Eric Geoffroy calls it “the delicate princess of doughnuts.’’ Skye Gaudette once sketched a picture of it on a napkin in her quest to describe it to a baffled Dunkin’ Donuts worker. Wendy Cobrda wrote to the company for an explanation when it vanished from her local coffee shop.
They are devotees of the French Cruller. And pursuing their obsession has not been an easy path.
The French Cruller, with its distinctive twisted ridges and light, airy interior, disappeared three years ago from a broad corridor of Dunkin’ shops along Route 3. All at once, at 50 locations from North Quincy to Falmouth, the doughnut’s followers were left bereft, craving something they had loved and, without warning, lost.
The confection’s temporary exile, and recent South Shore comeback, illustrate the unpredictability felt by countless cruller lovers everywhere. Although it was among the first doughnuts produced by the 60-year-old Canton company, its presence at Dunkin’s 7,000 stores today depends on the whim of franchisees.
So it is that you can find a Dunkin’ French Cruller in Hyannis but not in Gloucester; that a reliable indulgence in Weymouth or Plymouth melts into a doughy memory in Randolph.
For the doughnut’s most impassioned followers, that means an endless hunt for an elusive prey, interrupted only now and then by sugary success.
“I look wherever I go - it’s just a habit - and I always get it if they have it,’’ said Gaudette, 41, of Framingham, who recalls periods of French Cruller plenitude and scarcity stretching back almost two decades. “I usually say I’m going to be healthy and get an egg white flatbread, but if I see the cruller, that changes everything.’’
The stories of frustrated French Cruller fanatics hark back to a time before chain stores and their carbon-copied products were ubiquitous. Yet even in a highly homogenized restaurant landscape, quirks and inconsistencies still lurk behind the identical logos and menu boards.
In Westminster, Md., 30 miles west of Baltimore, C.S. Splitter used to get French Crullers at the local Dunkin’ Donuts - until the day, more than two years ago, when they weren’t there anymore. When the 42-year-old writer and self-proclaimed “pastry guy’’ asked a Dunkin’ worker what had happened, he said he got “pretty much a blank look.’’
When the French Cruller disappeared from Bronwen Price’s Dunkin’ Donuts in Oneonta, N.Y., in 2008, she inquired and was told “it didn’t exist anymore.’’ The 33-year-old mother of three believed the explanation, and mourned the loss for months, until she found a French Cruller at a Dunkin’ Donuts in a roadside rest stop in New Jersey.
Company franchisees say theirs is a delicate balancing act, to try to stock customers’ favorites while introducing new products, in limited shelf space. Employees fill out daily “throwaway reports’’ to track doughnuts left unsold at the end of the night: if too many of one variety remain, that doughnut’s presence may be downsized.
South of Boston, where Eric Eskander and his partners own 50 Dunkin’ stores, the decision to evict the French Cruller came in 2008, as doughnut sales declined. Then, last summer, as doughnut sales started climbing back, they polled customers, asking them which five absent doughnuts they would most like to see. To Eskander’s surprise, the French Cruller topped the list.
Last July, he restored it to the racks.
The move thrilled customers like Tracy Hernandez of Plymouth, a nurse’s aide who works nights and stops at the South Street Dunkin’ on her way home in the morning.
“I saw them and I said, ‘Oh my God, can I have two of those?’ ’’ she recalled. “And then I called my mother, because she has trouble finding them, too.’’
Six months later, French Crullers account for 3 percent of his total doughnut sales, a share Eskander calls “impressive.’’
The popularity of the French Cruller varies by region, franchisees said. Deo Braga, owner of a group of Dunkin’ stores north of Boston on Cape Ann, said he tends not to stock it because of lackluster sales. But years ago, when he worked for the chain in Vermont, it was among the strongest sellers.
“We sell a lot more Boston Kremes than we will ever sell French Crullers,’’ said franchisee Robert Branca, who stocks both at his Dunkin’ stores in four states.
The French Cruller bears little resemblance to the cruller stick, another longtime favorite phased out for good in 2003. It has fewer calories - 250 - than more popular doughnuts, but more fat - 20 grams. Its loyalists tend to be older than average.
In Korea, where Dunkin’ Donuts opened its first stores recently, it is finding a new audience: Korean customers have swooned over oversized French Cruller munchkins, split in half and filled with Bavarian cream.
Stan Frankenthaler, executive chef for Dunkin’ Donuts, said his own affection for the French Cruller stems from its unique texture, the “little bit of chew’’ that reminds him of pâte à choux, the French pastry used to make éclairs, beignets, and profiteroles.
“It’s a little less sweet, and it is a little elusive in a sense, because it is optional for stores,’’ said Frankenthaler, previously chef and owner at the award-winning Boston restaurant Salamander. “Some franchisees are passionate about it, but more what drives it into stores is customers buying it and asking for it.’’
As a joke, Cobrda, of Manlius, N.Y., started a “Bring Back the French Cruller’’ group on Facebook in 2009 after her local Dunkin’ Donuts pulled the doughnut. It soon attracted comments from around the country.
“I am frantically searching southwest Missouri!’’ wrote one poster a year ago.
“Tried just about every Dunkin’ Donuts in Orlando, Fla., and none to be found!’’ added another last summer.
Cobrda recently adopted a gluten-free diet and gave up doughnuts, but old habits die hard. When she spotted French Crullers on Route 206 in Flanders, N.J., last month, she didn’t buy one, but she did snap a photo and posted it on Facebook.
According to experts who study consumer psychology, the French Cruller’s erratic availability probably fuels its following, with each unexplained disappearance deepening the passion some people feel for it.
“Scarcity confers value,’’ said Robert Cialdini, author of a best-selling book on the science of influence. “The iPad and iPod are good products, but that’s not why people were waiting outside at 2 a.m. to buy them - that’s because they were in limited supply.’’
Carried to its logical conclusion, then, the rule of scarcity suggests that in locations where it is offered consistently, sales of the French Cruller may decline - leading to its elimination from the menu.
“That may be the answer to the mystery,’’ Cialdini said. “When it is available, the intense need to have it goes down, and so it’s pushed off to the side again, making some people crazy.’’
At least for the moment, though, the South Shore’s French Crullers are safe.
“I wouldn’t dare take it out,’’ said Eskander, the franchisee.