Food and Culture in the South:
Britt’s Donuts in North Carolina
The same smell of donuts frying has been wafting over the Carolina Beach Boardwalk every summer for seventy-three years. It’s a small boardwalk, a Legoland of tourism against the Atlantic Ocean. It’s seen a lot of crowds come and go, and in 2012 the souvenirs for sale are new batches of the same old things: booty shorts, sand pails, foam footballs, picture frames, a T-shirt with a squirrel holding two giant nuts around its groin. A person can go to an arcade here or get a henna tattoo; it’s a place that seems to reward the teenager. But the origin of the donut smell is a shop run by a pair of grandparents. Britt’s Donuts is the Boardwalk’s longest running business, the only one that’s been a consistent draw for both locals and tourists since 1939.
Bobby and Maxine Nevins are in charge of Britt’s, opening the shop’s garage doors every year from May to September. Bobby and Maxine, both born in small towns near Charlotte, each moved to Carolina Beach as children with their parents. The two were married in 1959, and in 1974, they bought the donut shop where Bobby used to work, and picked up where H.L. Britt, the shop’s original owner, left off.
Britt’s sells one kind of donut: a glazed, yeast donut that if eaten while hot will make every other donut one has ever eaten seem like a joker. That’s a big claim, but not when you’ve tasted their donut.
A Britt’s donut is delicate. You want to touch it lightly because it’s airy and warm and the glaze has just set and will melt again when it touches your fingers. The donut glistens. If you are patient enough to set it down between bites, it will sit on its square of wax paper and just shine. The outermost fried part has a subtle crunch, and the inside is so soft it feels liquidy, like custard on your tongue. The Nevins make a living off this one recipe and the smell of the donuts coming out of the fryer is their only advertisement.
The Nevins have tried to do things in much the same way as Mr. Britt did them. Britt advised Bobby to stick to one location, so he did, and he advised him to stick to one flavor: glazed. Thirty-eight years after taking over the shop, the Nevins still don’t mess with other flavors, or with payment methods other than cash, or with air-conditioning. The shop relies on two ceiling fans and one stand-up to cut the heat of summer coming in from outside. In the hottest months, the employees get that flushed, slightly exasperated look of people who’ve been warm for extended periods, and the stand-up does what it can, sometimes blowing unattended napkins off the counter.
The shop’s original cash register finally broke in 2010. Things are old fashioned at Britt’s, but not because they’re trying to be cute or hip; they’re old fashioned because they have never changed.
A young woman named Tatum Smith served me my donut in early May. Britt’s had just opened with limited hours for the start of the season—weekends only from then until Memorial Day, seven days a week after that. In three minutes, I watched Smith serve fifty-four donuts. I remarked that this was a lot of donuts. “That’s nothing,” she said. “When it gets busy we can sell six dozen in one minute.”
Early May is the calm before the storm. Parking is ample and the heat isn’t oppressive. The only people walking in bathing suits with no cover-ups are the ones with atypically fit bodies. All of that will change. Once Memorial Day weekend hits, a line forms from Britt’s cash register out onto the sidewalk and almost never lets up. It gets worse every year, with the line wrapping around the Boardwalk during particularly crushing times.
“It’s been pretty much as fast as you can go for the past two or three years, since a lot of this up here started,” Bobby Nevins told me later. He gestured to the back wall where they hung their media write-ups. Most were local, a few were national. One had Ryan Seacrest on the cover. “You know who that is,” Nevins said.
Two lobster-colored women sat down at the counter. “What kind of donuts do you have?” one asked.
“We just have plain,” Smith answered. The ladies ordered two for ninety cents apiece, ate them, then ordered a dozen to go. A dozen sells for seven dollars.
A family came in and the dad opened a box on the counter. Britt’s only deals in paper bags, so the man had brought his own transport. He ordered two dozen. Smith asked if he wanted anything to drink: coffee, soda, or milk. “No. We just ate. We really don’t need this,” he said. Smith brought him the two dozen.
Smith was back at Britt’s for her twelfth year of work—she started when she was twelve and is now twenty-four. She graduated from college, lived overseas, and is demonstrably happy to be back behind the donut counter. All afternoon, people would stop by and service would pause for a high-pitched “How are you?” or a fist bump from one of the cooks.
There seems to be a gender division of labor at Britt’s, with women working the counter, serving the customers, and doing the math, while men work in a windowed kitchen where they fry three dozen donuts at a time. There were a total of five employees working that afternoon, including two sets of siblings.
Two brothers, Austin and Cory Gray, were in the back making donuts. First they roll dough with a giant rolling pin, mixing it with a white cream that Bobby Nevins makes at home, thus keeping the recipe a secret—he and Maxine are the only people who know what’s in it. Nevins delivers the cream every day or two, pulling his truck out back and calling the men to unload it. The dough mixture is cut into donut shapes (“That’s the hard part,” said cook Brennan Plotner) and placed on a circular rack with a long handle. The rack dips the donuts down into a cooker full of vegetable oil where they sizzle and bob and turn brown. The donuts are then rescued from the oil and placed on long wooden sticks, then hung on a rack to get glazed. A dozen donuts fit on one wooden stick, and the whole dozen can be slid from there into a paper bag.
