Friday, June 1, 2012

Donut Savant Is Where It’s At

By Luke Tsai
Fri, Jun 1, 2012 at 1:12 PM

Happy National Donut Day, y’all!

To help you get your fried-dough groove on, earlier in the week I took it upon myself to work my way through some of the offerings at Donut Savant, the new Oakland shop that’s generated a little bit of Internet buzz lately.

My main takeaways: 1) The donuts here aren’t the full-sized ring donuts you might be expecting — they’re elaborations on a theme of donut holes (a bit bigger than “Munchkins®,” for those of us who grew up on Dunkin’ Donuts). 2) At a time when the baseline rate for any artisan food product — be it a cupcake, pastry, or bagel — seems to be $3, these are a flat-out bargain. Prices range from fifty cents (!) to one dollar on the high end. 3) The donuts are delicious and habit-forming, and you should go right now.

The display case never looks as full as you might expect.
  • The display case never looks as full as you might expect.
The other thing about Donut Savant is that it just doesn’t look like your standard donut shop — not with the mid-century modern-y lounge chairs in front and not with a display case that’s half-empty a lot of the time. That’s because the owner, Laurel Davis (a.k.a. the donut savant), is in back making (very small) batches of donuts all day long, replenishing the supply as needed, and they’re little wee ones to begin with, so the case never quite gets filled up.

Each donut comes on a little paper sleeve — the kind they use in those Danish sugar cookie tins, which should give you an idea of their size, maybe about as big as a golf ball. Davis has a few standard flavors, but a rotating menu of specialty donuts means you’ll always find something new to try.

During my first visit to Donut Savant I ordered one of almost everything they had in the case, and my total bill still came out to only about $6. A couple hours later, I sat down with a big glass of cold milk (Donut Savant, can we add this to the menu if it isn’t there already? Straus Organic would be oh so fine) to do some sampling. Everything was good. For me, the highlights were the “chocolate dust” and the “schokoladenkuchen.” The former was a plain cake donut (a fine rendition) that was dusted with dark chocolate cocoa and crinkly granulated sugar. The latter was Davis’ riff on German chocolate cake: a chocolate donut hole with the traditional coconut-pecan frosting sandwiched in the middle. In general, I appreciated that most of the donuts weren’t overly sweet.

Chocolate bomb.
  • Chocolate bomb.
Yesterday, I returned to the shop because I’d heard that the heavily-hyped “chocolate bombs” would be making an appearance. My timing was good: I got there just in time to snag a couple of these before they sold out. Will my food writer’s license get revoked if I say that these honestly and truly were the bomb? Imagine: a chocolate donut hole with a crackly exterior, deep cocoa flavor, and — in the middle — a burst of oozy bittersweet goodness. The listed ingredients include Irish whiskey, Guinness, and Bailey’s, but it wasn’t as boozy as you might expect. Next time I might order a whole tray of these, stick some candles in, and call it my birthday.

One last piece of advice: If there’s a fresh batch of donuts that’s still warm from the fryer, order those. As anyone who’s stood in line at Krispy Kreme when the “hot light” is on knows, there’s no just no comparison.

When I spoke to Davis on the phone, she told me she never exactly planned to open a donut shop. She’d moved to Oakland from Seattle, where coffee and donuts are a staple, and she still hadn’t found a local donut shop that she loved. So she just started making donuts on her own and serving them to her friends at home and at her art studio, where she builds furniture out of old industrial objects. Everyone loved them, and then one day she saw a Craigslist ad for a donut shop that was going out of business. So she just went for it — quit her corporate day job, completely redid the space, and opened for her first day of business on May 7.

Davis explained that she decided to focus on making mini-donuts (“donut (w)holes,” as she calls them) after having seen way too many boxes of donuts where you look in and the donuts are all hacked into pieces because people don’t want to eat the whole thing themselves.

“This way a person can try one of each without having a stomachache,” she said. “And if you just want to have a little something, it’s easier to do that.”

I asked Davis how, quite frankly, she’s able to sustain her business with prices that are so low — she’s working insane 15- to 18-hour work days, and I can’t imagine she’s making a huge profit on a high-quality fifty-cent donut.

Davis conceded that her pricing might, in part, have been a case of poor planning by a first-time small business owner. She said she didn’t anticipate how many customers would come in and buy a single donut and nothing else — no coffee or anything. (And she’s proud of her coffee, which is roasted by America’s Best Coffee, an under-the-radar Oakland company.)

Still, Davis said she doesn’t expect to tweak her prices too much, if at all.

“I don’t want to veer too far away from certain donut principles,” she said, explaining that she’s always a little bit taken aback when she sees a place selling donuts for $3 a pop. “They’re supposed to be affordable. They’re supposed to be this inexpensive snack that anyone can afford.”

Preach it, sister.

Oh, and this just in: Davis tweeted that she’ll be celebrating National Donut Day by offering a free “standard style” donut (the fifty-cent kind) with the purchase of hot or iced coffee. Go get some.

Donut Savant is located at 1934 Broadway, between 19th and 20th (on the same block at the Hat Library, directly across the street from Sears). The hours are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (or until they sell out), Monday through Friday, and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays (though the website indicates that the shop will be closed tomorrow, June 2).

Got tips or suggestions? Email me at Luke (dot) Tsai (at) EastBayExpress (dot) com. Otherwise, keep in touch by following me on Twitter @theluketsai, or simply by posting a comment. I'll read ‘em all.

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