Could Bess Eaton doughnuts be coming back?

It is hard to imagine that a local company that shut down in 2004 has a Facebook page with more than 4,000 friends.

But it's true. And many of the comments and page visits are fresh, like doughnuts right out of the oven.

Dozens and dozens of people have logged in just this month to reminisce about the old Bess Eaton Coffee and Bake Shops and discuss, for instance, the merits of hazelnut versus non-flavored.

Holler If You Miss Bess Eaton!!! is such a popular page on Facebook that you have to wonder how long it will be before someone resuscitates the brand, which was killed off when Tim Hortons bought the doughnut chain in a 2004 bankruptcy.

The Canadian-based Hortons closed the former Bess Eatons around here in November, and most of them remain shuttered, fanning rumors that a revival is brewing.

Sure enough, I spoke this week with Paul Gencarelli of Westerly, whose family founded and managed Bess Eaton's, as it grew into a major southern New England chain of doughnut shops. He was chief financial officer toward the end, working for his father, the CEO.

Gencarelli said he understands that a group of investors in town has purchased the rights to the Bess Eaton name, and all the proprietary formulas, etc., and is planning to re-open sometime soon.

He said the name was sold by the corporation that owns Tim Hortons, not his family, because it was sold as part of the bankruptcy in 2004.

The bankruptcy, actually, generated enough money to pay off creditors 100 percent of what they were owed, in part because there was such interest in acquiring the local doughnut shops, then still quite popular.

Never underestimate New Englanders when it comes to coffee shop demand.

Gencarelli said he couldn't provide any details about the revival of the doughnut brand established by his family, but he said he is encouraged to know so many people are still nostalgic about Bess Eaton.

"Something is going to happen, probably this year, and some form of Bess Eaton will come back," said Gencarelli. "A big conglomerate like Hortons could just not make a go of it."

I tried to get Tim Hortons to comment on whether the company has sold the name Bess Eaton or any of the now-empty doughnut shops in the area.

No one from corporate communications returned my phone calls, though, for the past two days.

Tim Hortons closed 36 stores in New England in November, including 10 locally. As many as 750 employees lost their jobs.

The company said between 150 and 200 people worked for the 10 shops located within a 50-mile radius of New London.

Hortons bought 42 Bess Eaton shops in the 2004 bankruptcy, for $41.6 million.

A group of Westerly-based investors, including attorney Michael Cozzolino, has acknowledged making an offer to buy six of the former Tim Hortons locations.

But Cozzolino said Thursday the group has not made a formal offer for the Bess Eaton name. He said they have discussed that.

He said their offer for the real estate was made some time ago and no sale is pending at this time.

"It was a couple of months ago," he said about the offer for the real estate. "We haven't heard much from them." Meanwhile, until a new Bess Eaton opens around here, fans will have to be content with reminiscing on Facebook.

"I miss it soooooooo much," one friend wrote recently. "If BE were to open again, Dunkin' (Donuts) would surely go out of business."

The folks at Tim Hortons might dispute that.

But then again, as many on that Facebook page will tell you, Tim Hortons is no Bess Eaton.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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