Many of Britt’s employees are family, and all of the workers I spoke to say they feel like family, and they enjoy coming to work because of it. Smith said coming to work means getting to spend time with people she loves. One of the cooks, Cory Gray, described Bobby Nevins as “the granddaddy of all bosses,” and said, “He really knows how to keep his employees.” Some employees stay for a really long time. One has been there for over twenty-five years. And that doesn’t count the Nevins’ daughter Lynn Prusa, who has been working there since she was old enough like everyone else. Prusa also has two daughters, one of whom just became old enough.
The Nevins keep a bulletin board behind the donut counter tacked with photos going back to when people would hairspray their bangs. A younger version of Smith smiles out from a high-school portrait, her hand under her chin. A ganglier version of Gray, who now has dreadlocks, looks out from the windowed kitchen. The photos move forward in time to three pony-tailed girls taking a handheld picture of themselves.
Next to the bulletin board is a little illustration of a boy praying between the words “I know I’m SOMEBODY…cause God don’t make no JUNK!” Beside that is the coffeemaker and a subtle little tip jar. The employees at Britt’s are too polite to put it on the counter. “We don’t want to be too forward,” Smith explained. According to Smith, they get paid well, and while she and the other employees with whom I spoke were too polite to say how much, none of them failed to mention that they’re happy with their pay.
These aspects of Britt’s, even more than their donut putting others to shame, makes me feel sorry for people like me who live inland and have to settle for other donuts when a craving hits. What shit to go into a chain store and eat a corporate donut made from a big old plastic bag of corporate mix and sold by a person who is instructed to smile by a handbook and is most likely not making a livable wage. What a sad world.
The original Mr. Britt opened his shop in 1939, two years after Krispy Kreme opened in Winston-Salem. “You know, they’ve got a machine making those,” Bobby Nevins told me when I asked him what he thought of the chain. He said it in an even, informational tone, like he was simply supplying me with a fact I might not have known. He also showed me a Krispy Kreme gift card he kept in his wallet—someone had given it to him and Maxine as an anniversary present. When I asked him what he thought of Dunkin’ Donuts, he said, “Now, they make a cake donut.”
Nevins started working for Mr. Britt in 1954 for forty cents an hour. At the time, lifeguards were making seventy-five cents an hour out on the beach, and Nevins had a lot of friends among them. He has a photo on the back wall where a whole group of them are looking hunky in their shorts and whistles, but that wasn’t Nevins’s scene. “I wasn’t going to sit out in that hot sun,” he said.
Although the lifeguards did get to talk to a lot of girls. And anytime Nevins would come out from behind the fryer to chat, Mr. Britt would say, “Get back in there, you belong in the kitchen!” Nevins has no regrets—he was focused on the long term. He ended up with the donut shop and was able to attract Maxine.
The modern-day Britt’s Donuts closes at 10:30 p.m. This is a departure from days of yore when they would stay open past midnight for the late-night crowd. It was that way when Smith started working at Britt’s in 2000 and a karaoke bar was their next-door neighbor. But the Boardwalk has taken a turn for the family friendly in the past decade. There was an organized Boardwalk Beautification project in 2008, leading to cleaned-up restrooms and trashcans painted in muted primary colors. The number of bars dwindled down to five, and the ones that are left are “respectable places,” according to Nevins.
One of the biggest changes the Boardwalk has seen in recent years is the addition of the Courtyard Marriott, the beach’s first franchise hotel. There was debate prior to the building’s 2003 opening as to whether the hotel would alter the Boardwalk for the worse. Smith summed up the controversy like this: Are you trying to turn us into Wrightsville Beach? (WB is the higher-falutin’ beach to the north. Picture million dollar homes and tan people jogging in high-tech sportswear.) Smith said that the changes haven’t destroyed the character of Carolina Beach. She said the Boardwalk is “still a safe place for CB kids.”
On the subject of the Marriott, Nevins said, “I’m not going to say they’re a better class of people, but some of them don’t mind paying two hundred and fifty dollars a night for a hotel room. This used to be a forty-fifty dollar a night kind of place.”
Smith told me that a kid had been out on the Boardwalk with a snake around his neck the weekend before my visit. He was hanging out, showing people his snake, and when he showed a certain lady the snake, the lady’s boyfriend pulled a knife on him. A mom intervened, and the cops came. The violence was deescalated. Smith remarked that now, unlike her early days of working at Britt’s, these incidents are pretty rare. She thought it was remarkable that a mom broke it up. It gives you a sense of the different power dynamics swirling around the Boardwalk in 2012.
By the time this article is published, Britt’s will be in the full throes of summer, maybe with lines even longer than last year. Food writers or the Marriott or the shop’s halfhearted Facebook page will keep making it worse. And the donuts will still come out just three dozen at a time, and the workers will be tired, moving pretty much as fast as they can until September.