FARGO — Sandy’s Donuts on Broadway may be famous for pastries, but there’s more to this little downtown eatery than its glorious glaze.
The popular doughnut shop brings an extra-special sweetness to its customers, often through its manager, Ann Olson.
“You can always tell when she’s around. The whole atmosphere’s different,” says Amanda Horpedahl, who’s been doling out doughnuts there for four years. “Ann just makes it feel so positive and uplifting. I can tell when she’s gone on vacation.”
Herman Novak and his wife, Pat, have become friends with Olson over coffee, doughnuts and discussions surrounding Novak’s cancer journey.
“She’s just amazing to everyone,” Novak says, noting that Olson has stopped to pray with them during some of their hardest moments. “She’s got a really amazing faith, and we’ve become good friends with her (and her family).”
Those who know Olson say the spiritual component isn’t forced, but a natural part of her.
“You can tell it by the way she acts,” says Nick Barth, a repeat customer. “She shows the love of Christ by being friends with anyone who comes in. She cares about them, like Jesus would, and just tries to get to know their story.”
Olson would blush at the comments. She doesn’t want to call attention to herself, she insists; she’s just a soul who’s been touched by God in her brokenness who wants others to experience his love.
She cultivated her way with people during her earlier career as a hair stylist, when she discovered the human need to share our stories.
“People would sit in my chair and tell me something that mattered to them — maybe they were just going on a trip, or they had a daughter expecting a baby,” she says. “I just knew, in my humanness, I was not going to remember.”
So, while recording hair-color numbers, she’d also jot down a few personal notes. “It’s just a little trick I developed. I could tell these were dear people and I wanted to remember.”
After taking a break from hair, Olson worked for a few years with the homeless and hurting at Fargo’s New Life Center, where she learned even more about the stirrings of the human heart. It just made sense, she says, to carry out her habit of remembering details at Sandy’s.
“I’ve got my orange ‘cheat cupboard’ in back, where I take notes after meeting people for the first time,” she says.
There’s something about doughnuts that opens a door. “A doughnut shop, I suppose, is the opposite of what a bar is like,” Olson says, noting that the regulars have helped the camaraderie there “blossom into this beautiful thing.”
Though she’ll talk to anyone about anything, Olson says she loves it when “God appointments” happen — those moments when the Holy Spirit seems to show up. And being downtown with all its variety means many such encounters.
“You’ve got the half-a-million-dollar condos, but also, the other day we saw someone who looked like he was (overdosing),” she says. “You see it all, from the young professionals and college kids, to all the rest.”
She’s given the homeless a cold glass of water and a hug, and even shared prayers and sung songs with those who just needed a comforting presence.
“The New Life Center really taught me the importance of restoring people’s dignity,” Olson says. “Everyone’s got a story.”
She does as well. Olson wasn’t always a strong Christian, she says. Though raised in the church, for years, she felt disconnected. But her father’s death and other family crises forced her to confront the reality of God, she says, and ultimately, his eternal love.
“Two things I pray every day, besides the list we all have, is, ‘Lord, fill me afresh and anew with the Holy Spirit, and give me eyes that are wide open to see what you’re wanting me to see today.'”
“I’m not any different than anyone else,” Olson adds. “But over time, you mature and see God at work and you have no explanation for things. You realize it’s the timing that is nothing other than mind-blowing, that it was a God-ordained thing, and you start paying attention.”
Though it was difficult to lose her father just three months after his cancer diagnosis, she says, “I now credit his death with bringing me to know the Lord in a personal and saving way,” adding, “I’ve started praying more, ‘Thy will be done,’ and it changes things.”
As we talk, she stops to chat to a man who is sight-impaired and lights up to see her. Later, she points out an elderly couple who’ve had some health issues.
“I’m going to cut her hair tomorrow — they’re just sweet people,” she says.
Serving kindness, not just doughnuts, is something Olson tries to train her employees.
“I tell them we have no idea what their story is,” she says, noting that Sandy’s might be the brightest stop in someone’s day. “We just have this little window of opportunity to touch them.”
As for whether she eats the doughnuts herself, Olson says she and the other workers pace themselves.
“I kind of OD’d on them the first year,” she jokes.
But sometimes, first thing in the morning, they’ll cut up a doughnut and share it with each other.
“You have a bite and get it out of your head and say, ‘OK, we’ve had a little taste. Now move on,'” she says, chuckling. “People say, ‘I suppose you get sick of the doughnuts.’ No, not really.”
Neither does she, nor her employees, get sick of helping bring smiles to their customers.
“It’s just very simple, doughnuts and coffee,” Horpedahl says. “But it’s so easy to make someone’s day.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Sept. 22, 2018.]