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)