When you toss the word doughnut out in most crowds, drool begins to pool in the corner of people’s mouths. Their eyes light up with a joy usually reserved for weddings, the birth of a child, or the purchase of a house. You can immediately see that involuntary happy dance start to move their body, regardless of how hard they try to hide it. Essentially, the word doughnut cuts deep through all the shit and nonsense this world heaps on us daily, touches that deeply guarded well of unabashed happiness, and draws it forth to flow freely upon us. That is merely the effect the WORD has on people, not even the actual thing. So, imagine the response when I organized a 5 doughnut shop tour on a Sunday morning for a group of friends. I will now use the word epic here knowing it falls far short.
This all began because the phrase “I’ve actually never been to Sugar Shack” was uttered in my presence. Upon further questioning, I discovered this was common among the group. The range of feelings that I experienced in a 3 second period was inhuman. Anger, disgust, shock, disappointment, confusion, sadness and hate are just a sampling of what my addled brain ran through. I knew that a phrase like that could NOT be allowed to continue as reality. I had to take action. Thus I began planning, mapping and creating a Richmond Doughnut Tour. Something that would allow a little taste of everything for those who have experienced nothing. I gathered 7 other folks at my house at 8am on a sunny Sunday morning. I armed them all with pens and a survey. They brought their own appetites and drive. We piled into two cars ready to fill our bellies with pillowy morsels of happiness. Onward to greatness!!
I will give you a quick overview of our scoring system, just so we are all on the same page. I created a packet for everyone that listed the 5 doughnut shops. For each, I gave space to review 2 of their doughnuts based on 4 criteria. First, we looked at size, which of course is relative. Second was freshness. Was the doughnut baked within the last hour or had it been sitting there all morning? Third was taste. Did your mouth jump around like House Of Pain was rocking it or did it hate itself as if it just willingly purchased a dual cd set of Creed & Nickleback? Finally, we looked at originality. Was this doughnut a classic or was it that new hotness? Everything was rated on a scale of 1 to 10 (as all things should be), with 1 being a dry, tasteless excuse for confectionary goodness that some would dare call a doughnut and 10 being the greatest deep fried gastronomical delight known to mankind. This was a great way to rate the doughnuts, but it left me with a TON of data to go through. C’est la vie.
Before I get deep into this, I need to get one thing out of the way. I need to admonish those of you folks that use the spelling d-o-n-u-t. Stop it. Stop it right now. It’s wrong, plain and simple. The correct spelling is d-o-u-g-h-n-u-t. It was the word first used in 1809 by Washington Irving. It wasn’t until 90 years later that the lazy bastardized word “donut” appeared. Several companies took that spelling and ran with it hoping that by using the simplified spelling they would attract more international clients. Dunkin’ Donuts took the name in 1950, and since then it’s been considered the norm. It’s not!! Around the world the word is spelled d-o-u-g-h-n-u-t. It is only here in America, where we are lazy, that the word “donut” is acceptable. Pull yourselves together folks. Be better. Spell it correctly. Now back to the tour.
After a quick stop at Kroger where we bought drinks for the journey, we headed for doughnut stop #1: Duck Donuts. While it’s a relative newcomer to the Richmond doughnut scene, Duck Donuts has been holding their own. This well-loved shop has its roots in the Outer Banks, specifically Duck, NC. Our branch, located in the Shops at Willow Lawn, opened its doors on December 15, 2014. It was instantly a crowd pleaser with their fresh made cake doughnuts and variety of to-order toppings. As our group pulled up, you could sense a feeling of apprehension and nervousness for this first stop that manifested itself as giddy giggles. We were about to undertake a great feat of mankind. I insisted that before we went in we take a photo in front of the shop. As soon as that was done, we burst through the door like dignitaries into a foreign court. I marched right up to the counter and announced that we were on a doughnut tour so we needed their finest vittles. At first the guy behind the counter didn’t believe me. Then I showed him our score sheet and he knew this was on for reals. We all decided to pair up and share doughnuts. I ordered 2 because I was ambitious and it made sense to me at the time (we quickly learned that 2 is, and I hate to say it, too many doughnuts per person per stop). My first choices were a Maple Glaze with bacon pieces and a Vanilla Glaze with chopped peanuts, both solid choices. I split these into halves and shared with Justin, who got a Lemon Glaze with coconut flakes for us to indulge in. Other doughnut choices made in the group were Peanut Butter with peanuts, Orange with coconut flakes and Vanilla with cinnamon & sugar. So, let’s talk about people’s general thoughts on the 2 most reviewed doughnuts; Maple Bacon and Lemon Coconut.
