Dilla's Donuts Delight in Detroit
These days Herman Hayes’s life leaves little time for play. Sleep a few hours, shop for ingredients, make donuts, deliver. Repeat. But the 62-year-old, who goes by "Uncle Herm" to those who know him, isn’t complaining. “I’m blessed to be active enough at my age to do be able to do this,” he says.
And what he’s doing is creating a legacy, not only for fans of his nephew James Dewitt Yancey (aka J. Dilla), the late hip-hop artist and globally renowned music producer for whom his new donut shop, Dilla’s Delights, is named, but also for J. Dilla’s daughters, Ja’Mya and Ty-Monae, and for J. Dilla’s niece Faith. “They are the delights,” he says.
Hayes started in the donut trade in 1979 as a night-shift baker in the Army. He later apprenticed at the Detroit Athletic Club, which led him to a job as lead baker and trainer for 12 Dawn Donuts stores across Metro Detroit. As his nephew James was growing up, Hayes would regularly bring a box of Dawn donuts by the house, and James would promptly gobble them up.
Over time, Hayes honed his donut-making skills and dreamed of becoming an independent donut producer. “I always wanted to see if I had what it takes to do it on my own,” says Hayes, who later left Dawn Donuts to manage wholesale production and distribution for Detroit’s Avalon Bakery.
Hayes found his dream taking on an unexpected sense of urgency in 2006, when J. Dilla passed away from lupus, just days after completing his final album titled Donuts. After the medical expenses were paid off, little was left over for his daughters. Hayes was inspired to remember Dilla’s life through their shared passion for the doughy round treats—and to set up a source of income for Dilla’s family.
I’m trying to teach the girls how to change like a chameleon,” Hayes says. “Don’t be complaining about what you didn’t get. Be resilient."
After building up a market for his all-organic donuts at various locations around town, Hayes and business partner Mike Vanover opened up a 600-square-foot storefront in May at the corner of John R Street and Centre Street in the Ashley Building where J. Dilla once lived. “This location is part of the history,” says Hayes.
On a sunny day in July, the tiny shop is filled with the music of the Spinners’ “Mighty Love,” played on vinyl from a turntable next to the donut case. On the walls, a painting of J. Dilla in an orange and navy blue starred baseball cap presides over the room.
Also on the wall hangs a massive replica of Detroit’s predominantly black historical neighborhood Paradise Valley, which served as an epicenter of black culture until it was razed in the 1960s to construct the Chrysler Freeway. The model was recovered in an old recording studio by members of the Detroit Sound Conservancy and was restored by architects at Lawrence Technological University.
Donut confections with names such as McNasty Macaroon, Conant Garden Glazed and Brewsters Banana Pudding are sold to pedestrian passersby, evoking a sense of culture, place and history with each sweet bite.
As for the future, Hayes doesn’t see himself slowing down. He’s hoping to grow the store and open new locations, all in an effort to create a legacy for “the Delights.”
“They’ll have to physically ban me from the store before I quit,” he laughs. “I want to make it something my kids and his kids can have in the future; something they can take off and run with.”
242 John R St., Detroit