When Hillsdale College students get hungry after a night of revelry, there are two popular destinations for late-night comfort food: Dutch Uncle Donuts and The Palace Cafe.
In many ways, The Palace is the easier option for the late-night munchies. It has an expansive menu with an atmosphere like Thanksgiving dinner, and it is within walking distance of campus.
But students don’t drive to Dutch Uncle Donuts because it is convenient. Alexander Green, a junior resident assistant in Niedfelt, said that going to Dutch Uncle Donuts at absurd hours is an essential part Hillsdale’s student culture.
“On Friday night, you make late-night Duncle runs. It’s what you do when you are in college at Hillsdale,” Green said. “I think it was the first thing I did as a prospective student.”
As a second-year student who had not yet participated in this tradition, I decided to go to Dutch Uncle last Saturday. It should have been busier than normal because the Palace Cafe was closed that night.
I originally planned on leaving around 10 p.m., before talking to junior Jerry Hewitt, who provided some insight on how to properly embrace the tradition.
“The Dutch Uncle is a great place, but 10 is way too early,” Hewitt said. “You really shouldn’t leave before 11.”
Snow was falling steadily when I finally set out at 11 p.m. Earlier in the week, a rainstorm melted much of the snow from last week’s blizzard. Now the remaining water had refrozen, and the fresh flakes covered up the black ice, creating a surface as slippery as a banana peel in a soap factory.
15 miles of the 22-mile trip to Dutch Uncle is on Jonesville Rd. Jonesville Rd is one of those two lane roads that exist for the sole purpose of splitting open fields and abound in the rural midwest. It took me about 30 minutes to navigate the 15 miles due to the poor road conditions.
During that half hour I saw only five pairs of headlights: a salt truck, an ambulance, a car that swerved off the road, and two wayfaring strangers braving the weather like myself. Between the passing cars, the world outside the high beams was so dark I felt the irrational urge to relock the doors.
The emptiness of Jonesville Road and others like it provide a kind of insulation to the city and students of Hillsdale, especially during the winter months. There is a bubble of rural land around Hillsdale and neighboring Jonesville that takes about 30 minutes to penetrate in any direction, and apart from the beautiful scenery, that bubble does not offer much to students.
Dutch Uncle was empty of customers when I went inside. The only sound came from two employees in the back making the next day’s donuts. One of them came out to the register after a tinny buzzer announced my presence.
While she grabbed me several long john donuts, she explained why the donut shop was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We make all the donuts for the morning during the night,” she said. “We don’t really sell enough donuts during the night to stay open 24 hours anymore.”
That statement proved prophetic. During my two hour vigil, only one other customer bought anything, a middle aged man that ordered a dozen donuts and promptly left. No students came out to embrace the tradition besides me.
The fact that going to Dutch Uncle Donuts is a tradition at Hillsdale, and that no students embraced it on Saturday reveals some things about how attending a small, rural college affects student life.
Dutch Uncle Donuts is 22 miles from campus, and it takes about 35 minutes to get there in good weather. Despite the inconvenience of the long drive, many students have been there late at night because there are limited late-night dining options in Hillsdale.
Having to travel a long distance to find good food at 1 a.m. may not seem like a big deal to some, but late-night dining is a significant part of college life.
In a study conducted by Grubhub that collected data from more than 350 college campuses, the college student was 87 percent more likely than the average diner to eat out between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. While Hillsdale has several fast-food restaurants open late, there are few sit-down restaurants open to serve those customers.
The city of Hillsdale has increased the dining options available to students late at night with the opening of Rough Draft and Hillsdale Brewing Company, both of which are open late on weekends.
The lack of restaurants servicing this late-night and college crowd is not the fault of the town, but the result of the size of the Hillsdale student population.
A student at a large public school like Michigan State University, located in East Lansing, has a plethora of options for late-night food. Late-night dining is so prevalent in East Lansing that the city orders 392 percent more late-night take-out per person than the rest of the United States. The student population of over 39,000 at MSU forces the restaurant market to create venues that suit the wants of students.
Hillsdale College students, who number less than 1,500, cannot create a large enough incentive with their dining preferences to entice many restaurants to stay open late, limiting students’ options.
Some students, however, don’t view this relative isolation as a negative thing. Green thinks that the necessary long drive to Dutch Uncle is a fun time to spend with friends.
“I think donut runs are about the drive,” Green said. “I mean the donuts are okay, but if Dutch Uncle was in Hillsdale, I don’t think I would go that often.”