CATCHING UP FROM NEW ORLEANS – The “hole” truth? I can’t resist a good donut – and size and looks don’t matter: It’s all about the taste.
The taste of the sour cream donuts and cream-filled ones at this teeny shop, Donut Land Express, in Bonifay, Fla., (84 miles or so west of Tallahassee) are “slap yo’ mama good,” as we say in the South.
Open till 2 p.m. – or “if the light’s on”
We were driving to Pensacola, a stop on our way to New Orleans to meet with the other food editors from around the country. My cousin Joan had a pot of chicken and dumplings and long-cooked pole beans waiting for us, so we weren’t ready to eat, but needed to gas up.
Just off I-10, on S.R. 79 in Bonifay, we headed north to scope out gas stations. It was close to 8:30 p.m., and we wanted to compare prices, so went past the first station, and past Simbo’s Steakhouse – it had a cool neon sign. But what was this across the street? “Hot coffee and donuts”- the cute red sign on a tiny shop flashed.
“Wanna go?” I asked Jimmy.
“Now? Are you serious!?” he rolled his eyes — he knew it was a rhetorical question. We were going. I did a U-turn and we pulled up in the pea-rock parking area.
I can smell a good story anytime I see signs of individually owned food shops, and especially, one that advertises donuts and has a jar of pickles on the counter, too.
There were lights on, and a guy wearing a baker’s apron at the front door. We asked if he were open. “Come on in!” he rushed behind the counter and asked, “What’ll you have?”
Old is relative here
“I’ve got some day-olds and some fresh sour creams, some blueberries and cream filled ones – I’ll show you. I’m only going to charge you 25 cents for day-olds. He pulled out a sheet pan full of beauties that had the characteristic crack on top — they split while frying. “The sour cream are our best sellers,” he said.
The day-olds were made that morning – and were, well, a day old by their standards. But they tasted as fresh as any donut I’ve ever had. Absolutely delicious – the tang of the sour cream, the tender, cakey texture with the ever-so slightest crunch on the outside and just a light glaze that pooled slightly in the crevice down the middle. This was a blissful mouth-moment.
Covel Gaddy is a quick study
We got our story – and photos – and a dozen great donuts.
The baker, Covel Gaddy, is originally from Rochester, N.Y., but grew up in South Carolina. He had come to Florida to take care of his father and twin sister, both of who now are gone. Gaddy stayed in Bonifay to be near relatives, and landed this job as a baker. In two weeks after arriving, he was putting out great donuts.
This earned the praise of the owner, who said he was the best baker they’d had in 17 bakers that had come through there.
Gaddy said he’d never before cooked donuts, “but I love it to death!”
Two hours to make a batch of donuts
He explained the process that takes two hours from start to finish.
“First, it’s 30 minutes mixing the ingredients. Then 30 minutes resting in the pot (giant mixer bowl), 30 minutes on the table for the dough to rise, then I roll them and cut them, and then 30 minutes in the hot box (for the proofing). They cook two or three minutes and I glaze them, and put the filling in ’em. That’s it!”
Recipe is from Germany
Just about that time, the owner walked in: John L. Smith. Smith opened the shop “two years and two months” ago, he said.
“I learned about donuts when I was stationed (in the Army) in Heidelburg, Germany in ’95-’96. I became friends with a local baker and watched him, and learned the recipe there.”
He returned to his hometown, and eventually opened this shop and started selling hot dogs (pastry-wrapped dogs with cheese and jalapenos) and doing the donuts. The donuts have taken off — word of mouth (literally) has people swarming the store from the earliest hours to afternoon.
“We’re open 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., but if you see the main light on, just knock and we’ll open up for you,” he said.
Hot dogs are soon going to be a thing of the past. “I’m going to stop selling anything but donuts and just focus on them,” he said. “I have to have more time to bake.”
Get ’em on Alice Beach, and near Fort Rucker, too
“We sell them out of the truck on 30-A, on Alice Beach. It’s called Charlie’s Donut Truck – we opened it in June and it just took us by storm – we sold out all the time. It’s seasonal, though — once the University of Alabama goes back to school, it’s over at the beach. It’s only open next year March through August.
“We have another place in Daleville, Ala., outside Fort Rucker’s main gate. It’s busy, too.”
The Big Birthday Donut
For your birthday, you can order the Birthday Donut – it’s about 8-inches across and several inches tall. They glaze it with chocolate and put sprinkles all over it, and candles. “People love those – you can eat the whole thing, and don’t have birthday cake laying around.” It’s $8 and requires a days’ notice.
“What sets you apart?’ I asked.
“We like to touch every part of what we do. We measure out the flour by hand, we get good, fresh ingredients, and do it all by hand — we don’t use machines here to cut them or have a mechanized frying system or glazing system. Somebody is personally cutting them, and frying them, and putting a glaze on them.”
He likes to think his customers can tell the difference in his donuts and those from the chain shop down the street, and he promised they’d be “really good.”
Trust me: they were. My cousins approved and were contemplating a trip there next time they had to go to Crestview. I may hit it on the way back to West Palm Beach.
So go knock on his door if you see the main light in the shop on. And say “hi” to the guys for me.
Donut Land Express
- 1902 S. Waukesha St. (State Road 79), Bonifay, FL
- Phone: (850) 547-2960
- Hours: 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. (After hours: knock if the light is on, and they’ll open for you.)
- Donuts are 65 to 75 cents each; donut holes are $1.20 a dozen.