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September 22, 2009
Lee's Donuts Turns 30

Alan Lee , a 3rd generation Chinese-Canadian grew up in Cumberland, BC, and has loved donuts all his life. He recalls one particular bakery of his childhood. If he pulled a bucket of weeds, or did a certain chore, he'd get a donut for a reward, and the thing that stands out most in his mind about that donut was that it was always fresh and hot. When he was 13 the shop closed and Alan spent the next ten years looking for a replacement so that he could get his donut fix, but alas, he could never find it. So one day he decided if he was ever going to eat the donut of his dreams again, he would have to make himself. Off he went to St. Paul, Minnesota to take a one month course in donut making, after which he returned to Vancouver to look for a place to open a bakery. He and wife Betty-Ann , whom he had met in 1967 at SFU, happened to come down to the Granville Island Public Market on its opening day, July 12th, 1979, and right away, they knew they had found their venue.  They signed a lease in August of that year and on September 22, Lee's Donuts of Granville Island was in business.

Little did they realize then what longevity their little shop would have. Thirty years later they are still going strong and have earned a reputation for selling the best donuts in Vancouver. To celebrate their anniversary they are having a small party down at Granville Island from Sept 22-25. You should go down there and say hi. They will both be on site at the shop each day (except Friday), and will sell you their homecuts donuts at the original 1979 price - 30 Cents. What a deal! But if you must, many of the other 20 or so flavours will be waiting too.

We talked with Alan and Betty-Ann. They have 30 years of stories to tell. Unfortunately we can only just give you some highlights. If you think of their lives as a big assorted box of donuts ... then these are some of the "bestbits".

Originals? Yes, we'd say so. We are one of the five original vendors still operating in the market ... Longliner Seafood, Olde World Fudge, Fraser Valley Produce, Duso's, and us. We've been through good times, bad times, but the donuts have always been there.

Our donut formula hasn't changed. We still make them by hand. They get rolled out by hand, cut by hand, and then fried. We went out and bought a machine once to automate the process. It lasted two days before we threw it out, went back to the hand method, and never looked back. The texture was wrong. You want the donuts to be soft on the inside, and a bit crunchy on the outside. Machines don't do that very well.

You have to eat a donut the day it is made. Preferably the same hour. You can't keep them. Our regulars, the donut connoisseurs, know to the minute what time their favourites are ready, and that's when they show up at our counter.

The honey dips are our big, hot sellers.   Literally.  They are at their peak of perfection between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m when they come out of the fryer. They have to be hot!! If you've never eaten one hot you don't know heaven. After we've been open about an hour, the hot jelly donuts come out. We use real fruit jam, as fresh as we can get, as local as we can get. It costs us more but the customers appreciate it.  And if you get here between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m., you could score a hot chocolate donut. Ohhhh... the chocolate ones are to die for!  You can smell that chocolate .....

Only bomb we ever had was a whole wheat yeast donut .. that and the oat bran one. It was the hippy, dippy era so we thought they would sell. We were wrong. What a disaster. 

A donut made from real ingredients is not bad for you.
One of our oldest regular customers is a Dean of Dentistry. Vegetarians can eat our donuts. We don't use any animal fats, only 100 percent vegetable shortening. Not so good for vegans though because we use fresh eggs.

We don't know how many donuts we sell in a day .  We've never counted ... No, no, we won't tell you. No, really, we CAN'T tell you because we make them to order and the amount changes hour to hour.  If it's quiet we make less. If it's busy we keep churning them out until the trays are filled. Whatever we don't sell at the end of the day goes to the Gospel Mission.

How much sugar do we buy? How much flour?  You'd have to ask our accountant. We can't even tell you how many blocks of yeast we buy or some donut man will be able to figure out our numbers. We got a phone call last week. Somebody wanted a detailed description of all our donuts, and all kinds of other information ... how to make one ... what sells well. The girl who answered the phone panicked. But we said, 'Don't worry. In the 30 years we've been in business lots of people have tried to copy what we do, mimicked our name and everything ... but they couldn't duplicate our philosophy, and so they never stayed open for very long.

Yes, we do have competitors. Tim Hortons.   But they are never going to allow a Tim Hortons on the Island. Do you think those guys are going to make their donuts by hand? Forget it. You know what they do? They make all their donuts in a central commissary in Ontario and then ship them F-R-O-Z-E-N across the country! Who wants to eat a donut like that when you can eat one that was freshly made minutes before? One that's still HOT!

And watch out for those ones that have an aftertaste of nutmeg. That's an old baker's trick to cover up the fact that their product has no natural flavour.

We're happy being a Mom and Pop shop.  We don't want to franchise. You can make a lot of money franchising, but then you lose control of the quality of the product. We're proud of what we sell. We like having just the one store where we know our regular customers, and you know, we think it's all we actually need.

Retiring? That's a hard question. Alan is having health problems. He's going to lose a kidney and will have have to go into hemodyalysis. But we can't blame this on the donuts. The doctors think it stems back to a case of untreated strep throat that Alan had at age 16. So the future is uncertain. We'd like to keep the shop open as long as possible. It's not just for us, or even our customers. Some of our employees have been with us for a very long time. For example our bakers, Alvin and Tim, started in 1982 and 1986 respectively. Carol our manager has been with us since 1987. Her wedding cake was made out of donuts. Donna, our "newbie", has been with us for nine years. Our employees love the business and they are like family to us. Maybe when it is time for us to quit one of them will want to keep it going. We hope so. Until then, appreciate the donuts while you can. 

One last thing ... The pumpkin donuts, the ones everyone waits for all year, will be here on October 1!  That's almost like.... tomorrow! We're excited!

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