This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Editor's note • In this regular series, The Salt Lake Tribune explores the once-favorite places of Utahns, from restaurants to recreation to retail. If you have a spot you'd like us to explore, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas.
When David Fisher recently sampled a doughnut from South Salt Lake's Fresh Donut and Deli, it was a familiar, much-missed experience: the doughnut tasted like a Spudnut.
Spudnuts 1950s-era doughnuts made with potato flour were made famous by a pair of Salt Lake City brothers, Al and Bob Pelton. Eager to start a business, the brothers used a recipe from Germany that Bob had stumbled upon after serving as a baker for the United States Navy.
They perfected the recipe for a different kind of doughnut that was full of air pockets and didn't soak up grease, made with dehydrated potatoes. Hence, the name: Spudnuts.
"The brothers Pelton never mention the word doughnut," stated a 1952 Mechanix Illustrated article. "Say 'Spudnut' and you'll draw a smile from them, though. For they're out to supplant the common doughnut with their million-dollar idea a delicious potato pastry."
The Peltons opened their first shop in 1940 on the northwest corner of 400 South and 500 East, said Barbara McGrath, Al Pelton's daughter.
"The mixing and the rolling they did by hand," McGrath said. "My earliest memory is going down to the store when they were making the Spudnuts and watching them mix it up."
A key to Spudnuts' success were the "little businessmen" young children, mostly boys, selling sacks of Spudnuts door-to-door and in the streets, said Fisher, who grew up in 1940s Salt Lake City.
Kids of that era may also remember Halloween at the Peltons. Instead of candy, the family offered Spudnuts to trick-or-treaters.
"We would always take a couple of different Halloween masks with us so we could go back two or three times," Fisher said. "Spudnuts were better than a crummy candy bar."
As Spudnuts' popularity grew, other shop owners wanted to sell them, but the Peltons wanted to keep their recipe a secret. That's when they got the idea to franchise.
By the late 1940s, more than 200 Spudnuts shops were dotting the country, using Spudnut mix supplied by the Peltons' plant at 4050 West 1700 South.
Al's youngest son, Dirk Pelton, remembers going on road trips across the country each summer for family vacations. Now, Dirk said, he knows those were business trips.
"We went through every town and visited every Spudnut shop along the way," he said. "He knew these people. They were part of his family."
By 1952, Spudnut outlets were selling nearly 1 million Spudnuts a month at 50 cents a dozen, according to the Mechanix article. At the company's peak, there were more than 300 shops in 38 states, and stores in Canada and Japan.
But the rapid rise of Spudnuts preceded a quick fall. By the 1960s, the chain was in decline.
"It was like anything else; it had run its course," McGrath said, theorizing that it became less acceptable to have kids selling things door-to-door. "It was a fad that lasted for a long time."
But the youngest Pelton, Dirk, said there's more to the story.
Bob decided to sell his half of the business to Al and invested in Blue Ice, the artificial ice pack company now owned by Rubbermaid.
In 1968, Al retired and sold the company to National Oven Products. They sold it to Dakota Bake-N-Serv, which continued to sell Spudnut mix to stores nationwide.
The sale didn't turn out like Al had hoped. After Bake-N-Serv took control, Dirk said, it used the company for its infrastructure and distribution channels. The actual Spudnut product was left by the wayside.
In 1979, Dakota Bake-N-Serv hit bottom after investing in a California development that proved worthless. The parent company no longer existed, and Spudnuts franchises were without a dough mix supplier. By 1989, only 28 stores remained.
"When the corporation was assimilated to Bake-N-Serve, they abandoned all the franchisees," Dirk said. "It was very painful for my dad,"
The trademark became neglected. It's now owned by Mike Patton, who supplies mix to doughnut shops across the country, including Johnny O's Spudnuts in Logan.
The Peltons' original recipe is still secret. Patton tried uncovering it after getting his hands on an old franchise handbook, but the Peltons hid some of the ingredients. He eventually found a few of the missing ones and got "as close as you can get to the original," said Patton, which is what he sells to places like Johnny O's.
Patton said he hopes to see Spudnut shops grow again. "It's a beautiful history. Salt Lake is the place it started, I think it's the place to bring it back."
For now, Fisher suggests, "if you want to reminisce about the taste of a Spudnut," head to Fresh Donut and Deli for its version.
But McGrath said others have tried to sell her "what they call Spudnuts, but they weren't. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing like a true Spudnut."