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Photo by James Dickinson
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In our April 2014 issue, we visit J Frank at the newest Dixie Donuts location in the West End and follow the donut making process.
Dixie Donuts began as an idea — a chef's idea. J Frank of Positive Vibe Café and personal chef to arts patron Frances Lewis wanted to create little flavor bombs disguised as an unassuming breakfast treat. "The fun part for me is introducing those [doughnuts] that people don't do." Combos like vanilla and rosewater sprinkled with garam masala and pistachios, or candied ginger with pink peppercorns, crushed peanuts, toasted coconut and lime — these are notions that are about as far away as you can get from the products of franchise empire Dunkin' Donuts. "It's the whole reason we got into this," says partner Betsy Harrell Thomas.
But imagination soon ran up against reality. Cake doughnuts were the best vehicle to deliver the flavors Frank wanted to try, but in a town raised on Krispy Kreme, customers yearned for the more familiar yeasted doughnut. Across town, Sugar Shack Donuts was providing just that.
Sugar Shack also recently expanded. "The expansion was more of a necessity than free will," owner Ian Kelley says. "Lombardy Street is busting at the seams and also with a high demand for seating. [The] Main Street [location] solves those problems. … None of this was expected, but I feel it's necessary to keep up."
So did Dixie Donuts. "Everyone has their unique thing," Kelley says, "but I feel [Sugar Shack] changed the game." At Dixie Donuts' Carytown location, however, there was neither the room nor the equipment to expand their line. "J and I already knew that we were going to have to get into the yeast-raised doughnut game if we wanted to stay competitive," Thomas says.
"It's easy to compare us to Country Style and Sugar Shack," she says. "We weren't trying to do [that with Dixie Donuts]. But we felt the pressure." The fine line between traditional offerings and innovation had to be straddled.
Enter western Henrico County's yeasted Daylight Donuts — whose owners contacted Frank and Thomas last fall about the possibility of merging. The owners were overwhelmed and wanted out of the doughnut business.
Lance Elwood and Joanne Ellis originally envisioned Daylight Donuts as a project that fell in line with the mission of their other company, Career Support Systems. CSS helps clients with disabilities find jobs. "We had two goals in mind: one, to open a little doughnut and coffee shop," says Elwood, "and two, to employ folks we work with in our other company."
It was important to Elwood and Ellis, however, to find the right people to take over their shop. They wanted their original mission to stay intact.
For Frank and Thomas, this was a no-brainer. Frank has been involved with Positive Vibe Café, a nonprofit restaurant that trains students with disabilities to work in the food industry, since its inception. And Thomas' father worked as the accounting manager at a similar company to CSS. They leaped at the chance to both expand and move forward in a way that helped the disabled. With that in mind, they've kept staffing exactly as Elwood and Ellis had it.
When you go into the back room of the old Daylight location, you see what looks like a Rube Goldberg machine. A gigantic mixer that could probably grind a few Englishman's bones in its spare time produces the dough, and it's shaped into a long, wide sheet. This is fed into a machine that stamps out the rings, which then go to a proofing chamber, where they sit, rising and falling on a winding conveyer belt. Next, the puffy rings plop into the fryer and, when they're done, onto another conveyer belt where they're glazed. Voilà — a whole mess of doughnuts, ready for boxes.
"Most places have a square [fryer vat] … they lower doughnuts on a tray [into the fryer] and can do only one tray at a time," says Frank. The automated equipment speeds up that process dramatically. "The idea is to eventually bake everything here," Thomas says. Right now, both locations produce doughnuts that are ferried back and forth in the morning to keep cases full for customers. With the added production capability, Frank and Thomas are also looking at the possibility of selling their doughnuts wholesale.
They're still figuring out the business — Frank has worked a few 24-hour shifts to keep up. Despite the learning curve the new equipment demands, the quest for new flavors is still paramount. Some of the glazes don't work on the new doughnuts. Others, like the French toast variety, are even better. "A yeast doughnut becomes the experience itself," Thomas says. "We're not throwing whatever on them and just sending them out."
"We have a long list of flavors in reserve that will one day find their way back to an audience," says Frank. "We don't want to erase the past year and a half," Thomas adds. Instead, they want more folks to feel a little adventurous when they're picking up that bear claw or Bavarian cream. Try the maple-bacon. You won't regret it.