Meet Madison’s donut man

Greenbush's Marv Miller makes it a must-stop
Meet Madison’s donut man

“We’re never not going to leave Madison, right?”

This was my son, Charlie, age 3 at the time, speaking from under the hood of his stroller on a weekend walk. My husband and I looked at each other with confusion: Where was this sudden concern about moving coming from? We stopped and moved to the front of the stroller to find out what was going on, then we burst out laughing. Charlie’s face was smeared with dark chocolate frosting and crumbs from the glazed donut he’d been silently gnawing since we’d made our ritual pit stop at Greenbush Bakery a few blocks back.

Like many people here, Charlie had been momentarily panic-stricken at the thought of moving someplace where he could no longer get his hands on a Greenbush donut at least once a week.

Greenbush customers often form a line snaking out the door of the skinny shop. And once inside, they step out of line and crane their necks like prairie dogs, trying to see–with some urgency–what’s up ahead and available in the glass display cases. People go crazy for Greenbush’s face-sized apple fritters; others, like my kids, home in on the custard-filled yeast donuts; and many swear allegiance to the classic cake donuts, in all their variety. I’m loyal to the chocolate Old Fashioned, a craggly-edged wonder covered in a light glaze that offers crunch; precisely the right amount of sweetness; and rich, moist cake in each insanely delicious bite. Like everybody else, I’ll groan if my go-to donut happens to be sold out. But this is mostly just for show. I will order another donut in its place, and I will still be well satisfied with my second choice. Being forced to pick a different donut at Greenbush is the best kind of making do.

And while the quality of Greenbush donuts is consistently excellent–a rarity in the world of fast and cheap eats–visiting the simple, clean bakery on Regent Street near Camp Randall is an experience in and of itself that also never disappoints. Over the years, sitting on one of the bakery’s outside benches while we munch whatever custard-filled, sprinkle-topped, yeast, cake, or Old Fashioned-style donuts we’ve just bought inside, my family and I have found ourselves drawn into long, meandering conversations with Marv Miller, who’s owned Greenbush with his wife, Barb, since 1996.

(Previously the place was called Donuts Unlimited.) Miller, whose vanity plates identify him as the Donut Man, loves nothing more than holding court outside his store on Saturday and Sunday mornings, chatting with customers–students still dressed in pajamas, locals like us, alumni returning for Badger games (who clean out his stock early on football Saturdays: buyer beware!)–about various plans he has for improving and expanding his business. He’s told me excitedly about a scheme to sell donuts online, another to expand his wholesale business to Milwaukee, and one more to get a big neon sign for his front window advertising COLD MILK. None of these plans have come to pass, or seem likely to any time soon.

When I stopped by recently, I asked Miller what was his favorite donut, and he laughed in my face: “This is like asking a father, ‘Who is your favorite child?’ I’m not going to tell you!” And then he was off, filling me in on new plans to expand sales through grocery stores around Madison and 15 weddings he’s got booked through fall, since, it turns out, his donuts are more popular than wedding cake. He’s also gunning, he said, to get a new OPEN sign, with the “O” sprinkled like a donut. Or maybe instead, a neon pineapple–an international symbol of hospitality, as he explained, dating back (“short story long,” as he likes to say) to the 1600s. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, which was just fine, because chocolate Old Fashioneds were in stock that day, and I was more than happy to stand there, nibbling one of these, still warm in the middle, while Miller regaled me with his donuty dreams. But what I would have told the Donut Man, given the chance, was that no new neon pineapple seems necessary–he’s got hospitality down pat.