I’d heard the rumors. But I needed to see it for myself before I was sure.
Within the Pittsburgh confection scene, there is a donut shop legendary for selling out within hours of opening… every single day. By the time the door is unlocked at 6:00 A.M., there is already an antsy line of customers queuing for donuts.
Perched on a winding curve on Steuben Street in Crafton Heights, the Better-Maid Donut Company has been a staple in the area for decades. Generations of families have peered at the trays (and trays) of homemade donuts, located inside a tantalizing display case in the one-room shop.
That is assuming, of course, that they get there on time.
The shop is open from 6:00 in the morning “until the donuts run out.” When that is exactly, depends on the day.
“Some days you’re sold out by 7:30, some days it’s 9:30, 10:30. Yesterday it was 11:30 when we shut the doors,” says owner and donut baker Ken Smith. “But it’s the best feeling in the world because you’re making everybody smile.”
For a tiny, one-man operation, Better-Maid offers an impressive selection of donuts. There are cinnamon rolls. Eclairs. Cake donuts. Raised donuts. Boston Cream. Coconut. Cinnamon sugar. Powdered. Cherry cream. The most popular are the cake donuts – crispy on the outside, and topped with plenty of icing and jimmies.
Every single donut is made fresh daily by Smith, who has owned the shop for 15 years, but never lets things get boring.
“Everyday I do something different,” says Smith. “I try to make apple fritters four days a week, but you’ve also got to do the cinnamon rolls and donut holes and everything else. Just mix it up a little so no ones get bored.”
The donut holes are hugely popular, and usually the first item to sell out. By my calculations, every single customer who walks through the door immediately asks if there are any left. If you get to Better-Maid any later than 8:00 A.M., and the answer is probably no.
“The donuts holes…” an elderly couple anxiously asks as they stroll through the door on a blistering February morning.
“Gone,” Smith immediately laments.
Just like the baking, there is a science to serving customers at Better-Maid.
“I’m like the bartender,” says Smith. “You can see what everyone wants. It’s written all over their face.”
Most mornings, the atmosphere in the tiny shop is electric, with a nonstop line of customers queuing for their donuts. While some know exactly what donuts they want, most asked for a “mixed dozen” and let Smith, or his assistant Rose, do the picking.
Even this has a system.
“You try to alternate chocolate, vanilla, chocolate, vanilla. You want to make it as colorful as can be,” says Smith. “If you have a strawberry, or something with a little flavor, put it on the side so when they open up the box…” Smith trails off, inhaling deeply the imagined scent of fried donuts.
“You tease them a little. Gotta make it irresistible. That’s the fun part.”
Once boxed, Smith then ties the donut package up with string, if asked. If you want to make it home before indulging in a donut, the string is a necessary security device. But be warned – the smell is tantalizing.
“Some guy says to me, ‘Why do you tie the box up like that, you know that’s like texting and driving?'” Smith recalls with a laugh.
The operation at Better-Maid may be down to a science, but every trip to the shop will surprise you. Like Smith throwing an extra donut in your dozen. Or Rose slipping a donut into the mailbox for the postman.
“He needs donut too,” she adds with a wink.
Better-Maid is open Tuesday – Sunday, starting at 6:00 A.M. But you’d better run, not walk, to get some.
Better-Maid Donut Company (1178 Steuben Street)
John R Bayerlein says
Loved your article. I spent my entire childhood living near and around that donut shop. My mother and brothers and sister lived across the street and all that time it was considered Elliott, not Crafton. It was always ours to claim, as a neighborhood and I believe your location is wrong. I live in Virginia Beach, VA now but return to my boyhood home to visit all my family, who still live there. I love articles such as yours because it brings back great memories of a city I love.
If you’re coming up Steuben St from the West End, Elliot ends at Herschel St and Crafton Heights starts. So, the shop is in Crafton Heights (according the the city maps).
Thanks for this article!
I’ve got a deal with my cousin’s daughter to take me there upon our next visit to Pittsburgh. I’m so excited to get there and have have another great experience with my family.
Love them donuts you can really tell there made with love
Nan Hamler says
My husband comes from Pittsburgh where his dad and brother and many many cousins still live. The next time we come up I’ll make sure we pay you a visit after reading this article that he posted.
Kevin Lenz says
We used to go there when we lived in Elliot, but if I stop by now they are NEVER open! Not even when I stop early in the morning. I’ve given up.
Mary digiulio says
If this is same donut shop on Steuben st my dad took me there almost every Sunday after church. Long lines but the best doughnuts. I’ll have to go there again. Take my grandkids.
My mother and I worked at this store back in the 60’s. The donuts were hand made by a young man still in high school It was like watching a orchestra director. He used two sticks like what a drummer would use to turn them in the hot oil. Wonderful memories. Mom and I were there to wait on people. But many times filled and iced them. Also had to keep a big supply of constructed boxes. WTG mr Smith
My dad and uncle worked here back in the 1950’s when it was formally known as Evergood Donut! Great donuts!
Sharon zemon says
True Torture was riding a bus to work And passing the donut Shoppe every day! Thank God I lived on Linwood in Crafton when I had kids, it was a great treat! When I moved to St Augustine I met a customer I sold furniture to…when I took his name….hum I know that name from Pgh. ! ? Oliverio? YepYep he was the Electrician from below the donut shop!!!! Once a Pittsburgher youvwill find another one where ever you go!
My family and I grew up in crafting heights and our folks used to take us there bout once a month. One time when they were getting ready to close for the day we stopped in and bought everything they had left and my Dad asked if we could see how they make donuts. The owners let all ten of us kids ( I have 10 siblings) in back and actually made us a dozen for free to show us how they were made. To this day I have never tasted a better batter glazed donut. Love that place.
Its hard to get because hours aren’t consistent but I still try. I’m 77 lived in Crafton Heights and was a wkend treat. Now I live near airport but still drive in to get them. My son worked in Annapolis and we were going down for his 40th and he made sure I had donuts really nice guy and LOVE their donuts
If I had two nickels to rub together as a kid, it was worth the long, uphill walk from Elliott for the donut holes….
Kevin McKnight says
Well, unfortunately they’re not open every day. In fact they seem to not open at all many times. Their donuts are still the best, but I’ve walked or driven down (living only 5-10mins up Steuben Street) numerous times in recent years, a few weeks ago at 7am on a Thursday morning and not a light on in the place.