by Kate Branum | photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Upon entering the small shop, nestled comfortably on 28th Street in Wyoming, the aroma of baked goods and freshly brewed coffee engulfs you; for some, it brings back sticky sweet childhood memories, for others, it ignites an unmatched feeling of comfort. A wide glass counter spans the front of the bakery, displaying dozens of colorful mouth-watering doughnuts waiting to be boxed and enjoyed.
Owner Marge Wilson’s warm persona lies in the small sentimental details laced throughout the bakery, from the crosses and religious statues placed in each corner of the shop to the personalized napkin holders displaying photos of the people she holds close to her heart. She greets each customer with a sincere, heart-warming smile, beckoning them to take a seat and stay awhile.
“I get to make people happy all of the time – who wouldn’t love a job like that?” —Marge Wilson
Marge’s Donut Den first began satiating sweet cravings in June 1975 and has since become a staple in the community. Though the bakery gained fame for its delectable doughnuts, it also specializes in cupcakes, muffins, cookies, brownies and custom cakes for all occasions.
“I thought that owning a bakery was the last thing in the world I would be doing,” Wilson said, “When I got [Marge’s Donut Den], I learned to love it because I like the people and the kids [who visit]. I get to make people happy all of the time – who wouldn’t love a job like that?”
Growing up, the Grand Rapids native saw first-hand the amount of dedication and hard work that went into maintaining and growing a company; her family owned and operated three booming businesses, including Blue Arrow Trucking Company, Save Way barber and beauty supply shop and the Valley Bar. She remembers the all-hands-on-deck policy her family implemented when it came to running the bar.
Though she never intended to run her own business, an unexpected turn in Wilson’s life left the bakery in her capable hands.
Over time, Wilson began to embrace her title as business owner and worked diligently to develop the Donut Den; more importantly, she seized every opportunity she could to get to know the bakery’s dedicated customers on a personal level.
“We have customers that have been coming here for over 40 years, and if you’re a customer the first time and we get to know you, then you become a friend and you become an extended family member – we have a lot of those,” Marge said.
Wilson’s sister and business partner Marilyn Free began working at the Donut Den nearly 12 years ago.
“I went to help out for a couple of days and ended up staying there,” Free said. “We are a great match for each other; we know how important customer service is.”
Long-time customer Mary Vandewater says it’s the familial atmosphere that keeps people coming back.
“Some days, every table is packed,” Vandewater expressed, gesturing to the dining area full of tables and chairs where customers gather to enjoy their doughnuts and each other’s company. “Marge is so caring, giving and generous. Everyone here is a friend.”
As the bakery’s reputation spread, Wilson realized that she needed to expand her shop to accommodate the vast amount of guests she saw on a daily basis. In 2014, a hallway of offices, a private party room filled with dozens of original Paul Collins paintings and a large gathering space in the back of the shop were added on. The extra room offered new opportunities for local groups, organizations and clubs to meet up and chat over a steaming cup of coffee and, of course, a delicious doughnut.
One of the groups that meets at Marge’s regularly is a business group Wilson created; on the last Tuesday of each month, more than 30 small business owners in the community gather to brainstorm community service opportunities, such as regular outings to clean up the city streets. Wilson notes that it is important to have a solid support circle, which is the main reason this group meets – to bounce strategies, ideas and advice around and watch one another succeed.
“Marge is so caring, giving and generous. Everyone here is a friend.” —Mary Vandewater, long time Donut Den customer
Throughout the years, Wilson has collected an impressive number of awards, certificates and recognitions for her community service work and business expertise. These tokens of recognition and admiration span an entire wall in the back of the bakery and spill onto the antique shelves housing Wilson’s old high school yearbooks; they serve as a timeline of her involvement in the community she loves so dearly.
Some of Wilson’s notable achievements include: Seven different Business of the Year awards, Outstanding Woman of Wyoming award in 2000, the John Koster Memorial award for Volunteer of the Year in 2004, a Grand Rapids Press award for Best Doughnut in 2008, an AMBUCS Community Leadership award in 2013, an MLive Top 13 award for Best Doughnut in 2014 and a Distinguished Service award from the Chamber of Commerce in 2013.
After winning a first-time service and leadership award through the American Business Club in 2012, the organization chose to name it the Marge Wilson Award.
Among all of these physical reminders of her dedication and relentless efforts are a couple of honors that spark magical memories for Wilson. She has been sponsoring the Pinery Park Little League for more than 40 years and displays a new team picture each season. She has also been involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program for over a decade as both a volunteer and a mentor.
“I was in the Big Brother Big Sister program for 12 years,” Wilson said. “We still support the organization when they have their annual bowling fundraiser and we also do all of the birthday cakes for [the kids].”
Her extensive community service work derives from one simple fact: Wilson loves to see other people thrive. Her personal mission in life has always been to put others first, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“She has the biggest heart in the world,” Free shared. “She would give you the shirt off of her back – if it was her last shirt, she would give it to you.”
Wilson’s drive to better the community has reached far beyond the threshold of West Michigan — in fact, it’s touched the opposite side of the world. In 2012, Wilson collaborated with Karie James and Reverend Peter Omogo to create the Samuel Omogo Foundation (SOF), a project designed to foster the responsible development of clean water sources for villages in Southeastern Nigeria.
The organization was named after the late Samuel Omogo, a Nigerian man known for his philanthropic deeds in the community. To honor him, the SOF builds new water wells, bringing clean water to more than 100,000 people in Nigerian villages. Today, more than 100 wells have been successfully built and maintained.
Wilson receives checks of all amounts from both local individuals and people from out of state who want to help further the cause.
The best part of life for Wilson is simply making other people smile. She talks to her customers as an old friend would, listening closely to their stories and remembering the smallest details of their lives. She especially loves the children who visit the Donut Den, starry-eyed as they point out their favorite desserts behind the glass counter.
“My kids are all grown up, and I don’t have any little ones around here, but the customers share their kids with me,” Wilson expressed. “I’ve watched those kids grow up and get married and then have their own kids.”
The bakery never misses a holiday, and Wilson’s favorite one is just around the corner. Born on Christmas Eve, Wilson looks forward to celebrating both her birthday and Christmas at the same time.
“She loves Christmas Eve and she loves her birthday – just make sure you don’t wrap her birthday presents in Christmas paper,” Free laughed.
On December 24, Wilson will be throwing a day-long party at the Donut Den; she looks forward to inviting the entire community to come and listen to live music and enjoy a free doughnut.
Wilson notes that the Donut Den serves as a stabilizer for many people who have since left town and returned for the holidays; the doughnut shop they love and remember is still waiting for them.
“(The Donut Den) is also open on Christmas because there are a lot of people who have lost their spouses and their children, or their families are out of town and it can be a very sad day for them,” Marge shared. “Christmas is probably one of my favorite days because the customers are so happy that we’re here.”