The audacity of the independent donut
June 10th, 2011
08:00 AM ET
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This summer, CNN's Defining America project will be traveling the country with the CNN Express bus to explore the stories behind the data and demographics that show how places are changing. This week, CNN brings you coverage from North Carolina.

If you eat doughnuts in Greensboro, North Carolina, chances are you head to Krispy Kreme.

The king of the hot glazed doughnut was founded just 30 miles away, in Winston-Salem, in 1937. Since then it's gained a loyal following regionally, and more recently, nationally and internationally. The first Krispy Kreme in New York City opened in 1996, and the first non-U.S. store opened in Toronto in 2001.

So what on earth would possess someone to open a little, independent doughnut shop in the land of Krispy Kreme?

Lean Ly, a woman who did just that, must know the answer. Her business, Donut World, opened in Greensboro last year. When I asked her if she was nervous about competing with doughnut giant Krispy Kreme, especially so near its headquarters, she smiled and answered, simply, no.

"I'm confident in my product," she added with a shrug.

Ly says what separates her doughnuts from the Krispy Kreme variety is their freshness. They're homemade from scratch on the premises every day. She says the apple fritter, for example - a customer favorite - has "a lot of apple," more than many other commercially available treats.

donut world

Perhaps part of Ly's confidence in Donut World comes from her background within in that very niche. She grew up in California, where her family owned a doughnut shop, and she uses the same family recipes at Donut World now. Plus, she says she's very much "into the business" aspect of owning and running the shop.

Donut World is small and unassuming, tucked into an old strip mall in the Guilford College area of Greensboro. There are only a couple of tables for seating. But on the day we visited, Ly had a steady flow of customers, most ordering an assortment of doughnuts to take home - with more than a few apple fritter requests.

Much of the shop's business is from regulars like Jennifer Short, a Greensboro resident who comes in for a treat "at least three or four times a week." And Ly says she has loyal customers who come from as far away as Asheboro - about 30 miles to the south - to get their doughnut fix.

"I really love my customers," she says, adding that the people she meets are the best part of owning a doughnut shop.

Is this customer loyalty enough for Donut World to compete with chains like Krispy Kreme?

Well, business is "good and bad," says Ly. "It's not the best." She tries to straddle the line between making a profit and not setting her prices too high. The day we visited, I bought a dozen doughnuts for $7.64 - about the same price I would have paid at a nearby Krispy Kreme. And even with business being less than ideal, Ly has recently opened a second location in Greensboro and plans to expand further in the future.

But perhaps the most important question of all: How do the doughnuts stack up? I gathered some colleagues for a taste test - which didn't take much convincing.

The light, airy glazed yeast doughnut was comparable to Krispy Kreme's original glazed - and coming from someone who was raised on those, that is praise of the highest order. It was a bit lighter in both texture and flavor than a Krispy Kreme, which could be a pro or a con, depending on your doughnut preferences.

The glazed cake doughnuts - we sampled chocolate and blueberry - were very fresh but otherwise average, as were the custard-filled doughnuts. If you prefer cake doughnuts to the yeast variety, try the unglazed cinnamon cake doughnut; it's almost like a slice of crumbly coffee cake in doughnut form.

The two standouts were the customer-beloved apple fritter and the buttermilk doughnut. The fritter did indeed have plenty of fresh apple flavor, balanced out but not overwhelmed by cinnamon and plenty of crunchy glaze. And the buttermilk doughnut was denser than most of the others but with a very light, not overly sweet flavor - a surprise to most of us.

Perhaps that's just what independence tastes like.

Poll - What's your favorite kind of doughnut? (Or is that "donut" to you?)

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soundoff (158 Responses)
  1. Mark

    Can't wait for the gourmet doughnut shop to open downtown charleston!


    June 14, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
  2. frank

    I Keep My Money In The Local Small Town Bank. I Spend My Money At The Local Mom And Pops Businesses,from What Groceries I Need To The Pharmacy To Get My Meds. Heck With All Them Big Stores And Franchises. The Local Merchants Know Me By Name,and By God If For Some Unearthly Reason I Had No Money,checks Or Credit Cards, My Local Yokels Would Make Sure I Got What I Needed. Krispy Kreme Does Make A Heck Of A Donut,but After All,arent We The Fattest Country In The World??? The Citezens Of This Country Are Committing Suicide By Overindulding. Donuts? Really? Mc Donaldr And Bk Are The World Leaders In The Hamburger Industry. They Also Buy All The Beef Eyeballs They Can,thru The Hocus Pocus Of Organic Chemistry You Get An Organic Chemical Laced Eyeball Sammich. Dont Believe Me? Ok. Go To Mickey D's. Grab A Burger. Heres Lookin At You.

    June 14, 2011 at 3:21 am |
  3. John (Raleigh NC)

    KK are yummy when fresh and warm, but ALL donuts are yummy when fresh and warm. When cooled, KK are hard-shelled toxic waste! And nobody at KK has a clue how to make coffee. Of the chains, DD is far and away the best!

    June 13, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  4. Tank

    I first tried KK when i was visiting my uncle in Vegas as a kid. I love them fresh but any older than an hour or so and they arent that great. I love voodoo in Portland Or. Fun place and great taste! @cellisiti if you want health food go to a place that serves health food. Sweets arent an everyday thing but when a person would like to treat themselves to something sinfully delicious they dont want to go to a doughnut shop to eat healthy.

