On Monday night, 61-year-old baker Herman Hayes pulled an all-nighter making doughnuts. What is typically a prosaic job has become, for Hayes, more than just a profession. One day later, Hayes will, after years of delays and setbacks, open Dilla’s Delights, a doughnut shop he’s spearheading in honor of his late nephew James Dewitt Yancey, aka revered Detroit hip-hop producer J Dilla.
When the store eventually opened Tuesday morning, Dilla fans flooded the shop early. There’s a loud knock on the door.
“Man, I’ve been looking forward to this all morning!” a guy shouts from outside. It’s 10 a.m. and the downtown Detroit doughnut shop has already closed for the day, having sold out two hours prior.
“We weren’t expecting so many people,” store business partner Mike Vanover tells Rolling Stone. Even though they’re closed, he lets the fan in to buy a Dilla’s Delights T-shirt — there are three different kinds hanging on the wall for purchase. Their slogan reads, “Because beats and donuts are made best before sunrise.”
Every few minutes, there’s another knock on the door, but eventually there’s nothing left to sell at the 600-square-foot space, which sits on the corner of John R. and Centre St. in the Ashley building, formerly the Milner Hotel. The structure was once home to Dilla, who passed away in 2006 from complications of a rare blood disease just three days after releasing the seminal album Donuts. His mother, Maureen Yancey, operated a kitchen there as well.
While Dilla’s Delights doughnuts have been sold at satellite locations since 2013, the idea for the actual shop itself was a decade in the making, often derailed by funding. But the owners persevered, trading donuts to fans for vinyl records that now help accentuate the store. Most of the selections includes tracks sampled by the producer throughout his storied career, which included a tenure in hip-hop group Slum Village.
Inside the tiny gray-and-red mom-and-pop-style shop are walls commemorating the rapper-producer’s immense legacy, from original Dilla artwork to signed posters to a custom-made donut clock near the coffee machine. There are also old Detroit sports photos and a cityscape model of Paradise Valley, the entertainment community that once stood in the area before being demolished in an urban renewal project in the 1960s.
“We had to fight to keep this address,” Vanover notes. The Ashley is stationed on Centre St., but Dilla’s Delights holds the historical John R. address, a nod to the Valley that played a key role in the Motor City’s musical landscape. “This isn’t just for James, but for Detroit history,” adds Vanover.
While years in the works, the shop didn’t receive its final health inspection approval until this past Monday. By Tuesday at 5 a.m., the official storefront was open to the public.
Despite organizing opening day plans in less than 24 hours, word traveled fast. Hayes made 28 dozen doughnuts by hand (and by himself) for the grand opening, but it wasn’t nearly enough to meet the city’s demand, built upon years of anticipation.
On Tuesday night, he was already prepping for another all-nighter, this time with an assistant. The doughnuts aren’t done in-shop, but rather at Detroit’s nearby Avalon Bakery. From “Banana Pudding” to “Cake Boy” to the cleverly named “D-Lime Glaze,” all doughnuts are crafted from 100 percent organic flour and use mostly Michigan-made ingredients.
Hayes — who prefers to go by “Uncle Herm” — has been making doughnuts for decades, having introduced the producer to them at a young age. “Herm was the one who gave Dilla his love for doughnuts,” says Vanover.
The two were very close: Dilla spent many childhood days shopping for records with his Uncle Herm, hiding stashes of his doughnuts from his mother and sister to eat them for himself. It was only right that Hayes would later open a doughnut shop in Dilla’s honor after the producer’s untimely death at 32.
The goal is to eventually make 15 different flavors a day, cranking out 100 to 150 dozen total doughnuts every morning. A location in Detroit’s Eastern Market has already been locked down for Dilla’s Delights’ own bakery, and down the line, Hayes hopes to open storefronts in Atlanta, GA, Japan and California’s Bay Area.
“It’s always been my goal to have a donut shop,” says Hayes with a smile, measuring cups of milk. “Dilla died making Donuts. He was obsessed with them. I make doughnuts, and I can create this one thing for Dilla’s daughters.” He calls Dilla’s daughters — Ja’Mya is 15; Paige, 16 — the delights of the producer’s eyes, hence the company name. “It’s all for the girls.”