Ask Lookout: Wait, which is the real original Ferrell’s Donuts?

Local chain Ferrell's Donuts has more than 70 years of history in Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Seventy-three years ago, the first Ferrell’s started satisfying local tastes. Now there are five of them around the county, but answering that question of what’s “original” led us on a wild trek. 

QUESTION: I grabbed a donut the other day in my neighborhood at the Original Ferrell’s Donut Shop. When I drove through Live Oak, I saw there’s another Original Ferrell’s. How can there be more than one? Which one is the true “original”?

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You’d think there would be an easy answer. Surely, visiting one or two of the five Ferrell’s donut shops in Santa Cruz County would clear up the confusion.

I intended to get the record straight in an afternoon, grab a glazed old-fashioned on my way out, and call it a day.

But it turned out that this wasn’t a simple question, and doesn’t have a simple answer. In order to understand how three different “Original Ferrell’s” donut shops, in Live Oak, Scotts Valley and Aptos can coexist, you also have to look at how they’re related to the high-traffic donut shops on Ocean Street and Mission Street in Santa Cruz that just go by the simple Ferrell’s.

Every revelation about the history of this Santa Cruz icon prompted new inquiry, until the real story rose from more than 70 years of Santa Cruz history like a certain round pastry puffs up in hot oil. While unraveling this twisting tale, we discover that, in this case, “original” does not mean “first,” and, in fact, none of the current Ferrell’s can claim that title. The first Ferrell’s donut shop closed in the early 1970s, but, as luck would have it, you can still buy a donut in that same spot today.

Why untangle the history of this local franchise, a somewhat retro reminder of old Santa Cruz? Because, rather ironically, in a town of tofu, kombucha and kale, one of our major cultural food touchstones is a donut shop. Ferrell’s Donuts, in one form or another, has touched the lives of the people who live here for three generations. Somehow, the donut has resisted alteration by the gluten-free, sugar-free and fat-free food trends. Any of you who have gathered in a booth with your friends, grabbed a midnight snack or stopped on your way to work are a part of that story.

More than 3,000 donuts are made daily at the Original Ferrell's Donuts in Live Oak.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Here’s one mystery solved: Ernest Ferrell opened the first Ferrell’s donut shop in 1949 at the corner of Water and Magnolia streets in Santa Cruz. You can still buy a donut there today because 20 years later, he sold the spot to Will Allbright, and Allbright’s Donut Shoppe endures.

But in the 1950s, before he sold that first Ferrell’s, the Ferrell family opened a second donut shop on Mission Street near the intersection of Bay Street in Santa Cruz. His son, Ed Ferrell, took over that location and, with the help of an influx of customers from the new university up the street, built it into a thriving business during the ‘60s and ‘70s.

This is an important detail, because in 1975, just a few years after Ferrell senior had sold the first donut shop, Ernest decided he wanted to open another one at the corner of 17th Avenue and Capitola Road in Live Oak. He still wanted to use his good name, but he also wanted to differentiate his new endeavor from his son’s business on the other side of town. So Ed Ferrell gathered all the clarity he could muster and named his new business — the third Ferrell’s donut shop, if you’re keeping score — the Original Ferrell’s Donut Shop.

Unfortunately, Ferrell became ill shortly after, and sold his Live Oak store to Robert Morse and his son, Michael Morse, the following year. Michael Morse has continued to operate the Live Oak location for the past 47 years — and then he later expanded his chain of Original Ferrell’s donut shops to Scotts Valley and Aptos, and all bear that name.

So there’s the short answer as to why so many Santa Cruz donut shops bear the Ferrell’s name. But the longer story of how this local donut franchise captures the community’s heart is even sweeter.

A connection to donut history

Michael Morse laid out that history from a booth at his long-running donut shop Original Ferrell’s at the corner of 17th Avenue and Capitola Road in Live Oak. The room is still laid out almost exactly as Ernie Ferrell designed it in 1975, but rather than feeling dated, nostalgia bathes it in a no-frills, vintage charm. Two U-shaped counters surrounded by pedestal stools dominate the room, open at one end so a waitress could come through to take orders and pour coffee.

More than 3,000 donuts are made daily at the Original Ferrell's Donuts in Live Oak.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

“It’s very congenial,” Morse said. “The people who come in in the morning can talk to each other instead of looking at their phone.” Prior to the ban on smoking cigarettes indoors in 1998, the place would be packed with customers enjoying their nicotine, caffeine and sugar fixes all at once. The walls would be orange with cigarette smoke; Morse says his oldest daughter still associates him with the smell, although he’s never been a smoker himself.

Morse acknowledges that having two sets of Ferrell’s donut shops in the same town is “confusing as all get-out.” Some years into his donut career, son Ed once suggested that he change the name. Said Michael Morse: “I replied to him, in a rather smartass tone, ‘How much did you pay for your name?’ And he said, ‘Nothing.’ And I said, ‘Well, I had to pay big money for the goodwill. And I’m not changing it.’”

At this point, he almost wishes he had — it would have saved a lot of headache.

In 1978, Morse expanded the Original Ferrell’s Donuts from Live Oak to Scotts Valley and, then in 1980, opened a third shop in Aptos.

Over the years, the donut business has managed to remain marvelously healthy.

