Soft opening for Back Door Donuts

An Island staple kicks off summer hours with a gradual start.

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n the back corner of an unassuming parking lot, a small crowd gathered in the gradual darkness, illuminated only by a harsh yellow outdoor bulb and a dim light from inside the building. 

Under a blue awning, they stood in a line like churchgoers assembled for Communion. And for some, this comparison isn’t far off. A nightly pilgrimage to Back Door Donuts in Oak Bluffs is some people’s religion.

“It’s like church,” Joe Sampson said, who came with two co-workers at the hospital, Sarah King and Bo Buriak.

Thursday night was Back Door Donuts’ soft opening for the summer season. They’ve gradually opened the back door since April 12, in time for Island schools’ spring break.

Sam Ahmad, manager of the bakery, had hoped they’d be open all the time by now. But based on the season’s slowness so far, he decided to stay closed Mondays and Tuesdays until the second week of June. 

The front door is open Wednesday to Sunday from 8 am to 3 pm, and the bakery reopens from 7 pm to midnight.

Similar to our nation’s favorite groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, the opening of the bakery’s back door is a reliable indication that summer is on the way.

Ahmad and his staff had a steady line of patrons after they opened the back door on Kennebec Avenue at 7 pm Thursday, even as the wind whipped up from Vineyard Sound across Ocean Park and rain lashed the side of the building.

Sampson wished the bakery was open 24 hours a day. “It’s so hard to find a churro on the Island,” he said as he took a cinnamon sugar doughnut, an adequate alternative, from his brown paper bag.

Five nights a week is better than none, though. Last summer, after a neighbor complained that the long wait lines caused late night disturbances, a petition to “Save Back Door Donuts” garnered around 8,000 signatures afraid of losing their access to late night sweets. 

But in July, the Oak Bluffs select board quelled those fears and said rumors of a shutdown were unfounded. Instead, they asked the bakery to encourage online orders, and comply with an agreed-upon maximum line of 28 people.

This year, the front door will also be open until midnight for muffins, cookies, and other pastries, as well as coffee and other beverages. All online orders will go out the front door. Only doughnuts and apple fritters will be available in the back.

Back Door Donuts is already enjoying a healthy afterdinner crowd, Ahmad said, but it starts to slow down after 9 pm. 

Once there’s a steady line, Ahmad will start taking doughnut (and fritter) orders from a table outside, and gradually increase the amount of stock he prepares as the crowds come.

In an assembly-line fashion, the whole staff works to keep racks filled with the confections. 

Salome Menabde, working at the bakery for her second summer, sliced up apples for the most popular item: the apple fritter. Then the apples were added to a dough and handed to Ahmad, stationed at the fryer.

 

Menabde, from the Republic of Georgia, is excited about the expected summer crowds, when her work gets more “fast-paced.”

“It’s a rush, but it’s fun. I have incredible co-workers,” Menabde said. “It gets stressful, and it gets loud.”

Preparation for the apple fritter takes about 50 minutes, but once the dough and fresh apples are dropped into the fryer, only three minutes pass until the fritter is ready to be doused in sugar glaze.

And people come for the fritters.

“We come once a year, of course, because it’s a Martha’s Vineyard staple,” Michael Myer, visiting the Island for a week from Fairhaven, said. “Even when it’s bad weather.”

Myer’s friend, Kevin Kobza, also of Fairhaven, said there’s nothing like “the freshness of a nice warm doughnut at the end of a meal.” The group had just finished dinner at the Red Cat before they stopped by the bakery.

Tina Dvali, who worked her first day at the bakery that morning, decided to come back for more. She rolled dough, filled doughnuts with jelly and cream, baked cookies, and made some of the infamous apple fritters. But tonight, she was just a regular patron.

Dvali went to Back Door Donuts every night last summer, and that’s the reason she decided to work there this summer. She and Davit Phutkaradze, both college students from the Republic of Georgia, enjoyed another crowd favorite, the honey-dipped doughnut.

Ahmad said he didn’t have a problem getting staff this summer. He received lots of emails from high school and college students. In fact, he said, he had more interest this summer than other years.

The problem is that “housing is getting harder and harder,” he said. The bakery rents several houses every summer for its employees, but he always has to find new rental properties because previous ones are taken. 

The staff is composed of a few locals and a lot of foreign students, said Ahmad, and many are returners.

Ahmad has worked at Back Door Donuts for 14 years, two as manager, but the “back door” tradition of the bakery has been around much longer.

In 1971, more than 50 years ago, Peter White, who took over what was known as Walmsley’s Bakery at 5 Post Office Square, started the late night custom.

“Oh my goodness,” said Jeff Ledoux, visiting from Western Massachusetts, as he bit into an apple fritter. He’d heard about the Island staple, but this was his first time. 

“That was worth braving the wind and the rain,” he said.