Niagara Gazette — There is a box of doughnuts on the desk near mine as I write this. They were made this morning and include several of my favorites — cinnamon swirls, chocolate frosted angel creams and the ones with the multi-colored jimmies. I am trying not to walk over and fall into that box, but it hasn’t been easy.
Instead, I’m eating air-popped edamame chips. Seriously. But, that box over there cannot be considered lightly. They’re Frankie’s doughnuts, after all, and around here, it’s understood that a person should not pass by a doughnut from Frankie’s. Because, life is short.
I brought the doughnuts into the building. I went to Frankie’s Donuts Wednesday morning to talk with the owner, Frankie Hernandez, and his lovely life partner, Terry Rolling, about the business that’s been open near the corner of Pine Avenue and Portage Road for 30 years. Terry called me the other day and said someone should write about Frankie. I agreed.
More than once, when things were glum around here, I’ve thrown my coat on and headed out the door to buy a dozen of Frankie’s best. Sure, they’re high in fat and sugar. But, sometimes, my soul just needs a big, fat doughnut and extras to share.
So, that’s how I landed at Frankie’s and finally got to meet the man who makes the dough and hand-cuts those doughnuts everyday. And, if you’re keeping a list of Falls businesses that have devoted fans, you need to know about Frankie.
I thought he was Italian, given his first name and the fact that I have a multitude of Italian cousins named Frankie. He’s not. He’s Puerto Rican. Years ago, his older brother managed about 20 area Mr. Doughnuts and Frankie got his start at 18, making doughnuts. Eventually Frankie bought the Mr. Doughnut in Niagara Falls and then, given an option, he went independent. About 10 years ago he tried to open a pizza and wings place next door, but eventually, combined the two businesses and now the pizza and wings are just as popular as the doughnuts and breakfast sandwiches.
Frankie is a husky guy with close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and a trimmed beard and goatee. He wears a a big, white apron and a small, gold hoop earring in each ear. A father of three, his kids all work at the shop, including Frankie Jr., April, whose hoping to be a Falls cop soon, and Peter, a junior at the high school. A grandfather to April’s Allyanna, 2, and D.J., 1, he doesn’t seem to like to tell people how old he is. I get the feeling, having met him, that he’s a giant kid at heart.
Terry told me that while the place never closes — not even during the storm on Tuesday — Frankie doesn’t like to leave. He’s definitely not like that old guy on those TV commercials years back who used to grumble “time to make the doughnuts.”
“He loves being here. He loves the doughnuts. He loves the people,” she said. And sitting next to her in a booth near the counter, he agrees. “They’re like family,” he said of his customers. “They’re like part of me.”
He’s also pretty funny. Frankie’s been known to walk through the restaurant, flipping peoples’ hats around, blowing in their ears, making funny comments that might make the more gentile customers blush.
“Everyday he has a new audience. He has hundreds of people to tease, all day long,” Terry said. Clearly, she likes this guy — her life partner of 30 years — the man who hired her to work in the shop 30 years ago when she was 17.
She’s not the only one. Frankie’s seems like the kind of place they make TV sitcoms about.
Carmen Falbo and Ziggy Ciszek were sitting at the end of the counter when I walked in. Both retired, they’ve been regulars since forever, driving in from Pendleton and Sanborn respectively, to have coffee as often as they can. “Frankie’s the best guy in town,” Ciszek told me. “He’d do anything for you,” Carmen nodded.
They walked out the door and, as if on cue, a couple entered — Frank Rondinelli and Susan Maure. Daily customers for more than a decade, they’re getting married in a couple months and Frankie is making all the food as his gift to them.
“He’s got a heart of gold,” Susan said. “He’s genuine.”
I had a lovely time meeting Frankie and Terry and their customers. But eventually they had to get back to work. I ordered a few dozen because the people at my office knew where I had gone. But, I never planned to actually have one myself, due largely to holiday overindulgences.
I almost made it through the day. I found a plastic knife and sliced off a small taste of the cinnamon swirl. And then a slice of the chocolate frosted chocolate cream. Then just a bit of the apple fritter.
My resolutions crashed and burned. But, I felt satisfied.
If I can keep away from the rest of the box, I’ll be OK.
And life is short, after all.