VOL. 9 | NO. 6 | Saturday, February 6, 2016
Memphis Small Business Spotlight
Glazed with Tradition, Gibson’s Donuts Keeps Customers Coming Back
K. Denise Jennings | Special to The Daily News
While word-of-mouth and nostalgia might get customers in the door of Gibson’s Donuts, great donuts and a commitment to customer service are what keep them coming back.
Gibson’s has been a Memphis icon since Lowell Gibson and his brother opened it in 1967 at 760 Mount Moriah Road, the East Memphis locale where it’s still going strong nearly 50 years later.
Shaka Sykes tops iced donuts with coconut during a morning of production at Gibson's Donuts in East Memphis.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
Don DeWeese, owner of the former DeWeese YoungSport store, bought Gibson’s from his longtime friend in 1996 as an investment for his eldest son, Blair.
After two years, Blair decided to pursue an engineering career and joined The Peace Corps. DeWeese’s wife, Rita, took the helm until 2008, when their younger son, Britton, moved home to help his dad run what had morphed from an investment into their family business.
“Mr. Gibson was originally nervous to sell because he didn’t want the business franchised, but he knew my dad would honor his wishes to keep it what it was,” said Britton DeWeese, who has been handling the day-to-day operations at Gibson’s since 2008.
Some of the store’s employees have been there since 1967. They still use the original baking and glazing machines, and the store has remained open 24/7 except on Christmas.
Gibson’s has had a loyal following for decades, but the business has grown significantly in the last decade. According to Delta Sky Magazine, it’s the largest independent donut store east of the Mississippi, and it’s arguably the largest independent, one-location donut shop in America, said Don DeWeese.
“Over the last eight years our business has exploded,” said Britton. “In ’08 the economy tanked and our business picked up, maybe because we were a cheap alternative. I think it was a combination of social media and getting busy while the economy was down that has helped us grow.”
Gibson’s business has doubled since 2008, says Britton, who credits its reputation for attracting cooking shows like Eddie Huang’s “Cheap Bites” on The Cooking Channel and, more recently, the Jan. 26 episode of Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations.”
The family relies solely on word-of-mouth and social media for marketing and advertising. Gibson’s has more than 11,000 followers on Facebook.
“We’ve never spent a penny on advertising, and we never will,” said Britton.
A longtime employee even came up with an idea a few years ago to maximize profits on any leftover donuts each day and started an 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. half-price sale that started attracting another wave of late-night customers.
Larico Brown moves a tray of freshly-formed yeast donuts to a rack in the production area at Gibson's Donuts. On a typical day the kitchen churns out upwards of 300 dozen.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
“You can’t get a seat in here at midnight on a Friday and Saturday,” Britton said. “I haven’t seen a day-old bag of donuts in here in three years.”
Gibson’s Donuts attracts the usual suspects: policemen and firemen, who get free donuts when they’re on duty, and children and families, who visit after school and on weekend mornings. But they also do a booming corporate business – supplying many local car dealerships, drug reps and corporations with their daily supply of donuts – and they even cater weddings. Mornings are busy with business bulk orders as well as counter service for dine-in customers, and free Wi-Fi brings in the college and freelance crowd all day long.
“Throughout the day there are all different demographics here,” said Britton with a laugh, adding, “The graveyard shift is a whole different scene.”
Don DeWeese is a colorful fixture in the store most days, interacting with customers, throwing donuts at newbies and entertaining the crowds when he’s there.
“We try to make it a fun place,” he said.
The DeWeeses love to give back to the community, regularly donating donuts to many charities, schools, churches and local organizations – but always anonymously.
“We treat everyone the same here,” said Don. “We don’t care about your race, religion or political affiliation.”
While he’s thankful for Gibson’s fans near and far, Don believes the real engine that drives the store’s success is a combination of great customer service and great donuts.
“No matter how good a donut we make, if we don’t treat our customers well up front we’re going to go out of business, and no matter how great we treat our customers, if we don’t have great donuts the same thing will happen,” Don said. “We have a manufacturing business and a retail business, and if either one is bad it will kill your business.”
As far as plans for the future, Britton said, “We don’t have plans. We’re just riding the wave. If we get busier we’ll just hire more people.”
But don’t look for Gibson’s to ever move from its current location on the stretch of Mount Moriah renamed Don DeWeese Boulevard.
“You can’t duplicate what we do here,” Don said. “We’re not interested in going to another location, even if the rent were free.”