Mark Trombino is in the business of legitimizing guilty pleasures — the cultured aesthete may scoff “too cloying,” “kid stuff,” “not recommended more than twice a week,” and they could not be more wrong. But enough about the records he produced for Jimmy Eat World and blink-182, let’s talk about Trombino’s new venture, Donut Friend. To be honest, I’m sort of in disbelief that this place exists. Forget about being starstruck; I wouldn’t consider Trombino to be a “celebrity producer,” because he wouldn’t either. That being said, Is’m on the record claiming Bleed American and Clarity as two of my 10 favorite albums of the past 15 years, and prior to becoming a major factor in alt-rock radio during the turn of the century, he was the drummer in the sorely overlooked and highly influential punk band Drive Like Jehu.
So when I first enter what is by far the brightest, most cutely decorated building on this strip of York Avenue in Los Angeles’s Highland Park, it’s my version of meeting Steve Albini or Rick Rubin. And even before Donut Friend finally opened a few months ago, the menu was starting to go around with the following names — Fudgegazi, Chocolate From the Crypt, The Starting Lime, and perhaps the biggest “they cannot be for real” reference, Custard Front Drive.
I’m clearly the target audience for Donut Friend, and that makes Trombino a little uncomfortable. He’s deferential at any mention of “the music” or the theme of Donut Friend. “The music is an awesome inspiration and it built this place,” he admits. “I didn’t want this to be any kind of rock or emo doughnut shop, I just thought they’d be funny and something that most people would think is a weird name for a doughnut. I guess I’m sorta painting myself into a corner.” He also acknowledges if these doughnuts had other names, there’s no way I’d likely be here.
Day Three of My New Life
Whether he wants to admit it or not, Donut Friend is very much what you’d expect from a “rock doughnut shop,” regardless of the names — it’s right next to a tattoo parlor (“No Crybabys, No Drunks, No Pussies” it helpfully informs) and a guitar store. The coed duo of servers behind the counter almost certainly have a band, but even if Trombino stresses they just need to know what’s in the doughnuts and not what’s behind their names, the two seem to take extra pride in wearing the “Rites of Sprinkles” T-shirts. And during our talk, the Blow’s “True Affection” plays on the PA, which swiped the beat from D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” and ended up on 85 percent of all mixtapes exchanged between couples in Los Angeles during 2006. To top it off, even if “emo doughnut shop” sounds like a Funny or Die sketch meant to mock the lonely, it’s around 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Donut Friend customers still arrive in pairs.
Besides, Trombino looks very much like a former drummer/producer as opposed to, well, whatever you might expect from someone who’s putting his life into fried sugar and starch. His appearance and demeanor suggests formative years within punk rock and fairly lucrative years outside of it — black T-shirt, stern eyeglasses, a serious expression, and he looks like a frequent visitor to the gym. I ask him if he’s suffered any significant weight gain since Donut Friend opened and he muses, “I eat a lot of doughnuts, but I don’t eat a lot of anything else. I’ve kept off the weight but my health is probably terrible.” The extent to which he eats doughnuts is probably exaggerated, it’s more that familiarity breeds contempt. I lost 10 pounds during the summer I worked at Ben & Jerry’s, because even though I probably could have gotten away with at least two quarts a day of samples, I always left smelling like watered-down ice cream; for the next 10 years, I experienced a weird PTSD whenever I get a whiff of burnt waffle cones.
Don’t Kid Yourself, You Know They Want Money
As much as I want to ask him about Clarity arcana or whether Christie Front Drive got kinda screwed over after their Jimmy Eat World split or whether he thinks Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous got a bad rap, Trombino is … well, all business, as this business is his life. Trombino isn’t transitioning into Donut Friend, nor is this a side venture. In his words, he hasn’t retired. His greatest successes came during the last great boom period of the record industry, having been behind the boards for blink-182’s Dude Ranch in addition to Bleed American. That said, his most notable charges moved on to veritable “super-producers” like Jerry Finn, Butch Vig, and Mike Elizondo, and the emo/pop-punk sound he perfectly captured in the early 2000s was overtaken by the more hip-hop and pop-influenced likes of Fall Out Boy. “I’d be getting super-small budgets and I didn’t have my own studio, so I couldn’t really do them. I wasn’t really making a living at it anymore.”
I mention the burgeoning “emo revival” in scare quotes, and of course, the underlying laugh contained within is that a couple of well-intentioned think pieces aren’t resulting in any of the bands getting booked at Coachella or signed to rushed label deals. And, hell, most of the bands given tribute on the Donut Friend menu haven’t really made bank, either (maybe except for Ian MacKaye; word is that guy’s worth eight figures). Trombino says that bands often drop by, most notably Donut Friend neighbor Blair Sheehan, lead singer of beloved emo-pop pioneers Knapsack and, subsequently, the overlooked Jealous Sound, which is acknowledged with the “Jelly Sound” option. The relationship between the two seems to underline the pathos in the way Trombino speaks about Donut Friend thus far. Trombino wasn’t able to make it to Knapsack’s most recent reunion show in Los Angeles due to his strenuous schedule; even for a food establishment without a liquor license or much sit-down business, the shop’s hours are a burden, and only recently have the 4-8 shifts stopped. (That’s 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. or so. I wish not to speculate on the drug habits of the perpetually chipper Fred the Baker.)
