By TOM McPARLAND
It was a rainy Friday morning when Rich Smith joined a table of men talking over coffee and doughnuts at Liberty’s Plaza Donut shop, a place he has been visiting for five years.
“Hey Rich,” a waitress called over, offering the Boardman resident a warm doughnut. He declined, settling instead for a decaffeinated coffee.
Many customers are greeted similarly at the store, which functions just as much as a local gathering place as it does a doughnut shop.
“This is kind of like ‘Cheers,’ where you know everybody,” said Maria Blake, an employee of six years. “But we don’t have booze.”
Workers and customers alike say it is that sense of community that has helped Plaza Donuts reach its 50th anniversary in the Youngstown area, a milestone the company celebrated by offering half-off discounts on doughnuts and coffee all day on Friday.
“It’s a way of appreciating everybody for all the business throughout the years,” said Michael Froomkin, co-owner and president.
The gesture did not go unnoticed among the customers.
It was “a real busy morning,” Froomkin said. “Much bigger than we anticipated.”
In fact, the staff had baked double the usual amount of doughnuts — about 140 dozen — and the Plaza Donut Shop in Liberty still sold out its stock by midmorning. So had the store on Boardman- Canfield Road.
But more doughnuts were on the way as a sweet smell filled the air two hours later. Those who missed out were given rain checks, good until the end of the year.
Fifty years is a long time for a family-owned doughnut shop, especially in an era when big chains and convenience stores abound, Froomkin said.
But Plaza Donuts is different from the competition, with lots of seating, a range of lottery games and its famous cream sticks, he said. And don’t forget the free refills of coffee.
“It’s free refills here, and they don’t have that,” he said.
Plaza Donuts also has a lot of history in the area. Brothers Berkeley and Irv Froomkin brought their fledgling business to Belmont Avenue back in 1963. They saw the local economy tank in the 1970s and 1980s after the steel industry collapsed, and they had to scale back from 10 locations eventually to three.
“It was one of those things that hits you in the paper, but you don’t really feel it until later on,” said Michael’s cousin and partner Howard Froomkin, referencing Black Monday in 1977.
The business also has family ties that outlast even its time in Youngstown. Brothers Irv and Berkeley started Plaza Donuts in Akron in 1960, and the family has made the store run ever since.
When Berkeley died six years ago, his son Michael took the reins as owner. Irv’s son Howard has worked in the shop since the late 1980s.
Now Irv’s son Brian works as a baker, making it three generations of Froomkins to work in the family business.
“It felt good to keep the tradition and family line going. We were brought up to work,” Michael Froomkin said.
That work has paid off for both Plaza and its satisfied customers.
When asked why he keeps coming back, customer Bob Cordova simply said: “They got the best doughnuts.”