Morse’s donut makers start their day at 5 p.m. and work until 11 p.m. prepping, baking and decorating almost 3,000 donuts each day. From the Live Oak Ferrell’s, delivery drivers work until after midnight to truck the fresh donuts to more than 30 wholesale accounts throughout the county, including the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Dominican Hospital and El Rosal Bakery in Live Oak, so they’re ready for early risers on their way to work

What are the top three sellers? Classic standbys raised glazed, chocolate raised and maple bars lead the pack. “If I only made those three donuts I would do just the same as I do now with 35 varieties,” Morse said.

Michael Morse has donuts in his blood. Morse’s father owned a chain of bakeries in Los Angeles and later moved to San Jose to become a salesman for a bakery supply company. Morse was a pre-med student when his father presented the opportunity for him to own his own donut shop in Santa Cruz and changed his career path.

Many years later Morse discovered that his family has a deeper connection to donut history. His great-uncle, Earl Morse, served as the executive vice president of the Donut Corporation of America. The DCA was founded by Adolph Levitt, an enterprising Russian immigrant who invented the “doughnut” machine in 1920 and catapulted the donut into American life. Once a pastry on the edge of obscurity, Levitt’s invention enabled restaurants, diners and coffeehouses to produce donuts quickly and easily and is credited for popularizing donuts throughout the country in the 1930s.

Morse became aware of the connection only many years into his ownership of his own donut shop, when a customer gave him a book on the history of donuts; inside, Earl Morse was thanked in the acknowledgments. “It seems I found myself in the donut business whether I wanted to be or not,” Michael Morse said with a chuckle.

The lore of Ferrell’s

Now in his 80s, Ed Ferrell, son of the “original” Ernest, brims with youthful energy and is full of stories from his decades in the donut business. When he worked in his dad’s donut shop on Water Street as a kid in the 1950s, he served the Italian fishermen after they had tied up their boats for the day. At 5 a.m., a boisterous, tough-looking crew of Gios, Castagnolas, Stagnaros and Caladrinos would grab donuts and coffee, rib each other and argue loudly over who would pay the $2.50 tab before heartily pinching his 10-year-old cheek and leaving a generous tip.

Ferrell's Donuts moved to the corner of Fair Avenue and Mission Street from the Palm Center in 1981.
(Via Ed Ferrell)

In 1958, the Ferrells opened a second location on Mission Street inside the Palm Center, near the intersection of Mission and Bay. The new location was just around the corner from Bay View Elementary School, and they hoped to draw teachers and parents into the shop. At the time, Mission Street was a two-lane road through a quiet residential neighborhood — mostly working-class folk and Italian immigrants — lined with half a dozen gas stations and not much else. Ed ran the shop while simultaneously pursuing a career as a teacher.

Then, in 1965, the University of California opened a campus up the road at the end of Bay Street, and all of a sudden business boomed. When late-night munchies struck, students were known to borrow a university-owned bus to travel off campus to visit the 24-hour donut shop down the street. If they timed it right, the hot donuts would just be coming out of the oven.

Ed describes students filling booths and tables and sitting on the floor, talking about projects while enjoying fresh donuts and hot apple cider: “It was like a circus every single night.”

Pauline and Ed Ferrell saw many colorful characters while operating the Ferrell's Donut Shop on Mission Street.
Pauline and Ed Ferrell saw many colorful characters while operating the Ferrell’s Donut Shop on Mission Street.
(Via Ed Ferrell)

Although this was long before my time, I know the scene. When I was a student at UCSC in the early 2000s, we frequently capped a night out with a stop at Ferrell’s Donut Shop on the corner of Mission Street and Fair Avenue. In fact, for the first few years I lived in Santa Cruz, I visited the donut shop exclusively between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. And every time I stumbled in late in the evening, buzzing off a fun night out, the place would be full of college students with the same idea, all drawn to the fluorescent lights of the donut display case like moths to a flame. I wouldn’t call it the hottest party in town, but it was always a scene.

It turned out my frivolous late-night donut run had a legacy.

The memories Ed Ferrell calls up harken back to a more innocent time when Santa Cruz was still a small town. High school students would regularly sneak out to commiserate at the donut shop. Agricultural workers would stop in during the wee hours of the morning on their way to the farms up the coast.

Musical acts traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles frequently stopped in, including Neil Young, Carlos Santana, the Doobie Brothers, Chuck Berry and Janis Joplin. He remembers singer Linda Ronstadt sitting on the floor drinking hot apple cider with her girlfriends.

Alfred Hitchcock had a home in the Scotts Valley at the time, and he would come in while his wife got her hair done at the beauty parlor next door. Ferrell laughs out loud recounting how another customer sitting next to the world-famous director didn’t recognize him when he asked him to pass the sugar.

In 1978, Ferrell and his wife, Pauline, moved their business to a location down the street at the corner of Mission Street and Fair Avenue, where it still is today. In 1981, they sold it to Sivkeang Lim, and soon after she purchased an old Winchell’s Donuts on Ocean Street, which became the fifth Ferrell’s Donuts. Today, relatives of Lim’s still own the Mission Street and Ocean Street Ferrell’s.

Current Mission Street Ferrell’s owner Darin Taing says that until the pandemic, the Mission Street Ferrell’s was still a late-night stop for college students and teenagers. In 2020, for the first time, he chose to close his shop in the evenings, thus ending Ferrell’s 50-year reign as a 24-hour stop. At the end of the year, he is selling the business to his sister, who — reclaiming that long history — plans to reopen it as an all-night place of comfort early next year.

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