Lisa Tucker started her career as a court reporter and legal secretary, but it wasn’t long before she felt the pull of the family business.
“This is home,” she said of Bill’s Donuts, the Centerville fixture that got Ohio’s only mention in foodie magazine Saveur’s recent list of America’s 50 top doughnut shops.
Tucker and her brother, Jim Elam, are the second-generation owners of Bill’s. Their parents, Bill and Faye Elam, founded the shop in 1960; it previously had locations all around the area, including Wilmington, Kettering, Vandalia, Dayton, Lebanon and Middletown. The Centerville location is the only one remaining today, and the co-owners each live just a mile from the store in opposite directions.
The doughnut recipes have stayed the same for 53 years, Tucker said.
So what keeps people coming back decade after decade?
Saveur’s accolades aside, it’s not really the doughnuts. It’s the rare feeling of community in a world dominated by chain restaurants and big-box stores.
A group of six to 12 people attend Mass at Incarnation Parish every morning and then meet at Bill’s for doughnuts. Teens come in on Wednesday afternoons before religion classes at Incarnation. Widows and widowers frequently show up for doughnuts and somebody to talk to.
And for those living elsewhere who miss the Bill’s community, they can get it shipped to them. A young man who used to work at Bill’s joined the military, and Tucker now sends him doughnuts overseas. The shop worked with the Blue Star Mothers to ship 100 one-dozen boxes of doughnut holes to military members. Bill’s shipped some doughnuts to a customer’s nephew who works at the Pentagon, and the Pentagon sent back a flag that hangs framed on the wall at Bill’s.
“We’ve seen generations come through here,” Tucker said. “We’ve had baby showers, wedding showers, birthday parties. We have one customer who is 103 or 104 years old, and she comes in once a week with her sons.”
But the doughnuts themselves are popular, too. Saveur singled out the shop’s glazed pretzel doughnuts, and Bill’s has had a run on those ever since.
“When we have leftover dough and we don’t know what to make, we make those now.”
On Fridays, the most popular doughnuts historically have been traditional glazed doughnuts and doughnuts with sprinkles. During the week, the most popular choices seem to be the shop’s sour cream cake doughnuts and any type of filled doughnuts.
And no, Tucker isn’t sick of doughnuts — she still eats one every day. Her personal favorite is the cinnamon rolls.
After growing up with doughnuts and investing her life in them, however, there’s one thing Tucker has never done: make a doughnut at home. “I never needed to,” she said.
But if you’d rather fire up your home fryer than visit a doughnut shop, here’s a recipe from another source that you can try at home.
CHOCOLATE CAKE DOUGHNUTS
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened Dutch process cocoa
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 ½ cups sugar
1/3 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled a bit
Canola oil, for frying
Whisk flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk eggs, sugar, sour cream and butter. Stir wet ingredients into dry until well blended. Chill batter until cold, at least one hour.
Flour counter and scrape dough onto it. Flour dough and your hands. Gently pat dough until it is ½-inch thick. Using a doughnut cutter, cut doughnut shapes. Pat scraps of dough back together and cut again.
Fill a Doutch oven with 4 inches of oil. Heat oil to 375 degrees. Fry 4 or 5 doughnuts at a time, about 60 to 80 seconds per side.
Drain doughnuts on a stack of paper towels. Once cool, roll in glaze (see recipe).
SOURCE: Adapted from smittenkitchen.com
4 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Hot water, enough to make a thin glaze
Mix ingredients in saucepan. Keep warm on lowest setting on the stove.
Dip cooled doughnuts into glaze and dry doughnuts on cooling racks or parchment paper.
SOURCE: “Mennonite Girls Can Cook,” Herald Press, 2011
WATCH THE VIDEO
See the staff at Bill’s make the magic. View the video on our website under photos and video.