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Donut Savant brings Seattle-style donuts and artisan flavors to downtown Oakland

on August 10, 2012

There is a new injection of Seattle-style flavor and culture in downtown Oakland: Donut Savant.  The traditional coffee and donut joint serves coffee and scratch-made donuts prepared in small batches throughout the day by owner, Laurel Davis, who lived in Seattle for 15 years before “love and better weather” drew her down to Oakland two and a half years ago. She opened her shop this May.

Donut Savant is an artisan gourmet donut shop. Donut “wholes” made from a buttermilk cake batter are topped with the traditional glazed, cinnamon sugar, powdered sugar or chocolate that donut fans expect. But adventurous eaters can also get frosted coconut, salted maple, buttercream candied ginger, s’mores, lemon zest and key lime donuts.

The shop’s signature donut wholes are thicker cake-style donuts shaped into a ball.  They have a velvety chewy exterior and a dense but fluffy interior. Most of Donut Savant’s ware come in the whole shape, though Davis does offer a standard ring-shaped yeast-raised donut in glazed and chocolate. The donut wholes are sold individually, placed daintily on a paper doily. The prices range from 50 cents to just under $2.

“In Seattle, coffee and donuts are a big staple and I got into that,” said Davis who was a big fan of Top Pot and Mighty-O.  “I’ve always loved donuts.  I moved here and I tried to find my donut shop. I did quite a lot of donut research, in terms of trying to find a donut shop, here and I couldn’t really find my spot. So I started making donuts and it snowballed from there.”

On a recent Tuesday morning, by about 9 am Donut Savant’s entire case is almost sold out after only two hours of being open.  Davis is in the back whipping up another round of donut wholes while her assistant Fatima is serving the customers coffee and selling off the last few donuts to the lucky few with good timing. Despite the rush, Davis is quick to flash her signature radiant smile and greet customers with the warmth and care you would expect from your favorite cousin.

Some people walk in, see the state of the case, and walk out.  The regulars are more patient. A man in a hurry buys a cup of coffee and says, “Well, good for you.”  He’ll be back.

“The success you’re having is amazing,” says Michael Thwaites, who has stopped in on his way to work at the California Digital Library.  While stirring his cup of coffee with a mixing stick, Thwaites explains why an almost-empty case doesn’t bother him.  “It’s a very different style.  It’s more of a pastry than a donut shop.  The coffee is really excellent and the people are really nice,” he says.  Thwaites’ favorites are the chocolate-covered traditional yeast-raised donuts and the chocolate with cream.

“You sold out of donuts?” customer Bruce Luber asks Fatima. He works across the street at Sears Optical, but he doesn’t have to be in just yet, so he grabs a chair and pulls out the novel “Earth” by David Brim from his backpack.  “Well, I’ve got no where else to be for a while.  I can sit for a half an hour,” he says.

Luber ‘s patience is rewarded.  Before he heads to work, he buys two chocolate frosted and one vanilla donut.  “It’s the only place that looked like it had any food around here,” said Luber.

This is exactly what Davis intended when she opened up her shop at 1934 Broadway Street. Lee’s Donuts & Ice Cream used to be at the location before the owners closed up shop to migrate down to Texas.  Donut Savant is located behind the northeastern location of the 19th Street BART station, a perfect place to catch people as they come and go from downtown, which lately has been a mixed blessing.

“I wanted to create an environment where people could go and hang out,” says Davis.  “I remember in my business plan I said, ‘I want to have exceptional donuts and coffee, and an inviting space where people feel comfortable and they could come in and enjoy.’”

Kenneth Adams is one of the customers that Davis inherited from the previous shop.  The retired gentleman says he’s been coming to the location for coffee every day for years before he hops on the BART to head to San Francisco. “I was startled by the change,” said Adams.  “It’s comfortable for dining.  I think they even put in Wi-Fi.  The owners are very nice people and the coffee is excellent.  The style of the donuts are different.”

Adams likes the ability to keep his routine,  but he still practices restraint to keep his health challenges in check.  “One cup of coffee and a maple bar and I am good,” he says.

Stay-at-home mom Michelle Macarai and her toddler Willa snagged the last of the yeast-raised glazed donuts.  They came down from Temescal for an outing, and are hanging out in the lounge chairs at the front of the shop.  Willa is trotting around, pleased to be the new owner of a yeast-raised glazed donut whole.

“I talked with a friend from Seattle who said how great the donut places are up north and how the places down here don’t compare.  So when I heard the owner came from Seattle I said ‘Oh I wanna try it!’” says Macarai while keeping an eye on Willa, who is licking off donut glaze.

The space is light, airy, clean and friendly, and unlike other purveyors of fried goods, the donut shop doesn’t have that weird fryolator oil aroma reminiscent of supermarket bakeries.  In fact, there is no smell at all, except the faint aroma of coffee.  Davis, who is also an artist who makes “functional art, not fine art,” is responsible for the interior design of Donut Savant as well.  It is a mix of austere modern openness you would find in an art museum coupled with industrial-style furniture.  The tables have wooden and metal concrete tops crafted by Davis herself.  The bar table legs are made with repurposed water pipes.

Art, artists, and functional art making with salvaged goods all played a role in the creation Donut Savant.  Davis and her business partner Danielle Feinberg are part of a studio in Jingletown called The 519 Lancaster Laboratory.  Feinberg, who works at Pixar animation studios in the lighting department, also does painting, drawing and photography.  The two other studio members produce a small clothing line, sculpture and industrial jewelry.  Whenever they had an open studio, Davis would make her now-famous buttermilk cake donut wholes topped with cinnamon sugar, maple, and vanilla glaze.

“People loved the donuts,” says Davis. “That’s when I started thinking … people really like them—maybe I could have a donut shop.”

At the time Davis, who is originally from Las Vegas and didn’t go to culinary school, was working full-time in business development for a large company.  While on a two-week vacation from work, fate struck. “I was looking on craigslist for donut anything, and this donut shop was on there,” says Davis.  “I just thought it was hilarious that there was a donut shop on craigslist.  I drove down here and I was like, ‘This location is awesome!’  I thought the space had potential.  The next thing I knew, I quit my job and started painting.”

Feinberg’s fellow creative colleagues at Pixar played a role as well.  Davis was experimenting with recipe combinations and was making way too many for her, Feinberg and their friends to eat.  So Feinberg started to bring boxes of the donuts to Pixar, each box of one flavor made two different ways for her co-workers to try. But there was a catch: They had to put in a little work.

“There’s a lot of good foodies on the team,” says Feinberg. “We set up a tasting station at work.  You have to choose one flavor and try both ways it’s done and give notes.”

Feinberg laughs at the idea.  Her team at Pixar was working on “Brave,” and she says everyone was super busy.  She had no idea if anyone would participate. But, she says, “People got so into it. We got essays.  They would go on and on, and it was really hysterical.”

Now business is brisk and Davis is scurrying to keep up with the demand as the word gets out in the area.  According to Davis, freshness is critical, so she doesn’t use mixes and she still does all the cooking herself.  Sometimes on Fridays—their busiest day— Feinberg will come in to help. “I will probably hire somebody to help [cook] on a part-time basis at some point,” says Davis.

In the meantime, Davis is considering adding a donut ice cream sandwich to the menu once she has some time and finds the right local ice cream maker for a partner.

Being a donut-making entrepreneur is hard work, but Davis finds it worth it. “Every time I drive down Telegraph, I see the Fox Theater and the ‘Oakland’ lit up. I love it.  It’s an exciting area and there’s a lot going on.  It’s awesome.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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