Donut King Verne Winchell Dies at 87

AP Wire Service

LAS VEGAS (AP) – Verne Winchell, who launched a nationwide doughnut franchise business and later became a horse breeder and owner, has died. He was 87.

Winchell died of cardiac arrest Tuesday at Summerlin Hospital Medical Center in Las Vegas, the Clark County coroner’s office said. Family members said he collapsed after exercising on the treadmill at his home.

Winchell had retired as chief executive and president of Denny’s Inc., which bought Winchell’s Donut Houses in 1968.

Born in Bloomington, Ill., Winchell and his family moved to California when he was 9 years old. He graduated from Alhambra High School and attended Pasadena City College.

Before starting his lucrative doughnut franchise, he tried selling jukeboxes and used cars in the 1950s. A friend suggested opening a doughnut store because there was a high profit margin. Winchell took a $27,000 stake and turned a piece of commercial property he owned into his first store.

The shops were highly successful and it wasn’t too long before Winchell expanded his operation throughout California. In 1976, according to BusinessWeek magazine, sales at Winchell’s nationwide were $99 million, although the chain was by then a distant second to Dunkin’ Donuts.

Winchell eventually sold his business to Denny’s in exchange for stock. In 1970, he became chairman of Denny’s Restaurants.

Fourteen years later, Winchell left the doughnut and restaurant business when he sold his Denny’s stock for a reported $600 million.

He took some of that money and invested in thoroughbreds. Winchell bred more than 60 stakes winners and raced more than 40. Among those horses, he started three of them in the Kentucky Derby: Classic Go Go, who finished fourth in 1981; Sea Cadet, who finished eighth in 1991; and Valiant Nature, who finished 13th in 1994.

Donut King, the first horse Winchell bought at auction, was among the favorites for the 1954 Kentucky Derby but was injured the week of the race and didn’t run.

Ronnie’s Baby, which was bred by Ronald Reagan and purchased from Desi Arnaz, didn’t amount to much.

Winchell is survived by his wife, Joan; two sons, Richard and Ronald; two daughters, Christina Winchell and Linda Schumacher; two sisters; five grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.