A Taste of History: Muriel’s in Lebanon Has Served Doughnuts for More Than 50 Years

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    Muriel's Donuts owner Muriel Maville responds to a customer to come again when they are in town because, as she said, "I'll probably be here." Mayville has operated the shop for 50 years. She spent the morning making and selling doughnuts in her shop on April 11, 2018 in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Doughnuts cool on racks at Muriel's Donuts in Lebanon, N.H., on April 11, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Peter Land, of Lebanon, N.H. leaves Muriel's Donuts with a sack of doughnuts on April 11, 2018 in Lebanon. Land has a tradition of picking up doughnuts on Wednesdays then playing mini-golf with his wife and friends. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rick Roesch, of Etna, N.H., picks up a bag of doughnuts with his grandson Calder Roesch, 10, of San Francisco on April 11, 2018 in Lebanon, N.H. The two were at Muriel's Donuts for the first time, had left with doughnuts and came back a few minutes later to get more because they liked them so much. Owner Muriel Maville was there to fill another bag of doughnuts for them. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Photos of Francis Maville and Muriel Maville adorn the kitchen of Muriel's Donuts in Lebanon, N.H., on April 11, 2018. The family has owned the shop for 50 years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

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    Christina Moschella, of Enfield, N.H. orders doughnuts with her children Serafina, 2, and Angelo, 9 months at Muriel's Donuts in Lebanon, N.H., on April 11, 2018. "These are the best doughnuts I've ever had." said Moschella. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/14/2018 11:06:32 PM
Modified: 4/16/2018 2:13:45 PM

Lebanon — There was only one kind to begin with: the “round old-fashioned.” The year was 1967, and Francis and Muriel Maville had just opened a doughnut shop in Lebanon, at the corner of Granite and West streets.

“We’ll name it after you — so if we fail, you fail,” Francis, who died five years ago in March, had joked at the time. Really, her husband just wanted a woman’s name attached to the business, Muriel recalled with a laugh. “Francis’ Donuts” didn’t have quite the same ring.

As the years and decades went on, the Mavilles — who, in addition to being business partners and best friends, also raised five boys together — started offering variations on their original menu item: doughnuts coated in cinnamon or sugar; crullers; and “jelly sticks,” which are injected with an apple-raspberry filling.

And they didn’t fail.

Something about the doughnuts — a secret family recipe, passed down to Francis from an aunt, Maville said — sets them apart, makes them addictive, the kind of doughnut for which the price of one’s arteries seems small. The aroma of the shop alone, a heady blend of sweetness and simmering lard, could be bottled and sold in department stores. Eau de Muriel.

“It’s a funny recipe. If there’s one thing just a little bit off, it doesn’t come out,” said Maville’s second-youngest, Daniel, who’s familiar with the recipe from when he briefly ran his own doughnut shop in Enfield. “It’s real finicky.”

But Muriel is a seasoned pro, cooking up anywhere from 30 to 60 dozen doughnuts in a day. This number is small compared with the days when Muriel’s Donuts was open all day, instead of 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., but it’s hard for Maville to maintain the same level of output now that, at 80, she’s running the business on her own.

“I do what I can do, which is a full day’s work,” she said. After closing, she packages orders, makes her deliveries and prepares for another day.

Francis isn’t the only loss she’s suffered lately. In October 2012 — not six months before her husband’s passing — her son Douglas died from an embolism. This past October, another son, Mark, succumbed to cancer just two months after receiving his diagnosis.

The plan had been for Mark to take over Muriel’s Donuts, once the time came; ever since he was 12 years old, he was eager to learn everything he could about the family business, and dreamed of the day it would be his. When his father was in the hospital, Mark was in the shop, frying batter, holding down the fort.

Despite these difficulties, Muriel has continued to serve up doughnuts with a genuine smile. When her losses come up in conversation, she tends not to dwell on them; she acknowledges them, and moves on. She’s a naturally cheerful person, quick to laugh or gently tease her customers about their weakness for her doughnuts.

More than once, the shop has been recognized for serving the best doughnuts in New Hampshire, and the city of Lebanon recently named it a historic landmark. The plaque hangs prominently on her wall.

