Durham, N.C. — Small batches, lots of hard work and a made-from-scratch commitment sets Early Bird Donuts apart from other donut shops in the Triangle.
Sowadi Chea opened Early Bird Donuts, his own invention, on June 20 in a complex near Duke University, and his care and commitment to quality have paid off.
Chea is in the shop before dawn six days a week mixing flour and water, cutting dough and letting it rise. From start to finish, the donuts take about two hours to make per batch.
“Every day the donuts are different,” said Chea. “When you make donuts from scratch, so many factors go into the process — room and water temperature, weather and humidity all affect the product. Dough is really temperamental. All night as I am working with the dough, I’m asking it to cooperate. That’s what it takes to make a really good donut.”
Early Bird Donuts are California-style, which means they are large, light and airy.
Chea compares it to “biting into a cloud.”
The donuts come in a variety of flavors, including glazed, chocolate glazed, peanut butter cup, Oreo and many more. The catch is the fillings, which customers can use to personalize their donuts. Vanilla and chocolate fillings, along with lemon, cherry and raspberry can be hand-pumped by Chea or another server into each donut at the time it’s ordered.
A favorite is the Oreo donut topped with cookies and filled with vanilla icing or the peanut butter icing-topped donut stuffed with raspberry filling for a PB&J-type creation.
Chea calls the donuts “playful and nostalgic,” saying their flavors evoke childhood memories of soccer games, ballet classes and Saturday morning cartoons.
Originally from Boston, Chea opened his first donut shop in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 2012, he sold the business and moved to Chapel Hill, where he lives with his wife and two young kids. “The best thing I could think of to do was make donuts,” he said. “By then it was muscle memory.”
California donuts, Chea says, are a big deal. Before opening his first shop, Chea trained in Little Rock with his uncle, who owned stores in five states and is famous within the donut community.
“I have a lot of family members in the donut business,” said Chea. “In my opinion, I think California donuts are the best. They’re sort of their own culture. Early Bird Donuts are modeled after that.”
Since his June opening, Chea has embraced the Durham community.
“I just took an order from Duke University to make 1,300 donut holes for their freshman orientation,” said Chea. “It will take all night, but there’s nothing we can’t do. There are lots of other independent ‘mom-and-pop’ shops around here, and everyone has been really supportive.”
Early Bird Donuts is open Tuesday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on Sunday from 7 a.m. to noon. In addition to donuts, the menu offers coffee and breakfast biscuits and croissants.
Chea’s favorite donut? The sour cream old fashioned.
“I’ll eat a couple donuts a day to make sure they’re great,” said Chea. “I really enjoy making them, because every day is a challenge. I want to get as close to perfect as I can.”