    June 13, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  5. Puddin

    Mmm Krispy Kreme bread pudding! Only once a year, though, at Christmas.

    June 13, 2011 at 7:56 am |
  6. Greensboro Daily Photo

    Thank you CNN for featuring a GREENSBORO (NC,USA) business. We love this hometown, slice-of-life segment to CNN. Keep it us and do stop back by Greensboro when you get a chance.

    June 12, 2011 at 8:48 am |
    • Greensboro Daily Photo

      That should be "up."

      June 12, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  7. Suzanne

    Sorry, folks, Krispy Kreme is the fast food of donuts. The best donuts in the world are at the Donut Dinette in Norfolk, Virginia. Only one variety – deep fried and glazed. Pure heaven.

    June 12, 2011 at 5:58 am |
  8. skinnyJohn

    Sorry – at the ideal healthy weight.

    June 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  9. skinnyJohn

    What an obsession with donuts!? Dump them and eat a healthy treat and maybe American will loose the "land of the fat asses" moniker. It sounds like most of you visit the the donut shop frequently. Now tell me you all are at the idea healthy weight so I can have a good LOL.

    June 11, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Jules Winfield

      Give me your address and I'll bring over some donuts. I'll kick the living crap out of you and eat next eat the donuts as you watch through the one eye that isn't so swollen you can't see.

      August 15, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  10. Cait

    Krispy Kreme is by far my least favorite in the do-nut industy. They put WAY to much sugar in the batter and glazes. I like the light, less glazed flavor in my donut. For the larger donut producers, I prefer Dunkin', but my favorite is a more local business located here in central Texas, Shipley's. They have delicious fresh donuts as well a some magnificent kolaches that I dream about for Sunday breakfasts.

    June 11, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  11. PortlandtoBaltimore

    I am born and raised in Portland, OR now living on the East coast, and let me say VOODOO Donut is the BEST!!!!!!!!! If you're ever in Oregon it's a place to visit. Yum!

    June 11, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  12. Mamie

    Obama eats chocolate donut holes.

    June 11, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  13. hmmm

    Duncan Donuts...yes...the company that wll someday have a store in every home!

    June 11, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  14. beth

    I live in Greensboro and have always enjoyed a donut, but never got KK. Just had my first DW donut three months ago and I'll never go back! The kruellers literally melt in your mouth!!

    June 10, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  15. Bobby

    I live about 1 mile from Donut World. Their buttermilk donut with maple glaze is nearly orgasmic.

    June 10, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  16. Kimberly

    Not a Krispy Creme fan, nor do I care for those "fancy" over sugared donuts that put breakfast cereal on top for nolvety. I guess that type of donut isn't new to me since we have VooDoo Donuts where I live, but even they are getting old. I guess something that may be more novel is to go back to the tradional homemade donuts and leave out the crap!

    June 10, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
  17. Doh!nut

    Voodoo Donuts in Portland,OR has been doing wild donuts longer than anyone. Try their maple bar with bacon on top or their Memphis Mafia mmmm so good! They also do marriages.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  18. J

    I live outside of Indianapolis – everyone always raves about the donuts from Long's Bakery. I've never been, but I know that CNN did an article about the best donuts in the USA and they got more letters written in about how they could have left Long's off the list than any other donut in the country. Hmmm...guess I need to try them!

    June 10, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  19. franky

    I likes burrito boys dognuts

    June 10, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  20. Martin

    I live in Greensboro and I must say that the donut's at DW are AMAZING! Especially the Buttermilk Glaze. Fantastic Donut. I think I might just have to stop there on the way home. Yummy!

    June 10, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  21. May

    Doughnut Planet in NYC is by far the best. I don't even like doughnuts that much but their coconut cream filled square ones are revolutionary. Voodoo is fun and quirky, but the only doughnut that isn't sickenly sweet is the bacon maple bar (super yummy but is just bacon on top of regular maple bar).

    June 10, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  22. John

    Lived in Greensboro and other places in NC for 13 years and only once did I go to a Krispy Kreme store. Most North Carolinians are just as happy to get a box of glazed KK at the grocery store.

    June 10, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  23. mikeonthebay

    KK tastes like crap.

    June 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Fighting Foos

      C'mon. Let's be accurate here: deep fried, glazed crap.

      June 10, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  24. nelli

    Well, one thing is for sure.....I want a donut.

    June 10, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Jerv

      Haha! Especially after looking at that photo.

      June 10, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  25. nitsed

    Shipley's is the best chain donut that I've experienced, and The Donut Plant here in NYC crushes every donut place I've ever been to. They turn Donuts into an art form.

    June 10, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  26. Matt

    Krispy Kreme is just a plain old glazed donut. I've them here and there, always bought by someone else as I wouldn't go out of my way for them. I'm hope this woman's business thrives so that people can have an alternative. As a donut lover myself, I find it harder and harder to find an independent donut shop that sells quality. No, the grocery store or Wal Mart bakery do not cut it.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  27. PoppaBear

    The author missed out – Donut World's three best donuts are their glazed old fashioned (rivals Seattle's Top Pot's o.f.), unglazed French krueller, and glazed buttermilk, in that order. They only hit #3.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
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