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Doughnuts local staple since 1948: 'Sap' Essex launched bakery that became Dolly Madison

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A Sap's Donuts billboard on the west side of Columbus in the 1970s advertised the
A Sap's Donuts billboard on the west side of Columbus in the 1970s advertised the "donut dunkers' donut."

Sap Essex obit, 1/11/06
Sap Essex obit, 1/11/06

It all began here with a guy who was called “Sap.”

It could end here with the decision by an international corporation named Hostess Brands to shutter its pastry-making plant on National Road along with all its other manufacturing operations around the world.

While its ownership over the past 40 years has been in out-of-state hands, the local business was launched in 1948 when Phillip “Sap” Essex and Gene Brierly took over a small bakery at Fifth and Washington streets. About a year later, Essex with his brother, Tom, moved into a production facility at 12th and Jackson streets.

Their inventory was pretty simple — doughnuts — but business was brisk. Eventually Sap’s would come to be identified as the “world’s largest maker of raised donuts,” a slogan that was trumpeted on billboards throughout Indiana.

In the early years, demand constantly outpaced production capabilities, sometimes with costly but fortuitous results.

“There were two major fires at the 12th and Jackson operation,” recalled Max Lemley, Sap Essex’s nephew. “In a way, they proved beneficial because they allowed him to become more automated.”

At the time of a fire in 1953, the bakery had an output of 22,000 doughnuts a week and ran 12 truck routes serving points up to 50 miles away with doughnuts, sweet rolls, buns and cakes.

Essex, a Bartholomew County native, had established a reputation based on the quality of his products.

His brother, Tom, when once asked to describe the company’s quality-control system, laughed and said, “Sap was the quality-control program. That was one thing he insisted upon, that our product be the best.”

As business grew, it became evident that the 12th and Jackson operation was inadequate for any future growth. In 1960 the Essex brothers relocated to the current plant site on National Road.

With modern production equipment in an expandable facility, Sap’s continued its growth. At one point it employed more than 600 workers, making it one of the biggest businesses in the city.

Its founder took a personal approach to the business and its employees. He established a full-service plant cafeteria, discounting the cost of meals for his workers. A former chef in the Navy, he often came down to the cafeteria and personally prepared dishes.

By 1972, Sap’s Donuts had acquired attention from larger bakeries. That was the year the company merged with Beatrice Foods. In 1979, local ownership ended with the purchase of Beatrice Foods by Interstate Brands Inc.

“Pop worked there for several years following the merger,” his son Phil recalled Friday. “It really wasn’t the same, however. Pop was his own man and wasn’t very good at taking orders.”

Even after the name change, the identification with Sap remained. “I came home one day and found a message on my answering machine. It was from an older fellow who wanted to know if I was Sap Essex. He went on to say that Pop had given him his first job many years earlier,” Phil said.

Although there are occasional twinges of nostalgia he has experienced since the family’s involvement ended, Phil Essex is realistic about the businesses’ downturn.

“The important thing to think about today is the number of people who are losing their jobs,” he said.

From its founding in 1948 to the purchase in 1979, the business was identified with an unusual and misspelled name — “Sap’s Donuts.”

It was a name that Sap Essex had insisted on retaining, although most proper spellings of the product were “doughnuts.”

Shortly after the acquisition of the local operation by Interstate Brands, Sap’s Donuts was changed to Dolly Madison.

Sap Essex died in 2006.

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