Overall, Duck Donuts seemed to be a big hit with everyone. The fresh, warm doughnuts went a long way in making Duck Donuts a contender for the “Greatest Doughnut of the Day” belt. It’s hard not to be pleased when the doughnut you eat is still warm from the fryer. The most reviewed doughnut of the group was the Maple Bacon which 6 people chose to grade. Everyone felt (and this applied to all the Duck Donuts) that these doughnuts were on the smaller end of medium in size. One person said they are about the size of a standard Krispy Kreme glazed. To me, that means it would take 2, maybe even 3, of them to satisfy a normal person. It was not a surprise to me to see that Duck Donuts topped every place we went in the freshness department. Like I said before, taken from the fryer to the toppings and into your hand. What else can I say? The Maple Bacon also ranked very high in the taste department. Some of the comments were: “Warm & Gooey. Bacon Chewy. My favorite.” & “Perfect salty/sweet mix. Had those Goldilocks crumbles” & “Great salty/sweet combo. Not too strong either way, but not so subtle to miss the flavors either. Almost like a fluffy waffle with bacon.” People felt that the Maple Bacon was fairly original giving it a 7 in that department. This doughnut fired on all cylinders so it is no surprise it did so well. Let’s move on to the Lemon Coconut. Only 3 people in the group reviewed this doughnut. I will admit I was not one of them. While I enjoy lemon frosting, I have never been a coconut fan. I can certainly tolerate it much better as I’ve gotten older, but I don’t love it. My siblings and I used to call it “skunks” when we were little. My mom baked pies for local restaurants and knew that she never needed to worry about us eating her “toasted skunks” before she was able to decorate her pie. Once again, this doughnut rated high on freshness. Please see above for why. Taste was very middle range for this doughnut though. According to the comments “Lemon was to subtle, although the combo had lots of potential. Coconut wasn’t evenly distributed.” & “Good flavor. Wanted more coconut flavor. Great tasting donut that has potential” & “Lemon flavor was not strong enough.” It seems that this doughnut was poised for greatness with this flavor combo and then just tired early in the race. Happens to the best of us I suppose. The other doughnuts ranked all did well. After indulging, we loaded into the cars and off we went to shop number 2.
Our second stop on the tour was Dixie Donuts. It upsets me that they don’t have a website, but that’s neither here nor there. Dixie Donuts is located on the very cusp of Carytown by The Byrd Theater. They specialize in cake doughnuts in a variety of flavors. We parked in their spacious parking lot and took our group photo out front (my poor friends…). We stepped inside the old-school shop and were greeted by the pleasant woman behind the case. I, of course, told her what we were doing and she was jazzed about it. She immediately suggested that we take advantage of their deal that day: a dozen doughnuts for $9. With 8 of us eating, that was a great deal. We ordered an assorted dozen and cut them up into pieces for all to sample. I can’t list the dozen flavors we got, but I can tell you the 5 people chose to review: French Toast, Aztec Chocolate, Orange Five Spice, Blueberry Cake and Samoa. On to the top 2 of the day.
First off, we have the French Toast doughnut. Not a bad choice for a doughnut in my opinion. I thought the flavor of French Toast was there, but the actual doughnut was a little dry for me. It just wasn’t as fresh as I wanted it to be. Still, I didn’t hate this doughnut. The others though, didn’t have a ton of love for it. It garnered an average score of 6.8 from the five people who rated it. A step above average. We all agreed that Dixie Donuts puts out a medium sized doughnut. Bigger than Duck but not a monster. The average bloke could consume 2 and feel satisfied. The doughnuts also ranked just a step above average in freshness. They weren’t fresh out of the oven, but they weren’t out more than an hour I would guess. People seemed to think that the French Toast doughnut was a touch on the sweet side. Comments on it were: “Too sweet for me. Don’t think I would call it french toast in a blind taste test.” & “Too sweet for me. Could not taste the donut.” One commenter disagreed with the others: “Icing was pretty tasty. Cake didn’t taste much like it. Pretty was a 5 out of 10.” Yup, one person ranked how pretty all the doughnuts were. Bless her for it because looks never occurred to me. The second doughnut, also rated by five people, was the Aztec Chocolate doughnut. This doughnut ranked incredibly highly in originality with a 9.4, and I know why. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before. It is a chocolate doughnut with chocolate frosting that has chipotle mixed into it. It’s topped with candied pepitas (Spanish culinary term for the pumpkin seed), cinnamon and sugar. I wish there had been a touch more heat from the chipotle, but I LOVED the textured crunch of the candied pepitas. It brought this doughnut to a different plain of existence that sprinkles can’t seem to reach. The others were back and forth in their thoughts: “Chocolate cake flavor not sweet enough. Lacked spice. I wanted to like this more than I did.” & “Very unique taste. Liked the pepitas which added a nice crunch. The cinnamon sugar added a nice sweetness and a kick.” We polished off stop 2 and packed back into the cars. Bellies were starting to get a bit full, but we knew we had to press on. Put that bad boy in drive and let’s do it.
