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“Are these people looking for a job?” asks the taxi driver as we pull up outside Dominique Ansel Bakery in Spring Street, SoHo, at 7.15 on a hot Monday morning. A few hundred faces are gathered at the bakery door, forming a queue that reaches patiently down the block and into the next street. Why else would they be standing here, if not for a good reason, such as finding work?
“They’re queuing to buy cronuts,” I tell the driver, and when I explain what a cronut is – yes, it’s just a pastry – he looks dumbfounded.
This croissant-doughnut composite, created at the hands of French baker Dominique Ansel, has enjoyed such crazed and consistent popularity since it launched in May that New Yorkers are sacrificing hours of sleep in order to try it. There are queues every day, and those who aren’t prepared to queue are willing to offer 10 times the retail price on classifieds site Craigslist.
The pastry cross-breed certainly sounds like it has a lot going for it: all the flaky layers of a croissant in a ring shape, with the richness of a doughnut and some extras thrown into the bargain – the grapeseed oil-fried laminated dough contains a delicate patisserie cream, and is topped with a swirl of icing.
Demand is so strong that Ansel has trademarked the cronut name, while imitators have swarmed into the market with the dough’ssant, the zonut and the frissant. At Duck & Waffle in London (Sundays only), you can now order the dosant.
On a page labelled “Cronut 101” on the bakery’s website, Ansel advises customers to arrive before 7am (the bakery opens at 8am) but many of those ahead of me evidently got here long before that – some at 4am, if we’re to believe the rumour that passes down the queue – all for a chance to buy a $5 pastry that may or may not revolutionise breakfast as we know it.
When New Yorkers take to a food trend, they do it with gusto. Just witness the excitement around the bone “luge” (a cocktail downed from a bone marrow shank), or the overnight popularity of the Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich a couple of years back.
But still, as long lines for food go – the kind where you shuffle forward slowly, hungrily, half-steps at a time – this one is upbeat. There is no arguing. No tetchiness. Instead, there is a sunny cronut-will-cure-all optimism, and there is conversation.
Three sisters behind me are here on their fourth cronut attempt. The man next to me, standing with a violin case on his back, is a music teacher from Hawaii who has been to a business conference upstate and added a day in the city just to buy a cronut. He tells me about the current demand for violin lessons on Hawaii (very strong), and the Hawaiian weather phenomenon of “liquid sunshine”. Now and again a street cleaner or passer-by stops to ask someone in the queue what they’re doing and, each time, they walk off looking unimpressed with the answer. Eventually, we round the corner from the Vesuvio playground at the back of the bakery, where tennis players are practising against the wall.
We can now see the sign for the bakery, and we can also see Ansel himself intermittently sticking his head out the door to assess his believers. A member of his staff is sent out down the line at about 8.30am with an elegant tray of thimble-sized lemon madeleines, hot from the oven. I notice a van parked outside the bakery that reads: “Catch the cronut craze, advertise on this truck” and I start to feel very hungry.
As the strike of 9am approaches, anxiety spreads down what remains of the line; only a limited number of cronuts is made each day, though Ansel says he is making more (with plans to go nationwide). At last, the door swings open – only to reveal another queue inside. This is the real queue, the hand-biting kind, as the golden boxes (one per person) containing pairs of cronuts get closer. I’m next, three or four boxes away from the end of the supply.
Ten dollars later, two of the fabled prizes are finally mine, and with a cup of tea I wander out to the tables in the bakery’s courtyard. How good can a cronut be? The deeply buttery richness of the pastry is wonderful, crispy and stacked high with greedy, messy-to-eat layers; the lemon-maple cream is pleasingly sickly.
Looking back, I feel a breakfast pang just thinking about it. But most of all I remember that queue: its fun and forbearance, and its friendly march towards the bakery door.