Laurel Davis, co-owner of Donut Savant in Oakland, hadn’t planned to become a full-time doughnut maker. Sure, she grew up baking with her mother and grandmother, so she knew her way around a mixer. Years of living in Seattle, where doughnuts are taken almost as seriously as coffee, had made her an aficionado of all things raised and glazed. But her path to the fryer really began when she moved back home to the Bay Area and discovered that not one friend could recommend a local doughnut worth the dunk.
As a reclaimed-materials artist specializing in furniture and cast concrete, Davis was used to creating what she wanted, and soon she was serving homemade doughnuts to everyone who dropped by during open studios. Her business partner, fellow artist Danielle Feinberg, says, “She kept tinkering and tinkering, and they got better and better.”
Last December, searching on Craigslist for a doughnut-frying machine, Davis typed in “doughnut” and found, not a fryer, but a skinny little doughnut shop for sale in Oakland, right on Broadway just a block from the 19th Street BART station. Restless at her corporate day job and ready to make a leap into something she could be passionate about, Davis thought, “What I am waiting for?” In less than two months, she and Feinberg had signed the papers and their shop, dubbed Donut Savant, was on the map.
“I fell in love with the location,” Davis tells me, going on to describe the potential she saw in both the shop and its Uptown neighborhood. With advice, workshops, and mentorship from the Alameda County Small Business Development Center—which Davis cites as an incredibly valuable resource for any artisans hoping to go from home kitchen to successful storefront—Davis and Feinberg got to work, creating tables from repurposed metal pipes and salvaged lumber, pouring concrete counters, finding just the right ’60s-modern chairs to give a homey, sit-down vibe to the bare white space.
When the place opened in May, Feinberg says, “customers would walk in, look at the full case and say, ‘Where are the doughnuts?’” Now, regulars appreciate Donut Savant’s unique product, a chubby, bite-sized round Davis and Feinberg call a “doughnut whole.”
“They’re more functional,” Davis explains. “It’s a smaller portion, so people are less shy about having one. And I like the way they look; it’s easier to get creative with them. They’re more versatile—you can use them for strawberry shortcakes, all kinds of things.” No more breaking off a chunk here and a chunk there in order to mix and match a chocolate glazed with a cinnamon sugar cake; instead, with prices ranging from 50 cents to $1 each, the doughnut wholes are an inexpensive (and not overly indulgent) way to enjoy a tasty treat made with high-quality ingredients.
Right now, their customers are their best advertisement. Neighborhood residents “have been so supportive,” Feinberg enthuses. “We’ve seen people buy a boxful and actually offer one to a new customer in the store, saying ‘here, you have to taste this!’ People come in and say, ‘I’m going to tell everyone in my office about you.’” Having helped them get started, the director of the Small Business Development Center now proudly orders doughnuts by the dozen for SBDC meetings and events.
Davis makes one big batch of standard-size yeast-raised doughnuts a day, along with cinnamon rolls, buttermilk bars, and other coffee-break treats. By mid-morning they’re all sold, and Davis turns out cake doughnuts, which are easier for her one-woman kitchen to produce in quantity throughout the day. Dressed up with spices, flavored sugars, glazes, icings, and fillings, the vanilla or chocolate doughnuts are often whimsically named. Coconut Dream luxuriates under a feathery cap of shredded coconut over vanilla buttercream, while Chocolate Bomb is slicked with a Guinness/Bailey’s Irish Cream glaze, then pumped full of a rich whiskey-tinged chocolate ganache. For purists, the Ghirardelli chocolate glaze (over vanilla cake) is fudgy, deeply chocolaty, and not too sweet. A light, ungreasy apple fritter is a perfect taste of autumn, its gently sweet cake ribboned with cinnamony cooked apples in a nubbly four-bite rectangle.
“I like thinking about other desserts, how they could be turned into a doughnut,” says Davis, who has plans for a PB&J doughnut, a tiramisu doughnut, perhaps a bite-sized cruller. How does she keep up, as the sole baker for a six-day-a-week operation? “Luckily, I’m very competitive. I’ve always played sports,” she admits. Here, her opponent is the insatiable doughnut case: “I can’t keep it filled! But you just have to put the hammer down and go.”
1934 Broadway, Oakland
Photos by Charlotte and William Peale