For stop 3 we proceeded to the winner of Style Weekly’s “Best of RVA” in the doughnut category: Sugar Shack. I think that I am fully justified in the following statement, even to the point where I think the other doughnut shops on this list would agree: Sugar Shack, while not the oldest doughnut hop in Richmond, has helped to push not only the doughnut scene, but the Richmond restaurant scene, into the public eye of America. That’s a hefty weight on their flour covered shoulders, but they bare it with grace and frosting. Sugar Shack is a little different from the first 2 places we visited in that they work primarily in yeast doughnuts. Yeast doughnuts use yeast as a leavener which makes them pillowy and airy. Cake doughnuts (my preference) use either baking powder or soda as a leavener. This makes them much denser and they tend to be crumblier. The debate between which is better can be fierce, so tread carefully when speaking of doughnuts in polite company. Sugar Shack sometimes tends to be low on doughnuts, depending on how busy they are. This is because they only hand make small batches. I was hoping, as we approached the front door, that they would be stocked up. Thankfully, we were in luck. A full doughnut case greeted us. I always request the person behind the counter come around front and tell me every doughnut flavor in the case. I’m SOOOO sorry to all the employees there that have had to do this, but I MUST know. I MUST!! This day was no exception. TELL US ALL YOUR FLAVORS DOUGHNUT LADY!!! After she was kind enough to list all the flavors, we agreed that 6 would be more than enough to feed all 8 of us as Sugar Shack makes LARGE doughnuts. Just 1 would fill a normal person, 2 would make them sick and 3 would kill them. The fellas also decided that we were not capable of choosing the 6 so we left it to the ladies to pick out the flavors. They selected Cheesecake w/ caramel, Apple Pie, Key Lime w/ vanilla, Bacon Maple, Tastes Like A Samoa and Red Velvet. We got a knife, sliced them up and then went outside to indulge.
The top 2 reviewed doughnuts turned out to be very interesting to me and forced me to make a judgement call (there was a threeway tie for the 2nd doughnut reviewed so I chose the one with the best average score). The most reviewed, with 5, was the Key Lime with vanilla drizzle. This doughnut was, in a word, fabulous. With an average taste score of 9.3, this doughnut was a big hit. The key lime flavor was perfect and not overpowering so as to drown out the flavor of the doughnut. The actual doughnut itself was airy and light with a nice cakey flavor. It only took me one bite to know that this doughnut was sitting pretty at the top of the heap looking to wear the “Doughnut of the Day” crown. That idea seemed to be shared by a lot of the others: “Strong and wonderful. So good. Perfect summertime donut. Very happy.” & “Best so far. Great flavor.” & “Fantastic taste. Just the right amount of flavor. It was an explosion of flavor in my mouth.” Sugar Shack clearly hit on something there to leave the crowd so pleased. Now, here is where I had to make a judgement call. The second most reviewed doughnut was a 3 way tie between Cheesecake with Caramel, Apple Pie and Bacon Maple. I decided to go with the one that had the best average score, so let’s talk Cheesecake with Caramel. This doughnut also had an average taste score of 9.3, which means it was another huge hit with folks. I don’t like caramel, but it didn’t really stop me from enjoying this doughnut. It carried itself well with excellent cheesecake-esque flavor to the frosting. Had they found a way to make the doughnut more graham cracker crust-ish, this doughnut would be unstoppable. What did the others have to say, you ask? They loved it: “AH-MAZZ-ING!!! Pretty is a 5 out of 10.” & “Sweet mother of god! So light and refreshing. Subtle, but perfect. 11 out of 10! Would eat again.” I guess there is a reason that Sugar Shack is the darling of the RVA doughnut scene…
By the time we started coasting towards Church Hill for our 4th stop, people were starting to feel a little rough. There was quite a bit of grumbling pointed in my direction, but I urged the group on with positive words and terrible singing. I think everyone felt pretty ready by the time we pulled up to our destination: WPA Bakery. As we stood out front, gathering our thoughts and motivation, a woman passed us by. She stopped to ask us what we were doing. When one of the girls explained she chuckled. She told us how bad we looked and then said “Have a mimosa… You’ll feel better.” She was probably right… Unfortunately, we didn’t have one. So, in we went.