Meanwhile, Knapsack’s story is very much a ’90s cautionary tale, filled with unfulfilled label expectations, dated videos, and bands that would eventually get very popular with a similar sound. Even when Jealous Sound made the superlative Kill Them With Kindness and seemed poised for a breakthrough, it more or less became another Knapsack album — intensely beloved by a small group of diehards. Before the Jealous Sound reunited for 2012’s cooly received A Gentle Reminder, Sheehan was seriously considering law school.
Living Well Is the Best Revenge
We’re in Trombino’s office, which is basically a storage room distinguished by relatively healthful snacks (granola, almonds, etc.), an impressive multi-cam security display, and the biggest can of beets I’ve ever seen (assures me it’s an ingredient in the chocolate forest cake). It’s a place where he clearly doesn’t spend much time reflecting, and while we talk he gets phone calls from advertisers and the Village Voice. I wait in vain for a reference to “put the fliers up all over town” quote from “Believe in What You Want.”
Donut Friend doesn’t appear to be Trombino’s thunderbolt inspiration so much as a couple of ideas folded into one. He considered putting burgers into doughnut buns, but demurred, saying, “There’s something ‘state fair–ish’ about them.” That said, he does maintain a good relationship with Grill ’em All, the Bobb Bruno–approved burger joint that Grantland contributor Eric Ducker frequented a while back. Donut Friend serves the Dee Snider, a doughnut with peanut butter, strawberry jam, and a dot of Sriracha that Trombino says is “inspired … well, stolen from Grill ’em All. But they’re cool with it.”
Upon visiting Donut Man in Glendora a few years back, Trombino cottoned to the idea of cutting doughnuts in half and exploring the possibilities, to give it the sort of gentrification that grilled cheese was experiencing around the same time. Meanwhile, Pinkberry started spreading, so he saw the potential in high-end comfort foods. As for the spark of inspiration that resulted in the menu’s theme, “I don’t even have a doughnut for it, but the first was Jimmy Eat Swirl,” and he went on from there. He experimented with most of the doughnuts at home, though he can’t claim the same sort of immersion that allowed him to move on from Drive Like Jehu to production. “I skipped that apprenticeship … if there is a doughnut scene, I don’t know it.”
Are You Nervous?
When I ask him about the most popular doughnut, he answers without hesitation, Bacon-182. Indeed, there’s at least a dozen of this variety ready to go the moment you walk in, which is unusual for a spot that prides itself on an impressive number of made-to-order permutations. He assures me it’s got far more to do with the still-cresting bacon wave than the name; for all he knows, it could be called Panic! At the Crisco or Jeremy Oink and still sell just as briskly.
And then there’s the G.G. Almond. Needless to say, this is a risky proposition — if you’re somehow willing to risk naming an edible item after an artist mostly known for his willingness to defecate onstage, a doughnut is taking things to their logical extreme. Trombino admits it’s the item on the menu that gets the most questions, but “Most people don’t know [who he is]. They either think it’s funny … or they really don’t.”
Good Things Won’t Let You Wait
We’ve gotten this far, so why don’t I just state the obvious … the doughnuts themselves, well … they’re awesome. I chose the one least likely to be available at any other establishment, which is the Jets to Basil, which is undoubtedly a more appetizing option than the hypothetical Jawbreaker doughnut — “goat cheese, strawberry jam, and fresh basil inside our traditional doughnut, topped with a sugar glaze and balsamic reduction.” It’s half crepe, half PB&J, I don’t even know — point being that you could eat it for breakfast and feel like the classiest adult in your circle of friends or it could be a romantic desert. It’s the sort of thing that makes you want to spell it “doughnut,” i.e., the grown way. It’s a Costanzaesque fork-and-knife affair, unless you have no qualms about getting a balsamic reduction all over your hands. Surreptitiously, I sneak in a few days later to try something more traditional, the Gorilla Biscuit, and it’s every bit the moderate indulgence. They’re satisfying, but not the kind of thing that will make you forget to eat an actual meal hours later.
The obvious difference between Donut Friend and Pinkberry would be that of perception — I’d reckon a reasonable Pinkberry serving size outfitted with all the attendant toppings wouldn’t be all that much different from what I’m eating. And yet, there is not a single one of your friends who believes that any doughnut could possibly be a comparable option to any frozen yogurt. In addition, the most common denomination of doughnuts is the dozen, and I can’t think of the last time anyone said they felt better after eating more than one. Except the genius thing about Donut Friend is that once you finish one of their doughnuts, that’s it. Unless you’ve got three or four more bucks to blow.
It’s a Hit
It’s not like there aren’t great places to get doughnuts in Los Angeles, but all the ones that don’t also serve Chinese food are either too bourgie or have the unfortunate connotation of “office party” fare, the sort of thing that makes you think of being forced to celebrate a coworker’s birthday against your will when you’d rather spend 4 p.m. on a Wednesday double-checking the free-agency pool for your fantasy team. But as much as Trombino shies away from a “culture” surrounding Donut Friend, it’s undoubtedly an advantage, or at least a distinguishing characteristic for the time being. At least until he realizes his true ambitions, whether it’s Pinkberry-style franchise or just those relating to the menu. “I’ve been trying to do a churro, my West Coast answer to the cronut. I haven’t managed to make that happen yet.”