A variety of juices, smoothies and waters fill the refrigerated beverage case of a new doughnut and gelato shop on Needham Street.
No milk, though.
That might seem odd for a doughnut place, because doughnuts and milk go together like, well, cookies and milk.
But this is not your typical doughnut shop. Everything business partners Sam Kang and T.J. Nguyen make and sell is vegan, meaning plant-based. The treats contain no animal products, such as milk and eggs, or byproducts, such as honey.
Making the doughnuts – both raised and cake varieties are available – requires simply using a special vegan flour, Kang said. For the gelato, they substitute regular milk with organic almond milk.
I tried two types of raised doughnuts and found them delicious. I agreed with customer Melissa Marin, who stopped by for a treat on her way to school at California Beauty College on Tuesday morning, that the raised doughnuts aren’t as airy as nonvegan ones are. (But “not as greasy, too,” Kang added.) That’s not a bad thing, though; the slightly chewier texture was satisfying.
Marin, a repeat customer who said she likes the shop’s doughnuts, didn’t even know they’re vegan. Which makes her just the kind of customer Kang and Nguyen are looking for.
On their business sign outside the shop at Needham and 15th, “Vegan Donut Gelato,” the first word is much smaller and less noticeable than the other two. Vegans quickly have found them through social media and word of mouth, the men said, so what they’re working to do is attract the much larger market of nonvegan doughnut and gelato lovers.
Right now, 80 percent to 90 percent of their business comes from vegans, but they’d love it if that flip-flopped and 90 percent were customers simply looking for good doughnuts and gelato. “We want to bring this kind of comfort food to people, because I think doughnut is really a comfort food,” said Kang, who is Indonesian. “I think doughnut is acceptable to everybody as long as they are willing to try.”
As the father of a vegan, I know that the costs of keeping such a strict diet can be high. Almond and soy milks, special flours, vegan egg and dairy substitutes, and faux chicken and beef products all are pricey.
Nguyen noted that at many vegan restaurants and bakeries – you won’t find them around here, but in the Bay Area – menu prices easily can be double those of nonvegan eateries. And it does cost them more to make their products, but they keep the prices at Vegan Donut Gelato competitive with other treat shops. Their price board shows basic doughnuts at 98 cents and a mixed dozen for $10.95.
Shortly after opening the shop, Kang and Nguyen said they got a Facebook shout-out from Bauer’s 66 1/2 Skillet & Grill, a McHenry Village restaurant that has some vegan dishes of its own.
Already, Vegan Donut Gelato has 382 Facebook followers. Modesto resident Tiffany Tiwater commented on Saturday: “These Donut Holes are TO DIE FOR! My family loves these donuts also, and they are not vegan, like myself. So many fun flavors and toppings. ...”
On Yelp, the shop has a five-star rating based on 28 reviews. Riverbank resident Mary H. said on the site: “The donuts and gelato were amazing. Didn’t feel gross and bloated the way I feel after eating regular donuts. And the plant-based gelato was easier to digest; way better alternative to ice cream that is made out of cow’s milk. Great for Lactose intolerant people. ...”
Kang and Nguyen both live in Merced but chose Modesto for their business because of its much larger population. Nguyen, who is Vietnamese, said he didn’t find Merced big enough even for the vegetarian restaurant he had there about a decade ago to thrive. Kang owned a vegan restaurant in Sunnyvale before moving to Merced.
With a startup business, the men’s days are long. Kang, who is single, starts baking at 2 a.m. and works well past its 5 p.m. closing time. Nguyen, married with two children, joins him about 3 a.m. to bake but leaves later in the morning for his other job, in construction.
As business grows, they hope to hire employees. “If people can have this kind of lifestyle,” Kang said, “it’s better for planet, environment and health.”
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327