WPA Bakery is not your typical doughnut shop. Actually, they only make doughnuts one day a week, which happens to be on Sundays. The rest of the week they are busy pumping out other delicious delicacies not only for customers but also for Garnetts, The Roosevelt and Ipanema Cafe. I want to say they make cake doughnuts, but that is wrong. Really, it’s like they just make mini bundt cakes about the size of a doughnut and call it a doughnut. Nothing wrong with that, just saying. When we went up to the counter to order, our job was made very easy as they only had four doughnuts for sale by the time we arrived. Thankfully, 4 was all we needed or could handle. Being the man with the plan, I asked the lady to plate up one each of Olive Oil & Pear with vegan frosting, Vanilla/Coffee/Chocolate, plain Vanilla, and Chocolate with hazelnuts. There’s very limited seating inside, so we once again ventured into the sunlight to muscle down these wonderful morsels. Let’s talk about the results, shall we? I’ll be straight up honest about the Olive Oil & Pear with vegan frosting, our first doughnut reviewed. I was concerned about this doughnut. The word vegan doesn’t always inspire warm and cuddly feelings in me. Still, we were in this for the long haul. Much to everyone’s surprise, we actually all very much enjoyed this doughnut. It was fresh and had great flavor. The olive oil helped it retain moisture while the vegan frosting added a delightful creamy texture. It was an excellent doughnut. But don’t just take my word for it. “Fluffy, light, moist with sweet icing. Hint of pear was more refreshing than flavorful. Didn’t want to like it, but did.” & “Surprisingly good. Does not qualify as a doughnut, but really good.” & “Huh… surprising. First I was scared, then confused, and then scared again.” That last comment was actually a compliment… I think. The other popular doughnut at WPA Bakery for the day was the Vanilla/Coffee/Chocolate pulling an average score of 7.6 across all the categories. People were readily able to pick up the coffee flavor in the doughnut. I personally thought it nicely balanced the chocolate flavor and muted the vanilla in a positive way. It gave the flavor purpose instead of allowing it to wander lost across the tongue. The comments were fairly positive: “Yes, that was good. A lot of coffee flavor.” & “Unique flavor. Pretty is 8 out of 10. I <3 coffee.” & “Good, but too sweet.” WPA Bakery was the unknown of the day, but they really put forth a solid effort. Kudos.
Our final stop was the one I had been looking forward to all day long: Country Style Donuts. I made sure we took the drive out to the original location on Williamsburg Road in order for the group to get the full authentic experience. The original location opened its doors in 1968 and is open 24 hours a day (closed Mondays). They craft both cake and yeast doughnuts. By the time we got there on Sunday morning, the crowds had cleared and we had plenty of room to browse. The wall of doughnuts before us was immense and, at this point, incredibly overwhelming for our over doughnutted bodies. Thank god for the wonderful staff. Once we explained what we were doing they took charge. With wishes of happy dining and looks of sympathy they chose the 4 doughnuts they thought best represented a solid cross-section of Country Style’s offerings which were Apple Crumb, Old Fashioned, Strawberry Jelly and Glazed. We chopped the 4 doughnuts into 8 pieces each and muscled the final bites of our tour down our gullets. Onward to the top 2 doughnuts!!! The first up is the Old Fashioned. This, for those who don’t know, is the most basically delicious of cake doughnuts. No frosting. No toppings. No powdered sugar. Just fried doughnut dough that forms a crispy outer shell around a soft center. It is, to me, what a doughnut should be. Its plainness is its greatness. I LOVED this doughnut with an unabashed passion. For the most part, the others agreed with me. Some found the doughnut to be dry, but most liked it. The comments were overly favorable: “For a plain doughnut it was pretty good. It had a little bit of crunch which was an added plus.” & “Really buttery. Tasty. Nice crunchy outer texture.” & “Classic cake. A little dry, but flavor enhanced the more you chewed.” One doughnut down, one to go. Our last reviewed doughnut was the Strawberry Jelly Filled, another classic. I will admit a moment of naivety here. I did not know that filled doughnuts were yeast doughnuts. I guess it makes sense as you would need a light airy doughnut to inject filling into. It was an excellent jelly filling inside a tasty doughnut shell covered in powdered sugar. Like the Old Fashioned, I love this doughnut. It’s another classic. The others didn’t seem quite as sold as I was. While the comments weren’t bad, they certainly lacked enthusiasm. “Typical, but good jelly flavor. Enjoyed, but not blown away.” & “Traditional jelly donut with a twist on flavor. Donut itself was good, but a little heavy on the jelly amount.” & “Your typical strawberry jelly, but the yeast donut really helps it out. Overall very good.” Come on people… get on my level.
