If you ask Bill and Donna Ellis, everyone has a donut story.
From their tiny storefront, they’re telling Bluffton’s.
It’s shortly after midnight, and the lights have just come on at Alljoy Donut Co., the squat, colorful little cinder block structure surrounded by pint-size tables and fairy houses on Heyward Street. Within a few hours, Bill Ellis will be engulfed in a light dusting of flour, the hard-earned uniform of a baker at work. Cranking on a stand mixer nearly as tall as he is, he’ll churn up globs of dough, 60 pounds at a time, that he’ll proof in a tall, steamy rack and then roll out on a broad butcher-block table that dominates the cramped quarters of the 500-square-foot bakery kitchen.
Around 3:00 a.m., after he’s pulled a few hundred of his creations from the fryer and coated them with a lip-smacking sugary glaze, his wife, Donna, will arrive at the shop ready to do her part in making what have become Bluffton’s favorite donuts. A trained cake decorator and artist, her own corner of the kitchen bursts at the seams with tubes of frosting, bins of cereal and candy, and sprinkles of every color of the rainbow.
The pair will settle into their routine of getting the bakery ready for the day, an effortless chemistry born of years in the kitchen together. They met at a restaurant, and together they’ve made the industry their home. Alljoy Donut Co. marks their fourth restaurant venture together. But there is one big difference with their latest restaurant. “Our schedule shifted from going to bed at two in the morning to getting up at two in the morning,” said Donna with a laugh. “It’s been an adjustment.”
Adjustments to circadian rhythm aside, the pair has hit on something huge with Alljoy Donut Co. On foot, in a golf cart, or by car, Bluffton has been flocking to their doors to sample the ever-changing array of inspired donuts the couple creates every day before dawn. “It’s been amazing,” Donna said. “The support we’ve had and the response to it is phenomenal.”
It’s hard to argue with the drawing power this shop has already demonstrated in its first few months of business. Local Instagram feeds have been flooded since they opened with mouth-watering shots of the couple’s colorful creations—sprinkled and glazed and decorated in a rainbow of colors. The massive outpouring of social media love is a natural side effect of the artistically brilliant designs Donna creates.
In addition to the 30 to 40 mainstay varieties in the store’s glass case, from donuts to bear claws and éclairs, there are the flashier, Instagram-ready items. Here, there are items such as the Froot Loops donuts. The special “hole in one” donuts that arrived during the Royal Bank of Canada Heritage golf tournament. The Yoda donuts that celebrated Star Wars Day on May 4th. “People were lined up here at 6:30 in the morning for those,” Donna said.
That social media love is also a natural extension of the guerrilla marketing that Bill used to launch this latest restaurant endeavor. In fact, he’ll be the first to tell you that Alljoy Donut Co. was born on Facebook.
“When we first started getting production going, I just went around to businesses, fire departments, anywhere there were people, and gave away donuts,” he said. Without a website or a phone number, the couple launched a Facebook page to field orders, primarily from people whom they’d visited with free donuts. “I probably went around to about 100 businesses.”
One of those businesses happened to be Bluffton Jewel Box, whose owners knew of a retail spot that would be perfect for the couple’s bootstrap donut operation to flourish. If not perfect, then at least in a state to eventually achieve perfection. A former auto shop, the building had actually been “cut down” when part of it turned out to be encroaching on a nearby property line. “On top of that, it had never been used for food production. Everything had to be upgraded,” Bill said.
With upgrades in place and the building no longer partially located on someone else’s property, it was time to decorate. The picture of Bill as a child, smiling as he rolls dough in his grandfather’s bakery, went up on the front wall. And everywhere, a whimsical sense of childlike wonder informs what may be Alljoy Donut Co.’s main raison d’etre: creating stories. “Everyone has their own donut story, how they used to get donuts with their parents or grandparents as a kid,” Bill said. “I talk to people about donuts a lot, and everyone has one.”
To help fuel those stories, the Ellises decorated with kids in mind. The tables out front are just a little too small for adults, but perfect for the kids. And throughout the grounds, Donna has tucked away six small “fairy houses,” which she challenges kids to find. And just when they think they have the whole place figured out, she moves them. “The kids are my favorite part. They get really excited,” Donna said. “When they come in with families, you feel like you’re making a memory.”
Written by: Barry Kaufman
Photography by: Krisztian Lonyai