A little doughnut in the little town of Aberdeen makes big community connections.
Granny’s Old Fashioned Donuts feels like someone’s back porch.
A block off a busy highway in Aberdeen in the shadow of the town’s water tower, Granny’s is hard to find. And that’s even with its big, yellow sign. But loyal customers know where it is. They come from Greensboro, Raleigh, Durham, and the surrounding Sandhills. They pack into the three booths and 16 chairs. They drink coffee and talk. But most importantly — they eat doughnuts.
The doughnuts are as big as a grown man’s palm, cut from dough eight inches thick, bathed in sizzling oil, and injected with jellies or brushed with glazes of sugar and chocolate.
Every day a Laotian couple, whose name few locals can properly pronounce, produces dozens of doughnuts. The confection isn’t native to their country, or native to this country, either. Doughnuts come from the Dutch.
But these “oily cakes,” originally from Holland and made by Laotians in Aberdeen, draw people from big cities full of big bakeries to this small Piedmont town known for its sandy soil and golf courses.
Sometimes, it just takes a little something sweet to bring people together.
Vina Phromsavanh and his wife, Toubee, run Granny’s.
The Phromsavanh family arrived in North Carolina 30 years ago. Vina’s father, Kam, walked through a jungle for a day to get his family out of Laos. He faced death at the hands of government soldiers every few hundred yards, and at night, he crossed a river that was so dark he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.
“God,” he prayed, “please protect my family.”
They spent a year in a refugee camp in Thailand. In 1980, Kam’s family came to Aberdeen, thanks to a sponsorship from a local Episcopal church. Kam became a furniture worker; an electrician; and, 20 years ago, the owner of Granny’s, where he learned how to make doughnuts.
“I teach my son, but he’s not as good as I am,” Kam says, laughing.
Vina, 40, has worked at Granny’s since he was 18. He began running the business in 2006. He and his wife arrive at work an hour or so after midnight and make doughnuts — 50 dozen to 200 dozen — until daybreak when they open the shop.
They complement each other well. Vina is quiet. His wife is talkative.
Everyone calls her Bee. She stands behind the long, glass display case of doughnuts, barely able to see above the cash register. When she spots a regular, she says something like, “Good morning, darlin’. You miss me?”
But when Bee first started, she didn’t say a thing. She didn’t speak English well, so she mangled any word containing an r. She pronounced “Raleigh” as “Lollie.”
Two years ago, she started working on her English and studying American history to prepare for the citizenship test. Almost every day for three months, customers helped her, peppering her with questions when they walked through the door.
Bee passed the test. Now, at age 37, she’s an American citizen. And she’s sociable, confident, and full of small-town hospitality.
‘There’s the sign!’
Bee tries to talk to all of her customers. She misses a few, but when it comes to kids, she catches every one.
She sees them coming. They press their faces to the glass case and stare at the rows of smiley-face doughnuts with M&M’s for eyes.
Josiah Ashton came in recently to celebrate his fifth birthday. Before he finished his first smiley-face doughnut, he wore a chocolate mustache. Jonah, his 3-year-old brother, had one to match.
Like many loyal customers, they know how to find Granny’s. It’s a 30-minute drive from their house, and when they pass Aberdeen’s row of shopping centers and restaurants, they know they’re getting close.
“Turn left here, Daddy! Turn left!” the boys yell from the backseat. “There’s the sign!”
They know what to look forward to at this little doughnut shop: brown-paper bags full of doughnut rounds and a big hug from Bee.
Granny’s Old Fashioned Donuts
201 Johnson Street
Aberdeen, N.C. 28315
Jeri Rowe, a Greensboro resident, is a staff columnist with the News & Record. His most recent story for Our State was “Faithful Following” (July 2012).