January is a tricky month for new doughnut shops.
After indulging over the holidays, many people have sworn off sweets and are focused on diet and exercise, making this a tough time for even the tastiest treats.
That said, if you count yourself among the strong and able, then get ready for a true test of your resolve. Duck Donuts has opened and, man, they’re good.
Located next to Bonefish Grill in the Hamilton Corner shopping center on Gunbarrel Road, Duck Donuts offers something unique in Chattanooga: Fresh, made-to-order donuts.
Instead of arriving at the shop at 2 a.m. to make doughnuts (like poor Fred the Baker in the famous Dunkin’ Donuts commercial in the ‘80s), Duck Donuts makes your doughnut after you order it.
They then add the toppings you select. Basically, Duck Donuts is the Build-A-Bear Workshop of doughnut shops.
I was skeptical as I stepped into Duck Donuts during a media event last week. Chattanooga already has a number of excellent homegrown doughnut shops, including Koch’s Bakery on Broad Street, Julie Darling Donuts on Frazier Avenue and Tasty Donuts on Jenkins Road, and I wasn’t sure how a franchise would be able to compete in terms of taste.
Then there was the moment of disorientation I experienced as I entered the store. I’m used to seeing trays of cinnamon rolls, apple fritters and twisty goos when I enter a doughnut shop, but instead, a smiling staffer greeted me from behind an array of icings, sprinkles and drizzles.
Finding myself in an unfamiliar setting, I didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, a second beaming face called to me from behind the cash register and pointed to the menu.
The menu is there to jump-start the customer’s imagination. After seeing the photos of chocolate icing with rainbow sprinkles, lemon icing with raspberry drizzle and maple icing with chopped bacon, you’ll begin to grasp the possibilities.
Like s’mores? Then order a doughnut with chocolate icing, marshmallow drizzle and graham cracker crumbs. At Duck Donuts, creativity resides in the customers.
So, of course I ordered a cinnamon sugar doughnut. Although I was a little embarrassed about my lack of originality, the person behind the counter said, “Very good,” like a waiter at a fine restaurant.
Having placed my order, I started the stopwatch on my iPhone and stepped back to wait.
Placing my order set things in motion behind the counter, where another employee poured freshly made batter into a contraption that shapes, drops, fries and dispenses the doughnuts.
The girl who greeted me when I entered the shop then carried my doughnut (OK, it was two doughnuts; don’t judge me) to where the toppings waited and finished making my treat.
I must have turned red when she laughed and said I was standing on the long step that allows children to watch their doughnut being made. I hope she’s the one who has to clean all the little nose prints off the plexiglass, just for laughing at me.
After completing her handiwork, she asked me if she’d made the doughnuts to my liking. She had, so she handed them over like finely crafted sushi and told me to enjoy.
From start to finish, Duck Donuts delivered my order in just under five minutes.
They were worth the wait. Not only had the doughnuts been coated perfectly, but the outside of each doughnut was crunchy and the inside was soft and warm. The vanilla cake recipe was delicious and all but melted in my mouth.
My doughnuts were gone in less time than it had taken to make them and I was looking up the number of calories they contained to see if I could swing another one without ruining my day.
I chose to instead speak with co-owner Blake Beard, a Cleveland, Tennessee, resident and former eighth grade science teacher who opened the shop with his dad, Ken. (Ironically, Ken is a dentist. When I asked him if he’s hoping to drum up new clients by selling sugary confections, he only laughed.)
Duck Donuts has a brief history compared to places like Dunkin’ Donuts (70 years) and Krispy Kreme (83 years). Launched in 2007 by Russ DiGilio in Duck, North Carolina, the company has grown to 90 stores – counting Chattanooga’s.
Beard has wanted to own a restaurant since he was a child, but selling doughnuts had never crossed his mind until a shop in New York City blew him away. After trying Duck Donuts during a trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, in 2016, he knew he’d found his business.
In addition to doughnuts, Duck Donuts also sells coffee, espresso drinks and milkshakes from hand-scooped ice cream. (The days when I would have ordered a milkshake with my doughnuts are long gone.) Soon, you’ll also be able to order online and purchase doughnuts in bulk for an event.
If people in Chattanooga discover Duck Donuts and enjoy it as much as I did, I believe Beard and his father will do well. Their product is delicious and unique and creating your own doughnut can be fun.
I’m going to stick with cinnamon and sugar, though. It might not be original, but it’s what I like.