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People get donuts at the mini donut booth during the Calgary Stampede, on July 8, 2019.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The Calgary Stampede is about tradition. City folk wearing big shiny belt buckles. Dozens of free pancake breakfasts. Blacksmithing demonstrations. Barrel racers charging around the rodeo ring. Colourful spinning rides. Cotton candy.

But this year, a midway mainstay is missing: Those Little Donuts. Crowds can still buy bags of little doughnuts – cooked on the spot and dusted with cinnamon and sugar – but not the ones from Those Little Donuts, a famed food vendor at the Stampede. The company has been part of the festival for decades and Stampede traditionalists will stand in long lines for Those Little Donuts, eschewing competing doughnut vendors with much shorter wait times.

Those Little Donuts, a Calgary company that sells mini doughnuts at fairs across Western Canada, missed the 2019 vendor application deadline and it owed Stampede, a not-for-profit organization, money from the year prior. Diehard fans are left with two choices: Settle for what they believe are inferior treats or shun the company’s competitors in the name of loyalty.

“There’s a strong sense of nostalgia tied to Stampede,” said Julie Van Rosendaal, a food writer in Calgary. People have no emotional connection to zany culinary experiments such as deep-fried bugs, she said. “Nobody cares about the ‘shock’ food.”

Her Stampede memories are about corn dogs, fiddlestix ice-cream treats and Those Little Donuts.

Roughly 175 vendors crowd the midway and pay Stampede 25 per cent of their revenue in exchange for peddling everything from deep-fried coffee to Snickle Dogs, which consist of a hot dog, a pickle and a Snickers bar wrapped in a tortilla and then deep-fried. Stampede, which hypes up outlandish creations such as foot-long hot dogs topped with Spam, selects vendors based on the looks of their booths, products, health scores and whether they are in good standing.

Those Little Donuts’ troubles extended beyond missing Stampede’s application deadline.

“There were circumstances that precluded [Those Little Donuts] from being accepted as a vendor,” Jennifer Booth, a spokeswoman for Stampede, said. “[The company] had an outstanding balance.”

The Johnson family launched Those Little Donuts in Okotoks, Alta., a bedroom community south of Calgary, five decades ago, giving the brand a feel-good, home-grown nostalgic vibe. The founding family, however, sold the company a decade ago to Nathan Maier, who has been in the amusement industry for 25 years.

Mr. Maier confirmed money created tension between Those Little Donuts and Stampede.

“There were clerical errors on both sides,” he said, but declined to address the Stampede’s assertion that he owed it money.

Mr. Maier and Stampede both said the financial dispute has been settled. Mr. Maier intends to apply for a spot on Stampede’s midway next year.

“It is one of my biggest events,” Mr. Maier said of Calgary’s 10-day celebration. Stampede battles for his top spot with the Pacific National Exhibition, known as the PNE, in Vancouver.

While Those Little Donuts is a recognizable food brand at Stampede, fans of the sugary confections were split on whether they could even notice the difference with other mini doughnut vendors.

Ms. Van Rosendaal, the food writer, taste-tested Mini Donut Express’ offerings earlier this week. Mini Donut Express is parked in Those Little Donuts’ long-time home at the north end of the fair grounds, selling bags of about 25 doughnuts for $8.

“They are definitely greasier. Not enough cinnamon sugar,” Ms. Van Rosendaal said. “They are a bit cakier.”

She eats entire mini doughnuts in one bite. These doughnuts are crunchier and taste a bit vanilla-y, she said. And there are too many in the bag for her liking.

“They are all going to be sweaty and squished by the bottom.”

For Roger Reid, a United Conservative Party MLA representing Livingstone-Macleod, mini doughnuts are on his list of annual Stampede must-haves. But he didn’t notice this week that the little doughnuts he was eating were not Those Little Donuts.

Mr. Reid, after learning about the deadline mix-up, joked that the provincial government is prepared to intervene.

“Sounds like we need to do some red-tape reduction,” he said.​

Andrew Reid and Courtney Reid (no relation to the MLA) grabbed a bag of little doughnuts from the Cin City stand as they left Stampede grounds.

“They are perfect,” Mr. Reid said after snacking on one. The doughnuts, he said, tasted like they always have. Ms. Reid had no idea the little doughnuts she was eating were not Those Little Donuts.

“I wouldn’t have noticed."

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