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Cops, doughnuts & homeschooling: Connecting in a pandemic

How a police-run bakery in small-town Michigan helped keep a community together in 2020

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Cops & Doughnuts via Facebook

By Suzie Ziegler

“It’s time to learn something! Have you ever wondered how we make our great donuts?”

So begins the first episode of “Learnin’ with Bubba and Ryno,” a Facebook live series hosted by two retired police officers – and doughnut shop co-owners – who, when schools closed in March, took matters into their own hands.

“There’s actually science and math that goes into making a donut,” says Alan “Bubba” White. His business partner, Ryno, leads a camera around the Cops & Doughnuts bakery in Clare, Michigan. The video is their first in a nine-part series made to help kids learn from home.

Bubba and Ryno are no strangers to being in front of the camera. They constantly film videos for Cops & Doughnuts as they hack around downtown Clare promoting local events.

“We’ve been big on social media from the beginning,” said Bubba. “Ryno and I are known for our goofy videos. It was no surprise to anybody who follows us that we’d make the learning series.”

Bubba isn’t exaggerating about their internet success. The first episode of “Learnin’ with Bubba & Ryno” got 16,000 views. The Clare City bakery Facebook page has 64,000 followers. There are only 31,000 residents in the entire county.

It all began in 2009 when a small-town police department bought a struggling donut bakery, thereby ensuring its survival.

Bubba says they wanted to play up the cop-donut gimmick, but their big motivation was saving a historic business that dates to 1896. All nine full-time cops of the Clare Police Department became co-owners and Cops & Doughnuts was born.

In line with their tongue-in-cheek roots, the bakery’s owners became known for their sense of humor. When the pandemic hit, closing Michigan schools, it seemed natural to use their platform to help their audience through tough times.

Bubba and Ryno decided to create a series that catered to school children and their overwhelmed parents. On the first episode of “Learnin’ with Bubba & Ryno” on how to make doughnuts, viewers from across the continent tuned in. Most were from around Michigan, but there were also families from Kentucky, California, Iowa, Texas and Ontario.

That’s not unusual, says Bubba.

“Thousands of people visit Cops & Doughnuts from all over the world,” he said. “We’ve gotten letters from Spain. The internet is a wonderful thing.”

One of those families was Jennifer Barnes and her two children. Jennifer lives in Arizona, but she grew up in Michigan and is a longtime devotee of Cops & Doughnuts. She and her kids swing by whenever they’re in the state visiting family.

“It brings back really happy Michigan memories,” she said.

Barnes follows Cops & Doughnuts on Facebook as “they make the funniest videos,” and was grateful to discover the learning series -- schools in Arizona had shut down too.

“Parents here were scrambling, just sharing resources. The schools didn’t have a full curriculum yet. Any kind of resource was amazing,” Barnes said.

Barnes is a former teacher herself, but says it’s a different ballgame with your own kids.

“It’s much harder. There are emotions involved,” she said. “As a mom, being so blindsided by the shutdown, the videos were kind of a relief – finding a great resource like that.”

Barnes says that just having some kind of schedule – an activity to put on the calendar – was helpful.

And the kids loved them too.

“I liked the videos a lot because it was something happy during a time that was really hard,” said Rachel Barnes, 10. “With COVID-19 I wasn’t getting to see my friends. It was just something fun to be looking forward.”

Rachel’s younger brother, 8-year-old Nathan, agreed. He added that his favorite episodes were the ones where Bubba and Ryno made doughnuts and took a tour of the fire station.

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Rachel Barnes, 10, and brother Nathan, 8, in Arizona eat donuts shipped from Cops & Doughnuts of Clare, Michigan.

Jennifer Barnes

When it comes to connecting with the public during the pandemic and beyond, Barnes doubles down on her appreciation for agencies with an engaging social media presence.

“Police in Goodyear, Arizona have always done funny videos, dance-offs. We love the videos,” she says. “Some police agencies will feature officers out of uniform, like with their pets, and it helps the public see them as people.”

Perhaps Bubba himself said it best: “We take our jobs as police very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

He says the community response to the learning series was overwhelming.

“It’s very rewarding when you set out to have some fun,” Bubba says. “We got a lot of positive feedback from the schools. They loved that we were taking the time to do that and engage the kids.”

Schools have since reopened and “Learnin’ with Bubba & Ryno” has ended, but that doesn’t mean the dynamic duo has slowed down. Bubba and Ryno are still filming comedy skits and squeezing in a learning moment whenever they can – like this scene inspired by the movie “Dumb and Dumber” for Motorcycle Awareness Month.

At the end of the day, Bubba says, Cops & Doughnuts wants to be a visible presence in the community.

“Anything that happens in our community we’re there. If a new business opens, we’ll be there for the ribbon cutting. We want everybody in the country to think Clare is the coolest little town.”