Fresh, Flaky and Flavorful
Innovative or Classic, the Everlasting Appeal of Doughnuts
Amid the ongoing trend of health-conscious eating, the doughnut remains a sweet treat that appeals to all ages and demographics. Luckily, the Merrimack Valley has no shortage of family-owned shops.
For most people, the unwavering appeal of this breakfast treat isn’t complicated. If you’re going to indulge, why wouldn’t you go big — literally — and pick an item that can fill your stomach with a combination of flavor, flakiness and freshness?
For many, just walking through the door of a doughnut shop and looking at the display case can be nostalgic.
“It brings back childhood memories,” says Cindy Ley, the owner of Top Donut in Dracut.
Bill Wilson Jr., co-owner of Donna’s Donuts in Tewksbury, says doughnuts and doughnut shops offer a sense of comfort.
“People get excited to come in,” says Tom Quill, co-owner of The Angry Donut and Cafe in Newburyport. “They’ll announce if it’s their first time here.”
While doughnuts appeal to all ages, flavors are a different story. The popular flavors can even vary from one store to another, says Ley, whose family owns Top Donut. She owns and runs the Dracut location, while her parents, Robin and Wendy Ley, operate the Lowell locations.
In Lowell, customers seek out more traditional flavors. The 29-year-old Cindy Ley says she is offering more specialty flavors in Dracut, and they are proving to be a hit with her customers. “Maple bacon is the most popular,” she says. “It’s sweet and salty.” Customers at her store also like her doughnuts with cereal toppings, such as Fruity Pebbles and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
“Their eyes light up,” Ley says. “It’s two breakfast items in one.”
She says seasonal flavors, such as pumpkin and apple cider in the fall, are always a big sellers.
“My favorite would be the chocolate cream,” Ley says.
Customers are also excited to see Creamy Buns on the menu — a creation patterned after doughnut ice cream sandwiches, which are popular on the West Coast.
Customers pick one of Top Donut’s ice cream flavors — ube, a sweet purple yam with Filipino origins, is the most popular — and a selection of toppings. The doughnut is then sealed in a warming machine. The end result is warm with a cool and creamy inside.
For every customer who likes to explore new tastes, there are the doughnut loyalists who stick to the classics.
At Donna’s Donuts, the biggest seller is the tried-and-true honey dip. “By far, [it] outsells everything else in the store,” Wilson says. Other popular choices are jelly and Boston cream pie.
Part of the appeal is that customers have a good shot at getting a fresh doughnut straight from the kitchen.
“We bake while we’re open,” Wilson says. Some shops will make all their doughnuts before the shop opens for the day, and once they are sold out, they close. Donna’s continues to bake until the shop closes, Wilson says. No matter when a customer arrives, the products will be fresh.
Wilson’s own doughnut preference is simple.
“Uniquely enough, it’s the plain doughnut,” he says. The mix of cinnamon and nutmeg flavors pairs nicely with his black coffee.
Quill, the owner of The Angry Donut, begins his day with a coffee and a doughnut, as well.
“Our doughnut isn’t overly sweet,” he says. “Our doughnut is really like a bread and we fry it.”
Vanilla glaze is the most common selection by customers at The Angry Donut, followed by cinnamon sugar, chocolate glazed, chocolate sea salt, and raspberry jelly. The shop also offers more trendy choices, like Fruity Pebbles, maple bacon, peanut butter fluff, and coffee Oreo.
Quill, 58, grew up in Newburyport frequenting the mom-and-pop shops around town. About four years ago, he realized he needed to make a change from his career in sales. He was divorced, and his kids were grown and out on their own.
“I was looking for something to make me happy,” he says.
The answer — as it is for so many — was doughnuts.
With no culinary training, the task wasn’t easy.
Following the advice of baker friend Jill Passen, who later became his business partner, Quill narrowed his focus to one kind — raised — which led him to use the brioche. He tinkered with recipes. Choosing a name for his business wasn’t easy, and the answer came to him via television. He saw a commercial for the show “The Good Wife,” and liked the idea of using “The _____ Donut.”
After perfecting the first recipe, Quill began making batches of doughnuts at Kitchen Local, a shared commercial kitchen in Amesbury.
He sold them at farmers markets and pop-up events at area breweries.
The first Angry Donut shop opened in Newburyport in 2018. A Stratham, N.H., location followed a year later.
For Ley, the family doughnut shop was her second home. Her mother moved to Massachusetts from California, where her parents and siblings all own doughnut shops.
Cindy Ley’s mother and father opened their first Top Donut in Lawrence in 1998. That location eventually closed, but they now have the two Lowell locations, as well as the Dracut store that Cindy operates. Cindy Ley will take over the Lowell locations when her parents retire.
The Leys use family recipes passed on by Cindy’s aunt, and their shops follow a West Coast model in which the doughnuts are displayed in a case in front of the counter rather than behind the employees. Cindy Ley says her childhood friends would be amazed when she brought them into her aunt’s shop after hours to make their own creations. As a teenager, she and her siblings would bring boxes of doughnuts to sports events and school functions.
Wilson, 52, also grew up with doughnuts in his blood. His father, Bill, was a baker. The Wilson family opened their Tewksbury shop in 1992 using recipes perfected by father and son. Wilson and his father, mother, and sister, Donna, each picked a name for the shop and tossed it into a hat. His sister’s choice was the winner — she named it after herself.
Wilson and his father keep the name in memory of Donna and Wilson’s mother.
Donna’s likes to have some fun with its customers. Among the shop’s top sellers are the “meatball sub,” “steak and cheese sub” and “cheeseburger” — none of which include meat or bread. However, they pass in appearance for the real thing. So much so that the younger Wilson recently fielded a complaint from a customer who ordered a “steak and cheese,” took it home, and heated it in the microwave.
Wilson gave her a refund and a dozen free doughnuts, but said their goal is to sell a realistic-looking product.
“April 1 is a big time for those,” he says.
More than just a breakfast food
The popularity of doughnuts these days has a lot to do with millennials. More couples are offering doughnut walls instead of wedding cakes.
Quill says The Angry Donut has never marketed to the wedding business, but supplies about 20 weddings a year.
“The millennials don’t want traditional — they want to do something they like,” Quill says. “They want something good.”
Doughnuts are also more easily transported than cakes, and easier for guests to grab and eat, says Ley, who takes a lot of orders for her letter doughnuts, which can spell out a birthday greeting or other celebratory message.
“It’s different from a regular cake — it’s special to see your name made out of doughnuts,” she says.
The Angry Donut and Cafe
Dracut and Lowell, Mass.