The End of Joe's Run
After a long run of 28-years, Joseph Martin Smith,or Joe, hangs up his apron, at least as a full-time job. Smith ran the popular late-night eatery Joe’s Bakery, a Lawrence landmark and a student tradition that spanned five decades of KU campus life. The bakery provided late-night hot donuts for students ending their revelries on Massachusetts Street and tasty lunchtime sandwiches geared for the student budget.
Joe Smith grew up in Tonganoxie and came to Lawrence after serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II. After visiting the local employment office and finding the only job available was washing pans at Ford’s Bakery, he took it.
In 1948, he went to work for Ekain’s Bakery, and later moved to Topeka and worked for two years at Sunbeam Bakery. He graduated from the American Institute of Baking in Chicago in 1950, and returned to Lawrence. He was employed by Kay’s Bakery, which was located at Ninth and Ohio Street in Lawrence, and two years later, he purchased the business and moved it to 616 W. Ninth Street. But after other, larger bakeries moved into town, Joe realized he was going to have to switch to a new market –donuts.
Students would bus downtown to the movie theaters and walk home. During the trip home, they’d pass Joe’s shop, smell the bread baking and ask to buy some. “Pretty soon they were rattling the front door, wanting some of what they were smelling,” Joe said. “So we sold ‘em a handful and the next night they’d come back with their buddies.” Joe’s started staying open at night, six days a week. Soon it was open 24 hours. And the students came, slowly at first. Gradually the reputation grew. And grew.
A family member said “Joe would always do his baking late at night and at that time not very many students had cars so they walked everywhere they went. They’d be walking home from the movies downtown and they’d smell the bread baking, so they’d knock on the door and ask to buy some. That’s when he started staying open at night. He was so busy waiting on customers that he couldn’t get any work done.” Late night “donut runs” to Joe’s became a campus tradition.
The late night eatery could become a crowded shop. According to the Jayhawker Yearbook, many students preferred to visit during the prime donut time between 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. when the donuts were hot and fresh. "When I walk into the store and see the baker take out a fresh, steaming hot tray of glazed doughnuts, I start to salivate with anticipation," stated Alex Buxton, a sophomore in 1994, "they are the best tasting doughnuts I ever had."
Joe continued his late night bakery business until May 16, 1980, when Joe's son Ralph Smith continued the magic of Joe's. Ralph bought the bakery from his father in 1981 and continued the operation for many years. He later sold the operation, and after two additional owners and varying store hours, the business closed for good in 2007. Smith said he recalled the times when the bakery would make fresh doughnuts before midnight and the line of student who would make their way toward the bakery after bars closed.
One time KU student Emily Demarini from Lenexa confessed her Joe’s addiction, saying she couldn’t wait for a chicken salad sandwich. “My sister went to college before me, and she wrote the ABCs of KU for me.” She said. “J was Joe’s."
The sharing of the Joe's tradition seems to be a common theme with past KU students. Brad Brooks, a freshman in 1994, stated in the Jayhawker Yearbook "I heard about Joe's through my sister and my brother-in-law, who are both KU graduates. They told me it was one of the many traditions that I would encounter here. And they were right because I absolutely love their doughnuts." He went on to share "what a great place. The doughnuts, the people, the atmosphere. God bless Joes."
Joe's Bakery was so much a part of the KU tradition that the KU Memorial Unions placed a copy of the doughnut recipe in a cornerstone time capsule during a renovation of the Kansas Union in 1993. But, all good things must end, and Joe's Bakery closed for good in 2007.
But, fifty-nine years after Joe Smith first opened the bakery, the Unions continue to share the Joe's Bakery story in the Hawk's Nest of the Kansas Union. Joe's neon sign was installed there on May 5, 2011, with members of the Smith family helping light the iconic sign once again. The bakery may be gone, but the memory of over five decades of KU students lives on.
The Last Doughnut - A film by Jim Jewell, 1980. 2 parts.
Topeka Capitol Journal
The University of Kansas Jayhawker Yearbook (1977, 1988, 1991, 1994)