“Now, every day is jelly stick day,” Maville beamed, and turned around to fill an order for a customer.

The customer, a regular named Jerry Greenwood, leaned in and whispered a word of advice: “Just don’t eat more than two.”

Radiating Well-Being

The shop’s official recognition as a historic landmark has put it on the map — literally — in ways that continue to delight Maville.

“When the kids play Pokemon (Go), it takes them to historical landmarks,” she said. “So now they come in here and play Pokemon and have my doughnuts.”

But long before becoming a digital beacon, the doughnut shop was drawing in kids like Bonnie Tougas, who now lives in Enfield but grew up in Lebanon, a short walk from Muriel’s. Tougas remembers how, when the wind and timing was right, the scent of frying doughnuts would greet her when she stepped out her front door.

“They’re just the best doughnuts around,” Tougas said. As for Muriel, “she’s very special. There’s no one like her.”

After Tougas left, Maville smiled with nostalgia.

“She’s been coming in here since she was a little girl,” she recalled. “I remember she lived just down the street. She must have been able to smell it. What’s her last name? … Tougas? She must be married now.”

Tougas is one of countless children who, through the window of the service counter, Maville watched grow up. “Sometimes they move away,” she said, “and then they come back with the next generation.” There are even third-generation Murielites. But, she thinks in part because of recent news coverage, she’s been seeing more first-timers wander in.

Two of those first-timers were Sam and Myrna Velez, of Hanover. After Maville handed them their doughnuts in the customary brown paper bag, Myrna commented on Maville’s upbeat energy.

“She just radiates well-being,” Myrna Velez said.

Maville offered the Velezes a napkin for the ride back.

“They’re not going to get home, are they?” Maville laughed. They shook their heads no.

“I had a funny feeling.”

Early Days

Though many loyal Muriel’s customers said they couldn’t imagine a Lebanon without the doughnut shop, the Mavilles’ business is only the latest chapter in the building’s history. Once upon a time, it was a mom-and-pop grocery store called West Side Food Store, owned by Arthur “Archie” Dubuque, according to Ed Ashey, curator of the Lebanon Historical Society. His research indicates that the grocery store dated back to at least 1952.

The building itself dates back to around 1890, shortly after the 1887 fire that destroyed large parts of Lebanon, Ashey said during an interview at his home in Lebanon, where he conducts independent research on the city. The day after the fire, when the embers had barely stopped smoldering, the city started plans to rebuild.

Within the year, the wool manufacturer Carter & Rogers built a mill at the site of the fire, contributing to the booming woolen textile industry that would thrive in Lebanon for more than 60 years, according to the Lebanon Historical Society website. In 1890, the Manchester company Everett-Norfolk Knitting Works moved to Lebanon and soon employed some 265 people. The influx of mill workers increased demand for multi-family residences, and 20 West St., the future site of Muriel’s Donuts, was likely built to meet that demand, Ashey said.

The building still retains some relics of the history that draws in Pokemon Go players. When the Mavilles bought the shop, it came with a behemoth of butcher’s block, a ruggedly elegant antique that Maville now uses to roll and cut out her dough, before delicately placing each small, flat disc in the fryer, where they expand in the 375-degree grease.

“Everybody says they like it,” she said of the table, minutes after one first-time customer had called it beautiful. “It’s maple wood.”

Though the butcher’s block and the recipe have remained the same since the opening of Muriel’s, plenty else has changed since those early days. Maville remembers when the going rate for doughnuts was 60 cents a dozen, rather than $9. She had long been reluctant to raise her prices — she holds fond memories of schoolchildren counting out their coins, nickel by nickel — but finally did so, at her customers’ urging.

“And I haven’t gotten one complaint,” she said. In fact, the closest thing to a complaint she’s ever gotten was when she forgot to fill someone’s jelly stick, which was an easy fix.

Back in the day, while making deliveries to local shops, grocery stores and truck stops, she’d haul the doughnuts around in a cardboard tomato box, and transfer them right into the jar on the countertop, where they tended to be sold. Though many of those businesses still exist, such as Lebanon’s Little Store and Norwich’s Dan and Whit’s, others are long defunct.

