There isn't anywhere to sit at Stardust Donut Shop in Imperial Beach. From inside, 69-year-old Cliff Arnold waits on customers as they walk up to the little stand's window and choose what they want from the modest selection of cult favorites like cinnamon rolls topped with peanuts. He doesn't have to walk but two steps to work the register, bag donuts or pour a cup of coffee—but what customers don't see is the production area behind all the goodies, where Arnold spends the first few hours of the day, mixing, cutting, proofing, frying and glazing the donuts all by himself. That last step might be what's set Stardust apart since 1967; glazing the entire thing while it's still hot, he says, literally seals the deal.
"People say they're still good tomorrow, and the next day," Arnold says. "Not too many donut shops can do that. I don't sell anything beyond today because I know people buying them will keep them two to three days."
Hanging out with Arnold, if only for an hour, reveals how highly customers regard his treats. Returning visitors make themselves known, while others approach and confess they've never had one but have heard about them. There are smiles and pleasantries passed from the other side of the window that looks out on the busy intersection (698 Hwy. 75), but Arnold sticks to the business of dealing donuts. Straightforwardness has earned him a reputation as a grouch, exaggerated, of course, through nearly five decades of lore.
He's been running Stardust alone since July, when his brother and partner of 45 years, Ed, died. The brothers are third generation San Diego donut makers—their grandma had a shop, Keen's, in City Heights—and they worked together at Stardust since taking it over from their parents.
"I don't know what else I'd rather do if I wasn't making donuts," Arnold says. "And everybody wants to know how long I'll keep doing it, and I keep telling them, I'll probably just keep going till I fall over dead. I don't have any plans of stopping."
Arnold's routine starts when he gets to the shop at between 5 and 5:30 a.m. every morning. He switches on the coffeemaker, warms up the proofing cabinet and mixes the first batch of yeast-raised dough for cinnamon rolls and glazed, chocolate-frosted and jelly donuts. The old-fashioned donuts are made from a cake dough, and buttermilk twists are a variation of that recipe.
"The whole process, start to finish, for one batch takes about two hours," he says. He makes anywhere from three to four batches a day, and he admits that his selection is far smaller than other shops, with only eight or so varieties.
"I know what people like, so I make those donuts," he says. Each kind tastes homemade and wholesome. These aren't Dunkin' Donuts.
It's down to a science for Arnold—he and his brother figured out a way around every variable of donut making, from the outside air temperature to the "formulas" with which the confections are made every day, except Sundays and Mondays when Stardust is closed. On Saturday, Arnold opens at 11 a.m.; every other day it's 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. or until the donuts sell out.
"You've got to like them if you're going to make them—particularly these ones I have. They're all good—everybody asks me what my favorite is when they can't decide for themselves what to take."
Ask Arnold for yourself the next time you see Stardust's "Open" sign. Eat those donuts like they're going out of style. They clearly aren't, but still—Stardust by Cliff Arnold won't be around forever.