Once, Sawadi Chia noticed a woman crying softly over an apple pie.
Before she left Chea’s Durham Donut Shop, she told him it reminded her of her favorite pastry, the one she ate while growing up in upstate New York, a remembrance covered in a subtle sheen of sweet glaze and peppered with cinnamon.
“It’s touching,” Chia said of those moments. “This is the best part of the job. The food is a magical thing, it is special.”
In an escape, voters declared Chea’s Early Bird Donuts the winner of the Triangle Donut Bracket, prevailing as the area’s favorite donut shop. Early Bird collected 89% of the final vote to take the donut crown over runner-up Donut Duck Donuts.
Chia said he was grateful for the love of the donut and the thousands of votes, but said a tiara is a heavy thing to wear.
“I think they’re good, they’re really good,” Chia said. “But there are a lot of really good donuts out there.”
Early Donut Dreams
Early Bird opened in Durham in 2017 on the Erwin Terrace development near Duke University Hospital and the school’s west campus.
But the chia donut dreams began a decade ago. In 2007 he graduated from Northeastern University in Boston with a BA in Graphic Design. He found a scientist in the early stages of stagnation and a dearth of jobs.
“I haven’t found anything for a year,” Chia said. Then an uncle from California moved to Little Rock to open a donut shop and called me. He said, “Look, come over here, you can learn a new trade.” I had nothing to lose.
Chia, who grew up in the Northeast, said his childhood relationship with donuts was Dunkin’ Donuts. Chain locations may sometimes appear across the street from each other.
“If I went to someone’s house, there was always a box of Dunkins,” Chia said, noting that his favorite yeast was coconut yeast. “This was just a New England thing.”
He said Chea’s uncle learned to make donuts in California’s donut scene, which is 80% owned by Cambodian immigrants. This legacy traces back to Ted Ngwe, a Cambodian refugee whose story is chronicled in a PBS documentary, “The Donut King.”
“It’s a great story,” said Chea, whose family is from Cambodia. “He’s someone that not many people know about outside of California and Texas.”
We focus on the classics.
After three months working with his uncle, Chia opened his own shop, called Early Bird Donuts. About 10 years ago, Chea sold the store and moved to Triangle, opening the new Early Bird in 2017.
“The way I describe it, it’s California style,” Chia said. “We focus on the classics, everything is fresh. I just make what I think tastes good to me.”
The classics include plain glazes that are light and crunchy like nothing else in the world of donuts. truly.
The box includes a mix of yeast cakes and cookies, including aged sour cream and raspberries, as well as a sprinkle of strawberry, bacon, and maple bacon stuffed with sweet lemon curd or Bavarian cream.
“It’s more like comfort food,” Chia said. “It’s a special treat. Almost everyone I know, they have a story about cake.”
Chea said to his wife, the donuts are a reminder to get the chocolate cake after they grow up doing dance lessons.
Through the doors of Early Bird, Chia sees a sweet side of a typical Durham day. Plastic surgeons, construction workers, and nurses from nearby Duke Hospital stop to take cakes after a 12-hour shift. On the weekends, it’s young families, kids wearing baseball cleats after a T-ball game, and Duke students rushing for an exam.
“Everyone seems happy,” Chia said.
One of the regular Early Bird players, Chia said, is Duke University men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was stopping by Sunday after church for glazed donuts and cinnamon rolls before the pandemic.
“Once upon a time he was waiting in line and half the people didn’t notice,” Chia said of the basketball legend. “Then a student from Duke University came and took a look and got scared.”
Early Bird sometimes means Chea arrives at the store in the middle of the night to get ready for the busy days. Even now, after a decade of making cake, he said, he’s still negotiating the mix, and continues to call it that it’s closer to perfection. In the summer months, that means wrestling with a dough that rises very quickly, tormented by the dampness of Durham.
“It’s not totally an obsession,” Chia said. “We’re always adjusting the recipe, trying to find the perfect ratio.”
Chia said he built Early Bird to be the kind of place that makes regulars, where they learn names and orders and the store feels like something in common rather than owned. He couldn’t say he was shocked that it was called my favorite cake shop in the area.
“I’m glad people took the time to vote for us, but I’m not surprised,” Chia said. “I am 40, but I remember a time when I went out to eat and the people who worked there remembered your name and the names of your children….I think I’m trying to instill those values.”
Runners-up: Duck Donut
At the start of the Triangle Donut Bracket, it seemed guaranteed that North Carolina’s famous donut giant would end up in the final.
It ended up happening, but it wasn’t Krispy Kreme.
Duck Donuts has grown from an attractive beachside destination in the Outer Banks to an international donut empire, with more than 100 locations across North America.
Brandon and Kelly Trimyer both own the three Triangle Duck Donuts locations. Some people bring seashells from the beach, but they bring the craving for cake.
“My husband and I started out as fans,” said Kelly Trimmer. “We were just customers lining up on the beach with everyone else.”
Kelly Trimeyer has a background in nonprofits and Brandon works in healthcare.
After a 2013 trip to the Outer Banks, Kelly said they noticed the Franchise tab on the Duck Donuts website. They opened their first location the following year in Curry, with two more followers.
“She just yelled Carrie for us,” said Kelly Trimmer. “What amazed us, looking at nearly 10 years ago, is that it was so customizable. The base is delicious, it’s not a heavy donut, but you can do whatever you want with it.”
Duck Donuts is known for making donuts to order, starting with a freshly fried base, then topped with icing, sprinkles, bacon bits, and nuts.
“We thought of cake as a treat,” Trimmer said. “It’s not an everyday thing, but something special, and an affordable luxury to take with coffee.”
Trimyer said there are two locations down the road from Triangle Duck Donuts, the first of which is likely to open next year.
“There have been a lot of challenges[in the past two years],” Trimmer said. “We are really flattered that society still loves us.”
This story was originally published April 22, 2022 4:02 pm.