Time to talk final results, personal first. I really enjoyed myself. It was a fun tour, but it did do some damage to the old gut. That being said, I think each place put out some excellent offerings. In the end though, my loyalties were not swayed. I remain a Country Style Donuts fan through and through. If I were handing out the belt, that’s where it would go. In the surprise category, I give it to WPA Bakery’s Olive Oil & Pear with Vegan Frosting. I didn’t see that being as good as it was. In the “this over that” category, it goes to Duck Donuts Maple Bacon over Sugar Shacks Bacon Maple. I think the difference maker is the crumbled bacon Duck uses over the chunks that Sugar Shack has. New things learned and new places tried. Good day for me.
The group saw things a little differently. Here is how the numbers played out:
|Average Freshness:||Average Taste:||Average Originality:||Overall Average:|
|Country Style Donuts||7.2||8.0||3.7||6.3|
Couple of surprises there. What’s no surprise is Duck averaging highest in the freshness category. I was shocked that Sugar Shack came in below Dixie Donuts there. Sugar Shack took the taste category due to having no doughnut average lower than a 7 there (two were rated above a 9). For all that freshness, Duck Donuts did not fare well in the taste world. Finally, we had originality, which is a tough topic (more on this in a second). WPA Bakery was the king of the doughnut stack here. It was that Olive Oil & Pear, I’m telling ya… Here is where I think this is a tough topic. Country Style scored SUPER low which, in the end, hurt it all around in the rankings. But, when we are talking originality, how original is a Strawberry Jelly Filled or an Old Fashioned? You would kind of expect them to score low there compared to a Key Lime or an Aztec Chocolate. I did not factor that in ahead of time so lesson learned.
I also asked the group to tell me which doughnuts they thought they could eat every day and which they could do without. I then averaged every doughnut to see if the top 3 and the bottom 3 matched this list. Let’s just say, we were all over the place here. I know that personally, I was much harder when it came to grading as opposed to choosing a doughnut straight up. I could stand all day and say “I loved _____” but when I put it on paper, you better impress me. I can only assume that happened with the others too. Once the dust settled, the winners were who they were. The belt for “People’s Choice” goes to Sugar Shack who fed us the Cheesecake with caramel. In a tie for the “Greatest Doughnut of the Day” we have Duck Donuts Peanut Butter with peanuts and WPA Bakery Olive Oil & Pear with vegan frosting. Congratulations to all three places.
|Eat Everyday:||I’ll Pass:|
|Sugar Shack Cheesecake||WPA Bakery Vanilla|
|Country Style Old Fashioned||Duck Donuts Lemon w/ Coconut|
|Duck Donuts Peanut Butter w/ Peanuts||Dixie Donuts French Toast|
|Highest Average:||Lowest Average:|
|Duck Donuts Peanut Butter w/ Peanuts (8.8)||Dixie Donuts Orange Five Spice (6.3)|
|WPA Bakery Olive Oil & Pear w/ Vegan Frosting (8.8)||Country Style Strawberry Jelly Filled (5.8)|
|Duck Donuts Maple Bacon (8.5)||Country Style Glazed (5.3)|
This was a surprisingly grueling endeavor for the group. We quickly learned that you can easily get overwhelmed by the sweetness. By the time we hit stop 4, we would have killed for something with some salt. Next time I will bring plenty of salty snacks to help beat the sugar-filled slump we hit. All told, we visited 5 doughnut places in just about an hour and a half. That’s including our drive time. Really not bad. We bought and ate 35 doughnuts (4.375 per person) at a total cost of $44.96 including tax. This breaks out to $1.28 per doughnut or $5.62 a person or $8.99 a shop. We all agreed that in the future everyone attending should bring $6 in cash which one person would collect in the beginning so they could pay at each stop. It would just make life way easier for everyone. At the end, I asked the group if they would do this again. Even with full stomachs and sugar overload, they universally agreed they would. We truly had a ton of fun and it was nice to be able to sample so many different doughnuts. The creativity and effort in putting out a great product was not only recognized, but appreciated. I think it says a lot about what is happening in this area of the food scene when the lowest score is for the simple, basic glazed doughnut and all of the others were considered so much more than average. I want to thank all of the doughnut shops and their staff for allowing us to swarm in on them unannounced to devour their offerings like locusts. This tour is something I highly recommend that anyone and everyone try. I can’t wait to plan a second one hitting up some different venues. If you want to join us, drop me a line. If you think we are fools, well… I doughnut give a damn!!