We live in a golden age of golden-fried dough. Today, most donut lovers have access to major national chains turning out consistent if somewhat “same ‘ole” tastiness and independent shops proffering designer donuts, the maple-bacon and cranberry-pistachio creations made with organic flour (that cost about $4 each).
But in the middle of this sugar-coated spectrum, between “Big Donut” and fancier fare, sit spots like Shelley’s Donuts in Montgomery.
From her shop on the edge of a strip mall, Shelley Dao has been captivating the Capital City with her donuts since 2007.
The glazed, vanilla-cream-filled, chocolate iced and rainbow-sprinkled circular confections filling her glass cases are basic, but they’re beloved, at least among those lucky enough to make it to the shop before about 9 to 9:30 a.m., the time window in which Shelley’s usually sells out.
Those who arrive after each day’s donut disappearance leave exhibiting obvious signs of disappointment. They pull in the parking lot, see the “sold out” sign, hang their head, and put the car back in drive. A few desperate souls get out of their car, peer inside (in case the sign is somehow a holdover from yesterday?) but then, see the zero-donut reality, sigh and slow-walk away, their breakfast dreams dashed.
Those who got their hands on Shelley’s Donuts likely arrived as early as 6 a.m.; she opens at 5 a.m. Whether they walk away happy or empty-handed, they all come for what many claim are the city’s best donuts.
“I always get the donut holes; they’re the best thing ever, best I’ve ever had, honestly,” says customer Anthony Cornett. “They’re always fresh. I love the breakfast sandwiches too. (Shelley’s also offers kolaches and croissants filled with eggs, a selection of meats and cheese.) She just does a great job with everything. This is only place I come to now.”
“They are the best in town. Big, fresh. Like regular donuts on steroids,” says Ashley Stubbs, echoing Cornett and naming her favorite as the cinnamon-sugar, dusted in the warm spice and a just-right sprinkling of sweetness.
Devoted fans liken the apple fritters to mom’s apple pie and describe the chocolate-iced crullers as rich without being overly saccharine.
The flavor is only half the equation; Shelley’s Donuts are equally revered for their texture. That’s what first grabbed Greg Hendrix, a nine-year regular.
“They are just so fluffy,” he says. “That’s what I love.”
Dao had no qualms about sharing her secret to the softness and size, noting that creating a unique mouthfeel is intentional.
“I want my donuts to be a little different from others,” she says. “I add a little more yeast and a little more water to the dough.”
Just how much water and at what temperature depends on the season.
“I judge by the weather. In the hot summer, I only add cold water,” she says.
According to Dao, another ingredient in her recipe for success is her friendly banter with patrons.
“I like to chat with and joke with my customers; they’re like family,” she says.
And after 15 years of making such sought-after donuts, she has a lot of regulars. Many, like Stubbs, leave with multiple boxes, plus something extra: Shelley added a surprise bag of donut holes to Stubbs’ order of four dozen glazed, saying “Those are just for you!” The tiny nuggets were appreciated. “I got the glazed to take to the Elmore County Courthouse staff,” Stubbs says, “but I’ll keep the holes for me for sure!”
Her order may sound like a lot but not to Dao. “That’s not a big order,” she says. “Many get seven dozen, 10 dozen.” The glazed are the most popular, and Friday is usually her busiest day of the week. “Then, I don’t even have time to stand still,” she says.
But, as a one-woman operation, her schedule is often hectic and long. Dao goes through about 100 pounds of flour daily, arriving at 12 a.m. and mixing, cutting, frying and icing through the night and pre-dawn hours to create the treats her customers crave.
The shop officially closes at noon, but is often locked up hours before then, as soon as the last donut is sold. Then it’s home to tackle housework and other “to-dos” for her two kids still living at home. (Two others are adults on their own.) “I usually head to bed around 3:30 p.m. or so,” she says.
One factor driving Dao is her history. Originally from Cambodia, she, along with her parents and siblings, barely escaped the tyrannical rule of Pol Pot and the Cambodian genocide in the late 1970s.
“I was 12, and we made it out to Thailand, then to the United States, to Houston, Texas, in 1980,” she says.
Dao learned the donut trade, driving hours to another Texas town to study under cousins who’d opened a shop and found success. In 2005, she came to Montgomery as a single mom, where her sister already lived and had also opened a donut shop called G&S Donuts with her husband. She worked with them for about a year, and then opened Shelley’s in 2007, getting her building ready and perfecting her donut recipe on her own.
Dao calls herself a survivor and draws strength from the struggles of her past. Yet, she doesn’t dwell on them. Every day is fresh, starting with a fresh donut.
“People don’t believe me, but I eat one of my donuts, usually a glazed and maybe a donut hole, every single day,” she says. “I taste it, and it is good, and that makes me happy.”
Walking out front in the mornings and seeing sleepy faces brighten with anticipation also makes her smile.
“It is hard work, but every day, I get my donuts in the cases and look at them, and they look good,” Dao says. “Then, at 5 a.m., I unlock the door, and I see the customers rushing in, and they are so happy to get my donuts. That makes me the most happy. It is why I do this.”
65 Federal Drive, Montgomery, Alabama
Open daily, 5 a.m. to noon (or until sold out)