Just knowing that Bruce Frechette will be parked at the foot of City Hall gets some people out of bed in the morning. For 25 years, downtown workers have made the Hot Donut Co. cart their first stop.
Frechette leaves his Temple Terrace home in the dark Monday through Friday to be plugged in by 6:30 a.m. For the next four hours, he'll brew, batter and banter on a brick strip of Franklin Street just south of Kennedy Boulevard.
"Pretty simple operation," says the pretty simple guy, moving sparely in a galley the width and breadth of his arm span.
At 6 feet 2, lean as he is congenial, Frechette drinks his coffee black and doesn't appear to eat into his profits. Bob Dylan croaks from the CD player. Eight flavors of Joffrey's gourmet coffee fill shiny thermal carafes. With a flip of a switch, an automatic — he says "robotic"— machine fries, flips and dispenses fresh, old-fashioned, vanilla cake doughnuts.
Entertainment lawyer Paul Quin approaches, cellphone on ear. Frechette pumps a foam cup full of French Breakfast blend, stirs in two packages of Splenda and asks, "Did you get to the bank?" Quin, still on the phone, nods and hands him $2.20.
The handoff repeats hundreds of times. Add 75 cents for a doughnut — $1 if glazed with chocolate or vanilla icing, or topped with chopped nuts or coconut. Tax included. A half-dozen plain to go costs $4; assorted, $5; double for a dozen. Street folks know they are welcome to anything left at closing.
The sign may say self-serve, but Frechette, 57, coddles customers, knowing them by name, flavor preference and bagel versus doughnut. He remembers where they work, how they vote. Brian Lee, a city wastewater department employee, is a regular who brings his own coffee mug. He enjoys the visit as much as the coffee, calling their opposing worldviews "friendly fire."
Ronald Reagan was president and Franklin Street was a pedestrian mall in April 1986 when Frechette started out a couple of blocks north — "on Twiggs Street, until I was chased away at the end of 2001, when they opened Franklin to traffic."
That was a more lucrative corner, he says. Sales now average 75 cups of coffee and anywhere from a dozen to 200 doughnuts a day.
Six months ago, with the addition of a freezer, Frechette started making smoothies. He doesn't water them down with ice. "Berries, bananas, vanilla soy milk … no ice," he says. "And that goes for iced coffee. They're not paying for ice. Drives me nuts."
This is the fourth cart Frechette has built, his carpentry skills making each design more efficient than the last. He also does all the cooking at home, even though his wife, Ann, is catering director at Mise en Place and the Tampa Museum of Art. Until their three children, Dylan, 24, Devin, 22, and Chloe, 20, left for college, he insisted that the family eat dinner together every night. He was gone before they awoke, he says, but Dad was there when they got home from school.
Frechette dates his doughnut epiphany to the summer of 1974, when a college girlfriend worked in Ocean City, Md., and he was home near Hartford, Conn. "Drove to see her every other weekend and eat fresh, hot doughnuts at Dipper Dan's."
He filed that memory away for 10 years while he graduated from Stetson University and launched what his mother euphemistically called a "novelty shell business." He and a friend fashioned marijuana pipes from seashells. "Cost about 20 cents each,'' he said, "and sold for $4.50 to head shops."
The young entrepreneur worked next as a management consultant, home fixer-upper and publisher of the Hillsborough and Pinellas editions of For Sale by Owner magazine. He recently bought and renovated two condos near the University of South Florida where two of his kids reside.
"I like people. I like working,'' he said. "I can see doing this in Kennebunkport (Maine) in the summer." He also mentions Key West and Boulder, Colo., as future hot spots for the Hot Donut Co.
"I'll work in the mornings and be done for the day."