Fritter Fight

Homer Simpson would be horrified. The ever-vigilant City of Mesa has targeted Winchell's Donut House franchisee Edward Salib for daring to put pictures of doughnuts in his windows. The giant glossies of glazed rounds that once stared out from Salib's shop at Country Club and Main are no more, thanks to a new law restricting the size of signage in downtown businesses. Although Salib was assured that his 18-year-old store's pastry pictures were exempt, the city was apparently talking out its doughnut hole. Now, the city wants them down, and Salib is planning to sue.

Salib has a lot to say on the subject, but never, ever with his mouth full of beignet. After we part company, I sit for a long time at the bar at Barcelona, staring into my Manhattan and wondering: If a man can't stand for photographs of doughnuts, what can he stand for?

New Times: Why is this happening to you?

Edward Salib: I have no idea. You just go down the street and you see signs in every other business window. I have no idea why Mesa is doing this and why they come up with this, how do you call it, grandfather in, grandfather out.

NT: Right, because your window signage was grandfathered in after the city passed a new law in 1999 that said that large signs couldn't be posted in windows.

Salib: Yes. This store has been here for 18 years, and they show up one day and say we no longer be grandfathered in. Because we change the signs for our specials for the month. There was one day a sign with a doughnut picture, and next day there's a sign with a picture of a doughnut with sprinkles. And the city shows up and says, "You have to take it down. No more signs." Why?

NT: Maybe someone at the City of Mesa has it in for sprinkles.

Salib: They say the signs in windows can only take up only so much of the window, but they don't say what size window. It's a mystery. The size of the sign is wrong? I don't decide the size of the signs, they come from Winchell's. It's a chain; all Winchell's get the same signs.

NT: How do they expect you to sell bear claws if you can't put signs up?

Salib: This same question you ask me, I ask the city. How can I communicate with my people, the people who buy doughnuts, when there are no signs saying, "Come in here and buy this doughnut"? And the reply was, "You must do this in the newspaper." But how many people are looking in the newspaper for doughnuts?

NT: I couldn't say.

Salib: And these people who say to buy the ads, they forget that I am paying Winchell's franchise fees for advertising. Advertising is a combined thing, you have an ad on the TV, you have an ad in the newspaper, and you have most important an ad in your window with a big picture of a doughnut. Which I think the city does not want.

NT: Why does the city care about what kind of signs you put in your window?

Salib: The major excuse is that the police cannot see inside to see for the safety of the people inside. That argument doesn't hold water, because there are places with windows that are completely covered.

NT: So if a person were choking on a jelly-filled or trying to steal a dozen Boston creams, the police would want to be able to look in your window and see this.

Salib: I think they have too much time on their hands. I have no other conclusion. Too much time, too much money, too much attention on people who didn't do nothing. And why they target me, especially among other people, and why they watch me like a hawk instead of other people's business? Across the street, Bailey's Brakes, his land and my land here is what the city calls the gateway for the City of Mesa. And that's why they are looking at my store so closely.

NT: Wait. So you think that the city is trying to run you out of business so they can place a more upscale business here?

Salib: My lawyer would not like for me to say this. There's no doubt that the city has named this intersection as the gateway into downtown.

NT: This isn't about doughnuts.

Salib: It's about letting me communicate with my customers. A business is a mute thing. The building cannot speak without signs in its windows. If you take my signs, I am left with no voice.

NT: You want this building to shout out "maple twists!" So, what about your First Amendment rights?

Salib: My freedom of expression has been taken away. I don't see justice in this. In the long run, it will affect my income. If you look into my doughnut case at 2:00, you will see many doughnuts just waiting. This is because people do not know that they are specially priced after 12:00. We used to have a sign up that said this. Today you will look and see many wasted doughnuts. Why?

NT: Indeed!

Salib: You can come to a lot of conclusions. For me, it's my business, bug off! If the city wants me to get a permit every time I change my signs, I will obtain one. I don't have to break the law to sell doughnuts.

NT: So the City of Mesa actually photographed your store? They run around taking pictures of shops?

Salib: Mine, they photographed 24 times. I think it's like I say, this area is targeted. Limiting our signs is an excuse and now I think the city realizes their mistake, after talking to my lawyer, but I still must ask: Why in the first place start something? And they give no explanation, like civilized people. If the problem is too much doughnut pictures, I can eliminate a few of them. But they had no communication with me at all. They just show up one day and say, "You must take doughnut pictures down."

NT: That's kind of mean.

Salib: It became worse! My wife took some of the pictures down, and the city came back the next Monday and said, "You must take all doughnut pictures down!" You be in my place, what would you do?

NT: I don't feel qualified to answer that. But if there's a law against doughnut photos, how can you get around it? Can you fight city hall?

Salib: It's not a matter of fighting, it's a matter of justice. If I'm fighting, it is for my identity. I want my freedom to say, "I sell cappuccino for two dollars," you know, and not have the city say, "No, you can't tell people that." Next they will come in and say, "We do not like your clothes, you must take it off today." It's the same.

NT: Why did it take them three years to notice your signs?

Salib: I don't know. They showed up about six months after I took over the business from my brother, to start hammering me. Hello, city hall! Wake up and smell the coffee!

NT: I always see cops in doughnut shops. Maybe you'll have the Mesa police on your side.

Salib: I want only justice on my side. People are people, whether you're a cop or a normal person.

NT: Have you thought about advertising alternatives? Maybe you could get a guy dressed as a giant cruller to stand out on the street and wave people in.

Salib: This would only work once a month, only once in every blue moon you can do that. That's a special promotion.

NT: You might put a beautiful woman dressed only in carefully placed buttermilk bars in the window.

Salib: No. My mother said to me, "What if this were a bride shop," okay? And you had a wedding dress for a lady one day, and the next day a dress for the groom. What would that be?

NT: A special on transvestite wedding apparel?

Salib: No, no. Is the lady dress grandfathered in, and the groom dress not?

NT: I'm going to guess no.

Salib: Exactly. So you see.

NT: I see that it looks like the City of Mesa wants to run you out of town so they can use this property for something bigger and shinier.

Salib: I have no proof of this. I assume this, you know, the way it's been going. God knows what they have planned. They might lose this battle with me and then come back next year to get me another time. There are many questions.

NT: That's true. Here's one that's been bugging me: How do you get the cream into a cream-filled?

Salib: We have a special machine. I can show you. It's very good.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela