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the donut comes full circle
by lisa horak

The owners of The Sisters McMullen bakery, Heather and Andrea, see their stores as the “Cheers” of the donut world. And sure enough, they are well on their way to being a place “where everybody knows your name.”

They have gotten to know their customers well, thus the analogy to the famous Boston bar that was more a gathering place than anything else.
Yes, it seems the popularity of the donut has come full circle, rolling back in on the heels of the bagel revolution. The Sisters McMullen Bakery is now in two Asheville locations providing coffee, donuts, pastries, and soups to a steadily increasing clientele.

Let’s just get the obvious questions out of the way. Yes, they are real sisters, and yes, they are real McMullens. And no, they are not a spin-off of the movie ‘The Brothers McMullen.’ What they are are two enterprising, hardworking women who lovingly prepare tasty food to the patrons who have become a sort of extended family.
They opened their first shop three years ago in the space that had formerly been The Donut Wheel on Merrimon Avenue. “We have been incredibly lucky to have such great customers,” says Heather. “People just seem to like us. Some people even say they want to be an honorary ‘sister.’ One customer recently told me how tired and run down I looked and offered to let me stay at her home for a few days so she could take care of me.”

They owe the success of their bakery to “good food that is reasonably priced,” says Andrea. “We believe that people eat with their eyes,” adds Heather. “Our food not only has to taste really good, it also has to look amazing. Everything in our store is baked fresh each day.”

This is no easy task. These women are up long before the rosy glow of dawn. They arrive at the bakery at 2:30—that’s in the morning, of course—to start preparing the donuts.

“You get used to it,” says Heather. “I always say that the early morning is my favorite time of the day because I can get so much done. We fry donuts for four hours every morning. Then we have a mini break before we actually open to the public. We close in the middle of the afternoon, but there are always other things to do.” Things like managing the business end (they now have eight employees) and changing their locations. Because they needed more preparation space and because their lease was running out, the sisters opened a second location in the Newbridge Shopping Center in Woodfin and moved the Merrimon store downtown, next to Rio Burrito on Broadway.

Clearly business is doing well. “We’ve had an 65 percent increase in sales from our purchase date,” says Heather, who is has a degree in Culinary Arts from A.B. Tech and has managed restaurants, including an Einstein Brothers Bagels in one of the busiest sections of Washington, DC.

Andrea’s background is in human services, in helping people. From her perspective, she feeds that impulse by providing her customers with that much-needed cup of coffee and sweet treat to make their day a little better. “When we make a wedding cake or a christening cake I know that we are helping people. We give them the piece of mind that everything will be alright. We help make their milestones even more special,” says Andrea.

So when Heather and Andrea decided to join forces, it became a family affair. “Our dad has been so supportive of this. He’s painted walls, replaced ceiling and floor tiles, and he’s even washed dishes for us,” say the sisters. But it doesn’t stop there. Spouses and significant others have been known to help fry donuts at four in the morning before rushing off to other jobs. Even Andrea’s two kids, who are three and six years old, like to pitch in.

As for two sisters working together, Andrea says, “It’s no different than any relationship between co-workers. Our personalities and work ethic are similar enough that we work well together.” Their skills complement each other. Heather is the resident wedding cake specialist, for example, while Andrea creates novelty cakes.
Andrea and Heather are originally from Lancaster, PA, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where baking is a way of life. Although their family moved to Asheville when they were young, that ethic left its mark. “You had to get to the bakery really early or you’d be left with the dregs. Our dad cooked a lot. And every year we made about 30 dozen Christmas cookies. We didn’t even give them away. We ate them all. So we’ve always loved to experiment with baking.”

They have quickly learned a few marketing tricks. “We think having people taste our product is the best way to entice them into our stores. So we stand outside the Broadway store and hand out free donuts. And at the end of the day we give any remaining donuts to people walking around or to charities like Loving Food Resources and Mountain Area Hospice to give away with meals.”

After owning their own business, the Sisters McMullen realize the plusses and minuses of working for themselves. The plusses of working with family and transforming customers into friends makes those early mornings more than worthwhile.

The Sisters McMullen Broadway location is open Tuesday through Friday from 7:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m., and on Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. The Woodfin location hours are Tuesday through Friday from 7:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m., and on Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to noon.

Lisa Horak lives in south Asheville with her husband and two daughters, Molly and Isabel. In her spare time she hikes, volunteers in classrooms, and dreams of writing children’s books. [ lisa@wnc-woman.com ]

 

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