It’s hard to fathom a sweet shop sign eliciting as much delight as the sugary goodies it serves.
But with the recent removal of the Fox’s Donut Den Delicious Donuts neon sign, fans of the Green Hills business are dismayed. They claim the quirky sign — believed to be between 40 and 50 years old and removed as part of a retrofitting of the Hillsboro Plaza strip center from which the treatery dispenses tasty ice cream and donuts — is an important visual icon in a commercial district not known for its distinctive architecture and signage.
“The sign represents an era of mom and pop businesses,” said Jeff Bauer, who enjoys a trip to Fox’s two to three times per week. “The loss of the sign would represent a loss of character for Green Hills.”
At this point, property owner Brookside Properties is weighing various options for the sign, according to David Crabtree, the company’s executive vice president.
Crabtree said Brookside must consider what is fair to all the tenants of what will be called Greenbriar Village. To allow the Donut Den to return its sign while requiring the other approximately 19 tenants to have uniform signage could be perceived as unfair, he noted. In addition, Crabtree said many citizens have expressed interest in improving the aesthetics of Green Hills signage in general.
No doubt, some folks feel neon is tacky and no more appealing than a stale donut. They would not miss the sign.
“It is our challenge as the developer of the property to balance the needs of the community with the needs of each individual tenant,” Crabtree said.
Still, Crabtree acknowledges that many people find the playful sign oddly charming, its neon elements mentally transporting fans back to a time when Green Hills’ built environment wasn’t as homogenized and unadventurous as it is today.
“I respect that and understand those points of view,” Crabtree said. “I’ve asked my sign company to see what we can do with the sign— what modifications can be made to help us make it more compatible with the project.”
Crabtree said the new Greenbriar Village signage will be tastefully compatible with the signage common to upper-end Green Hills retailers. Stressing Brookside’s positive business relationship with the Donut Den, he said, the alternative sign for Fox’s would feature the recognizable and cherubic Dutch boy.
Old timers contacted for this story fondly recall a Green Hills with buildings home to Greene Animal Hospital, Western Auto and venerable tavern Joe’s Village Inn — structures that offered an element of grit and funk that the popular suburban commercial district has basically lost the last 25 years.
Newcomers are immediately drawn to the sign’s five “rolling” donuts and little Dutch boy, images that contrast wildly with the upscale and cosmopolitan Green Hills shops selling items related to health and beauty and geared toward a sophisticated clientele.
In short, supporters contend the Donut Den sign represents an old-school indie retail vibe that tempers the sometimes overly chic, corporate chain and status-oriented tone of contemporary Green Hills.
“People from all over come to Nashville and are delighted by this sign,” said Kelli Hix, a Donut Den patron. “Pictures of it are posted all over the Internet from people’s trips to our town. There are probably hundreds of shops called The Donut Den, but this sign is something special. It is uniquely Nashville.”
Hix said she was first drawn to the Donut Den not by the tantalizing scents wafting from the treatery but, rather, by the diminutive Dutch boy figure and the neon rolling donuts.
“Not being from Nashville, I never would have noticed and gone in had it not been for the wonderful sign,” she said, adding that the sign has become an important marketing tool that, in theory, benefits all tenants at Hillsboro Plaza.
Hix said it is “vital” Nashville maintain a sense of place.
“The Donut Den has the best donuts and the best staff, as far as I am concerned, and that will remain,” she said. “But this sign is an expression of their vision and of the memories of locals and visitors alike. If [losing our history] continues, we will be able to exchange Nashville for any other city. There will be nothing left of our real history — only caricatures and re-creations.”
The Donut Den opened at 3900 Hillsboro Road (next to Hillsboro High School) in 1977. That year, owner Dr. Norman Fox bought the sign for $1,200 from Harlow’s Honeyfluff Donuts in Memphis. Since then, it has likely become the most recognizable Green Hills sign, given its age, neon and prime location. In fact, Anderson Thomas Design Inc. featured the sign in its The Spirit of Nashville, a collection of prints celebrating the city’s history and focusing on Music City icons. The shop offers shirts with the Dutch boy.
Fox politely declined comment for this story, citing the positive working relationship he has with Brookside and his fellow tenants. When this writer visited the Donut Den recently, however, Fox’s employees said that hundreds of customers have expressed their desire to see the sign returned.
Bob Kramer, a Green Hills resident since 1997, typically visits the Donut Den every Sunday. A musician, Kramer sometimes is on the road and welcomes a Donut Den apple fritter upon his return.
“The Donut Den sign tells me I'm home,” Kramer said. “It’s the heart and soul and center of Green Hills.”
Even without the sign’s “heart and soul,” Donut Den fans concede the business will continue to flourish.
“The Donut Den could be in a shack on one of the worst streets in Nashville,” Hix said, “and people would still go there.”