Welcome to Campus Bites, a new series from SI's campus correspondents featuring popular campus eateries and the stories behind them.
Donuts make people happy. It sounds cliché, but it's scientifically proven and printed for everyone to see on the front door of a shop in Manhattan's 'Aggieville' entertainment district.
The eatery is known as Varsity Donuts and its motto was originated by one of the store owners, Diane Merideth. Varsity's humble beginnings only date back to September 2011, but behind the colorful stained glass storefront sits remnants of the building's first drug store days in 1929. The original hand-laid mosaic tile floors run up to the surrounding booths and a dough-filled showcase, which connects to a portion of the original marble countertop bar.
"I think the shop's features give this place so much character—the original tile and the stools and the glass. The fact this place is so old but is still here and standing says a lot," said Varsity manager Kristen Swanson, who also referred to the shop as a "community clubhouse" for meetings and birthdays.
On gameday, though, the conference sized table at Varsity is occupied by the K-State drumline as it works on its cadences. The rest of the shop is filled with donut enthusiasts by 10 a.m., some of whom venture to the original wooden shelving to look at Varsity mugs and t-shirts.
"If you are looking for some energy, you better be at Varsity. We start a lot of people's day here at Varsity so we want to be happy and energetic and make sure it starts well," said Swanson.
The staff brings an infectious energy, which says quite a bit about them considering they work nearly around the clock. One crew of workers will begin with the doughs around 8 p.m. the night before and work into the wee hours of the morning before the "front crew" begins decorating at 5 a.m. for the store opening at 6.
The options are plentiful. Of course there are the basics, but the maple bacon bar, a yeast bar with maple frosting, bits of bacon, topped with more maple frosting on top, is one that sells out nearly every Saturday. Another hot item is the flat tire, a yeast donut with a square shape and hole to resemble a flat wheel that is topped with vanilla frosting and Oreo crumblings.
The flat tire is an ode to the shop's name. While past shops of Aggieville have carried the Varsity name, the donut shop's moniker refers to the Schwinn Varsity bicycle. The Schwinn Varsity is no longer in production (it stopped in 1986), but that hasn't stopped Varsity Donuts from doubling as a vintage bike rental shop.
"You can come in with a friend, maybe grab a donut and then go out for a tandem bike ride. Then it's like you never even had that donut. It is just a fun activity," explained Swanson.
Photo courtesy of Trenton Miller
Out behind the shop sits Varsity's most spectacular venture, the "Varsity Truck." The truck opened in 2012 as a tribute to Manhattan's late night cravings tradition. Local hotspots of the past, Vern's and also Swannie's, which actually served donuts from a basement back door, had a grasp on nighttime donuts.
Today, the truck is completely stationary, surrounded by a wooden patio and is home to football field long lines Thursday through Sunday from it's opening at 10 p.m. until close at 2:30 a.m. On the Friday ahead of Kansas State's game against TCU, the line carried 104 hungry people at the strike of midnight in 48-degree weather. Five workers fill the truck, reaching out the swung open window to hand out their notorious bacon bombs, hand-dipped corn dogs, and the treat of all Varsity treats, the grilled cheese mac and cheese.
This Little Apple delicacy is a traditional grilled cheese of two cheese types with homestyle mac and cheese also between the bread. It's placed in a panini press and served at a perfect temperature.
"You have to get the bacon on it," said Craig Helm, a freshman unafraid of the late night calories. "Sometimes I am here twice a week and I'm getting the grilled cheese mac and cheese every time."
Jaime Lee, a vet-med student from Los Angeles, stood in line for 25 minutes for her sandwich. "I think this is part of the local flavor now. This sandwich sets Varsity apart from other places because I have never heard of anything like it."
Some say they've waited as long as an hour, but the after hours crowd generally ceases restlessness.
"It's kind of social. People are always talking in line, so it's a good, clean environment. You're bound to know somebody here when this many people are in line," explained Helm.
That's speaks of tremendous respect from the students and community. So then this place just bears the question, does one begin or end their day at Varsity Donuts? Regardless, happiness is the outcome.
Trenton Miller is SI's campus correspondent for Kansas State University. Follow him on Twitter.