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Life’s A Circle – Might As Well Eat Small Ones

by Jennifer Wilson / photo by Peter DiAntoni

When someone says “slider,” most people think “White Castle.” Not Mike Closser, who works the late shift at the small but funky Milwaukee Mini-Donut Company stand at the corner of North and Oakland. “Back in the ’20s, the fried donut became known as the slider,” he says. Every Tuesday through Sunday, 33-year-old Closser rides his mini-moped up from Franklin to continue what has been a “two month crash course” in learning to coax the highest quantity of perfect donuts out of the donut-making machine. Closser knows every knob, crank and quirk of the machine, which looks like something out of a 1950s educational film. The lumps of dough jiggle and flip along through a series of hot oil trays, held back or helped along by Closser’s spatula and keen sense of timing. What constitutes the perfect donut? Closser’s natural enthusiasm cranks up a notch at this question. “The perfect donut is round with just the right dimple in the middle that goes through both sides just enough so that it appears that there’s a hole there.” Not every donut makes the cut. He shakes his head as he says, “some donuts are just ugly.”

Closser’s journey to mini-donuts began 15 year ago when he worked as a chef in northern Wisconsin at that uniquely Wisconsin phenomenon, “the supper club.” Long hours and low pay led him back to the Milwaukee area, and he took a job at 7 Mile Fair where he got to know Lars, the friendly owner of a mini-donut stand. Appreciative of the way Lars treated staff like family, Closser asked to be involved in the start up of the stand on the East Side. Lars’ unique style has engendered high levels of loyalty and motivation among the staff, according to Closser. “We don’t call it ‘his’ shop, we call it ‘our’ shop.” Lars often treats the staff to a meal together, when business talk is tabled in favor of simply enjoying each other’s company. While making perfect donuts is important to him, Closser’s passion clearly is for outstanding customer service. He’s on a personal crusade to not let that art fade away as long as he’s behind the window of the tiny but efficiently used space of the walk-up/drive-through stand.   Naturally, I had to sample the merchandise. My mini-donuts were delivered fresh from the fryer to my hot little hand in a paper bag wrapped in a napkin or two. The last donut in the bag gets to make a flying leap from Closser’s spatula before being caught with a flourish. While you can order them sprinkled with powdered sugar, cinnamon sugar, or a combination of the two, I highly recommend the combo. These “little fried tasty snack treats” lived up to Closser’s description. Little? Yep. Very cute. Fried? You betcha! This is Wisconsin, after all. Tasty? I popped about six of them in as many minutes, so yeah. Snack treats? I could make it a light dinner, but okay…I’ll go along with snack!

His goal is to provide before the customer realizes a need. “Skim, 2%, soy, whole — you don’t have to ask. We give you the options.” While everyone receives excellent service, he admits that tipping is appreciated and can score you extra donuts in your next order, which come in a bag clearly labeled “Caution — Contents May Be Habit Forming.” In his hometown of Sweetser, Indiana, population 500-600, he grew up hearing people behind counters ask “How are you today?” with a genuine interest in the answer. Closser’s attempts to replicate that kind of personal attention are met with mixed reactions. “Some people are taken aback by it,” he says, lamenting that a whole generation has grown up without experiencing the golden days of “May I carry your bags to your car, ma’am?” “They think I’m being phony or fake, and they respond in kind,” he says. “It’s sad, but I keep at it.” Closser knows his client base well and speaks affectionately of the local regulars. There’s a Japanese trombonist and his wife who come by often, a computer programmer, two guys studying to be firefighters, bartenders, students from UWM, and kids from Riverwest. Mini-donuts even appeal to the building’s owner, David Charney, who stopped by for a bag of the tasty treats while we were talking. On an August night a few weeks back, I walked over with a friend to buy him a bag of birthday donuts. I struck up a conversation with one of the several young men hanging out there on bikes and asked him what he thought of Closser and his brand of service. He said, “He’s a really cool guy. We like talking to him.” Located at an intersection crawling with nightlife, Closser has seen some bizarre things, most not fit for print. His most rewarding night, however, was when he helped return a stolen car to its owner. He had called Parking Enforcement to have what looked like an abandoned car removed from the lot, and they identified it as stolen and planned to tow it. Closser hated the idea of someone who had their car stolen having to suffer the indignity of paying a $95 towing fee to reclaim it, so he searched the car himself to find some identification. He was successful and called the owner in Menomonee Falls who drove down to get it. “He was grateful,” Closser recalls, glad to have helped. What bit of donut wisdom does Closser have to dispense along with the Italian espresso and Alterra coffee? “Life’s a circle. Might as well eat small ones.” Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 10 – October 2003