Three generations, ‘one way of doing things’ at Donna’s Donuts

The smell is unmistakable, wafting down Bristol Road. The sweet smell of fried dough permeates the area, perhaps even more noticeable than the Donna’s Donuts itself.

It’s easy to drive by the business located across from Baker College—even with the sign out front that features a grinning donut holding a big red coffee mug and a donut. Here since 1963, this is the type of place people go out of their way for.

Inside the tables are filled with regulars. The quick-moving line at the counter is filled with those buying office hero status for the day, granted as soon as coworkers see that oh-so-recognizable box.

Donuts of every variety fill the glass bakery case. There are fluffy and light, crunchy and cakey. Glazed, frosted, filled, plain. Specialty rolls and other baked deliciousness … and there is the most famous of them all: The nutty donut, with heavy emphasis on nutty.

“This is where people come to relax, with comfort and friends,” says owner Alicia Gibbons, the third generation owner of the family cafe.

The shop is sort of low, cozy, with two sides to the dining area. The old linoleum sparkles against the late-60s to 70s faux-wood paneling.

It’s just after 11 a.m. and a line is still forming around the little alcove wall that divides the two dining areas. The place is packed early with regulars chatting up over peanut butter and jelly longjohns, double chocolate rounds, and (of course) nutty donuts.

“For our long-time regulars, it’s sort of their morning bar,” Gibbons laughs over the hum of steady conversation. “That might not be the best way to describe it, but it’s true. People come in to talk, gossip, and joke around.”

Wink, as the gentleman with salt and pepper hair and matching mustache is called, raises his cup of coffee: “Forty years I’ve been coming here,” he says. “Forty years, I’ve gotten to know every owner, too.”

And, he keeps coming back.

“It’s because they’ve got quality up here,” he says—as he gives a slow smile, a nod, and a wink.

Gibbons grandparents, Sue and Dave Deering, bought the shop from the original owners. After 34 years in business, Gibbons’ grandparents handed over the donut shop to Sue’s son and Alicia’s father, John Gibbons, who took over operations in 2003.

John Gibbons also co-owned Comic Relief, a comic book store and another landmark Genesee County business. He died suddenly in 2013 and Alicia Gibbons took over the family business at just 20 years old.

“It was hard, but we were able to come back from all of that because of the people here,” Alicia Gibbons says, looking around at the tables of people sitting and chatting. “It all happened over night and it was really scary for me at first.”

At the time, Gibbons says, the challenges seemed to mount, “the shop was in a bit of financial straits,” she said. “But we were able to turn it around and bring it back with the support we have.”

Gibbons, now 24, motions to a group of staff behind the large display counter and another group in the back, cutting dough near a large mixer. They are her support system.

“We have the best people. They are like family and friends, who just happen to work here,” Gibbons says.

And, then there were all the regulars—like Wink who is still seated at the counter and “he’s been coming every single day, since the beginning,” Gibbons says—who really stepped up. They wouldn’t let Gibbons, or Donna’s Donuts, fail.

When it comes down to it, Donna’s is more than a business.

“It’s home. I grew up here,” she says.

Donna’s Donuts is located at 1135 W. Bristol Road. It’s hours are 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays.

Our tip: Stop in mid-morning hours between 9 and 11 a.m. Try staples like the Nutty, Peanut butter and Jelly or chocolate Bismark. The best time to visit though is rainy days, when “everyone is sitting around together as a storm passes,” says Gibbons, because, after all it is about more than the donuts.
 

Read more articles by Jake Carah.

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