krispy Kreme was going through with plans to open a new flagship location in Times Square on September 15, “between the waves” of the pandemic if we’re being realistic, I had to go see it (and smell it) for myself. Is the brand-new Times Square Krispy Kreme worth risking your life for?
Before this year, Krispy Kremes were few and far between in New York City. The only Manhattan outpost of the doughnut chain was hidden in the tunnels of the condemned rat maze also known as Penn Station. This new flagship Krispy Kreme location is part of an ill-timed expansion in NYC — locations have already opened in Fidi, the Bronx, and near Bryant Park — so I thought it’d be less of a novelty for New Yorkers. Oh, how naïve I was.
When I got off the subway on the store’s opening day, it didn’t take long to spot my destination: A long, snaking screen running alongside the corner location depicts a conveyor belt, with glistening doughnuts trailing along. A large, neon red “HOT NOW” sign puckishly stood ground across from the stalwart M&M Store/World/Experience, and because of in-store social-distancing measures, a longish queue wound around the sidewalk, moving a whole lot slower than the doughnuts on the screen above them.
The location was extremely well staffed for the grand opening, with employees wearing blazers and Krispy Kreme fleece zip-ups and headsets and walkie talkies. I asked one who was trying to keep the line in order — Danny — how long the wait would be to get into the store. He gave me a reluctant estimate of “25 minutes” but said people have been taking their sweet, sugar-glazed time in the store.
And oh, man, was there was lots to browse: magnets, ornaments, mugs, T-shirts with every pun on the word “doughnut” imaginable. And, of course, those complimentary paper Krispy Kreme hats, nodding to the iconography of soda jerks and nostalgia of Burger King kids’ meal paper crowns. Everyone in the store, mostly adults, was wearing them, giddily. Mask compliance was rivaled only by paper-hat compliance.
The main attraction, though, is the doughnut “factory” (kitchen? enchanted workshop?) behind a massive Plexiglas wall. As you wind your way through the store, you witness the doughnuts on their intrepid little journey, riding along a conveyor belt under a glowing glaze waterfall to their final destination, the display case. Is the glaze waterfall backlit? Or is it just radioactive? In case you need a reminder that the overall ethos of the store is that these doughnuts are made hot and fresh right there, there are approximately five hundred thousand glowing red icons letting you know that the doughnuts are “HOT NOW.” Design elements throughout the store, from conveyor-belt-themed accents to the icing splooge design all over the floor to the (closed-off) stadium seating shaped like a larger-than-life Krispy Kreme box, all serve to make you feel like a doughnut yourself. It’s a weird choice, but I respect it.
The combination of excessive theming, extremely nice and attentive staff, and all of that merch reminded me above all of being in … Times Square. It was oddly affirming, reminding me of before-times, when Times Square was only upsetting because it was Disney-fied and not because it was a standing monument to how the country shut down. I was actually heartened by how annoyingly long the line was: It was the heart of midtown up to its goofy midtown tricks all over again.
I didn’t want to be caught up in a doughnut line for any longer because, you know, work, so I decided I’d bike back in the evening, when I could really devote my time to it. When I got there around 7 p.m., the line had, conservatively, quintupled. Like, “you could watch The Irishman on your phone twice over in this line” long. “Sneakerheads at KITH after a new drop” long. And everyone — teenagers, office workers, kids — was wearing those paper hats. My head suddenly felt extremely naked, indecent even. But there was another option: a 24-hour walk-up window where you can pick up a mobile order directly from the kitchen, where the line was maybe three people deep. I chose my dozen: four separate types of Pumpkin Spice, two classic, two Homer Simpson (pink glaze with sprinkles, I don’t know what these are actually called), a jelly, and three chocolate glaze creme-filled. I was disappointed by the variety: 16 types of doughnuts, 25% of them pumpkin spice, plus an additional NYC-exclusive “Big Apple” doughnut with a shiny red candy apple glaze and a pretzel “stem,” served in a fancy box. These were only available in-store, no mobile orders allowed. But I did get to revel in the experience of the Big Apple by peering at a six-foot distance at teens unboxing them outside of the store for Instagram.
After all the pageantry, the Krispy Kreme doughnuts were, well, Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Satisfying, tubular, bready trans fat, best eaten hot. I hadn’t had Krispy Kreme since I had a summer job in a mailroom in downtown Toronto during undergrad, and I’d be the one to make the doughnut runs. I remember them being more delicious. I remember there being more variety (a lemon filling comes to mind, as does some sort of fritter situation). I remember making people in the mailroom laugh by walking back into work in one of those stupid paper hats. I don’t remember the jelly being so medicinal.
I think a lot of Krispy Kreme’s success is built on that sort of nostalgic branding. It’s weird timing for this business — there are no more breakrooms, no more birthday treats in the classroom, no more Broadway shows that leave you feeling snacky afterward. But at least on opening day, it seemed plenty popular. If you’re ever in Times Square again, and there isn’t a line at the walk-up window, and the red light is on, I’d say treat yourself to an original glazed. But skip the interior. A T-shirt that says “DOUGHNUT DISTURB” is not worth the respiratory risk. Also, that aforementioned “white icing splurt” motif everywhere … it’s a real appetite killer.