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Frosting Zebras

Janine and Keith Ellis produce Zebras and numerous other pastries and baked goods with help from Sue Royle (center) and other staff at the Royal Bake Shop in Centerville.

Dale Merritt’s legacy as a baker is legendary in Turner County. Merritt grew up at Parker and left South Dakota to serve as a sailor in World War II. After the war, he went to Minneapolis where he studied at the Dunwoody Baking School on the GI bill and worked for Pillsbury Flour Mills on the banks of the Mississippi River.

But by 1946 he was back home in Turner County, and soon bought the Royal Bake Shop on Centerville’s Main Street. Keith Ellis was a teenager when he went to work for the old soldier turned baker in the 1980s. “Dale was a great teacher and very intelligent,” Ellis says. “He was old school. You worked hard, you showed up. But he was patient. I think he was one of the best in the industry.”

Keith and his wife, Janine, both Centerville natives, felt honored to have the opportunity to succeed Merritt as proprietors of the bakery in 1993. “I felt like it needed me. I thought I could do a good job,” Keith told us. Twenty-three years later, he is still the baker, and Janine does everything but the baking: she packages, delivers, serves customers donuts and coffee in their shop and does the bookkeeping.

Little has changed at the bakery since Merritt’s era. It’s still located in the original building. All the breads, pastries and rolls are still made with the founder’s recipes, some dating from the early 1900s but with personal touches you might expect from an educated baker. Keith worked particularly hard on a chocolate frosting recipe. “It took three years to get it right. It either flops or it don’t,” he once said of his attempts at tweaking recipes.

The chocolate frosting recipe proved important to the success of the bakery because it tops the bakery’s signature donut, the 99-cent Zebra, which is trademarked by the state of South Dakota. Keith describes the Zebra as a marbled donut with fudge frosting and glaze. “People go nuts about it,” says Janine. On a normal Saturday the Ellises bake an average of 1,000 donuts, and 350 of them are Zebras. Most days they run out. Some customers enjoy the delicacy with coffee at a table inside; others eat and stroll the old downtown or take them home.

We arrived at the bakery on a quiet afternoon, when only a few lonely donuts remained on their shelves. But Centerville’s Main Street was busy. The town of nearly 900 people, on the banks of the Vermillion River, is a blue collar and farm town. Tractors and grain trucks frequent the streets, and grain bins make a skyline along with the silo-like water tower with the town name printed vertically.

The Royal Bake Shop sits in the middle of town, and has been a mainstay of Centerville and Turner County culture for generations. When Irene State Bank, located 12 miles away, celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1966, the Centerville Journal chose to focus its report on the cake. “Eighty pounds of cake plus 50 pounds of icing were delivered to Irene on Sunday by Dale Merritt of the Royal Bakery as the Irene State Bank celebrated their 20th anniversary at the school auditorium in Irene. Approximately 750 people were present, the largest number ever served at one time from a Royal Bakery cake. Actually, the cake was made in individual pieces on petit-fours and was transported to Irene on glass frames. Each piece has a rum flavored topping and was then dipped in a fondant icing, then enhanced with a sweet pea decoration. It took about 18 hours of labor to complete the cake.”

The Royal Bake Shop is a mainstay of downtown Centerville.

The Royal doesn’t make birthday cakes anymore — especially of that size — but for celebrations they do sell giant Zebras that are 12 inches in circumference, costing $19.95 decorated or $15 iced. But regular donuts are their “bread and butter” — twists, pretzels, cream delights, jelly Bismarcks, fried Danish, apple fritters, blueberry turnovers and raspberry rosebuds. They also make English muffins using Keith's special recipe.

Most of the goods are sold in a flurry between 8 and 10 a.m. After the morning rush, the bakery becomes quiet and peaceful, and there’s time to relax and josh with customers or enquiring magazine writers. “We are our own boss,” Janine told us. “That’s the best part. We take vacation when we want. In January we told people we were closing for a few weeks. Everyone was ready when we got back, but people appreciate that and understand.”

Even if there had been hard feelings, they wouldn't linger. Who could stay mad when there are Zebras to eat?

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the July/August 2016 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.


11:00 am - Thu, June 6 2019
Tammera Hofer said:
The Zebras are my absolute favorite!!! The first one I ever had was at a track meet in Centerville, and with that a tradition was started for me! My hubby still likes twists best!

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