“The ages have changed,” she said. Now she has only two accounts: The Fort and Jake’s Market and Deli, both in Lebanon. It’s hard to juggle a one-woman show.

Some things have gotten easier, though. She used to have what she called a “jelly pump,” which she would use to dispense jelly-stick filling by hand. Now, she has a special device for this: She pours the jelly into the reservoir at the back of the machine, then pierces an empty jelly stick with each of two long, pointed spouts, so the filling goes in neatly — not too much or too little.

“I don’t know what it’s called. I called the old one a jelly pump, so I call this one a jelly pump machine,” she said. “It’s all digital.”

‘Bashful Muriel’

Despite the changing times, the changing storefronts and changes in jelly-dispensing mechanisms, Francis’ passing has been by far the biggest adjustment Muriel’s Donuts has yet weathered. The Mavilles were married 57 years, and were in love for even longer — since she was Muriel Chouinard, the 17-year-old Hanover High School prom queen, and he was the 18-year-old Lebanon High School senior who swept her off her feet. She remembers he stopped by to see her once, while she was babysitting, “and boy, that was all she wrote,” Maville said.

They opened Muriel’s Donuts when Chris, their youngest, was a few months old. At first, Francis was the talker of the two.

“He knew everybody,” Maville said. He spent much of his life involved in Lebanon politics, even serving as mayor at one point, and Chris recalled that when he’d ride with his dad on deliveries, a 10-minute drop-off would usually turn into “35 minutes of chit-chat,” he said.

As for Maville, “I was bashful. Bashful Muriel, that was me,” she said. She would hide out in the back corner of the kitchen, where people couldn’t see her. Now, she considers customer “chit-chat” one of the best parts of the job.

“I know you would never, ever, ever guess it,” she said of her former shyness. “But by having to, you can do it.”

Members of the Maville family said the playful, loving dynamic between Francis and Muriel was part of what made Muriel’s Donuts what it was. Not only were the doughnuts themselves an example of lard-fried perfection, but the people making and selling those doughnuts were magnetic in their own right.

“Him and my mother were quite a pair. The biggest thing I remember is them laughing and talking and joking together all day long, even after working together 13, 14 hours a day,” Chris said. “They were the best of friends.”

After a knee replacement surgery, in 2007, Francis came down with a staph infection and ultimately lost his leg. They closed the shop briefly around this time, “and boy,” Muriel said, “did I hear about it.”

In a way, after Francis returned to work, he and Muriel traded their original roles in the business: He sat in the back, packaging doughnuts for delivery and doing other tasks that didn’t require much mobility. Muriel, meanwhile, started doing more of the talking.

“This was his corner. He stood in this corner for 40 years,” she said, referring to the service window where she now takes orders. When she talks about Francis, it’s like she can feel his spirit in the kitchen with her, keeping her company.

“Now it’s mine. I thought I couldn’t carry it on without him, but I’ve got to carry it on.”

Got Donuts?

Maville plans to keep working at the shop for as long as she can; by now the rhythm of it is in her bones, and she likes to feel that she’s making a difference in small but meaningful ways — making people smile, or giving them something to look forward to. After all, doughnuts make just about everybody happy.

The past few years have complicated the future of Muriel’s Donuts after Muriel. But Chris and Dan Maville say they intend to keep the business in the family, and some Mavilles are already making their mark. Dan pops in and out of the shop on occasion, doing maintenance and heavy-lifting. One of Muriel’s daughters-in-law crafted the artwork adorning the shop’s walls — collages of old family photos and magazine clippings, and a framed picture of a woodchuck accompanied by the words “GOT DONUTS?”

And one of Maville’s grown grandchildren, Joshua, is an entrepreneur who helps promote Muriel’s Donuts on social media.

But the shop, as the longest constant in Maville’s life and one that keeps her busy and social, has also helped keep her in good spirits. She enjoys and takes pride in her work, and it shows.

Jack Lebrun, a regular who lives in Lebanon, doesn’t see Maville running out of steam anytime soon.

“When she quits, I’m going to quit eating doughnuts,” Lebrun said, and winked conspiratorially.

“I’m not going to quit, Jack!” she shouted back at him from the kitchen. “So you’re stuck with me.”

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

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