From Tears to Triumph, Thanks to a Doughnut
The Vandalia Co. finds success after a series of roadblocks. So ... many ... roadblocks.
Stephanie Woody gets choked up recalling the struggles she went through to see her dream come true.
“I just realized I’ve never sat down and told someone the whole story before,” she says, dabbing her eyes inside the lovely space she’s created at The Vandalia Co., a scratch-made donut shop and café in Charleston’s Elk City district.
“It’s just … well, it’s really been a lot, you know?”
You can’t blame her the emotion. Hers is a “what now?” story that kept throwing roadblocks her way.
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Woody remembers her mom taking her to the farmers market in Roanoke, Virginia, where there was this Amish family that made doughnuts.
“I would look at them and think, wow, maybe I can try that someday.”
Fast forward years later and that day came when she was scrolling through Facebook and saw a 1963 Frolic Camper for sale. With no professional baking or restaurant experience, she bought it on a whim to realize her doughnut dream – a food truck that would bring sweet treats to the masses.
“We had to go pick it up in the middle of this field,” she recalls, with a laugh, “and then tow the thing with two flat tires through downtown Charlotte to the only place we could find open to replace the tires.”
They eventually got it home, gutted and rebuilt it. After ensuring all local health and fire marshal requirements were met, they rolled open as the Vandalia Donut Co. in 2017. Their concept was simple. Master the art of making one perfect doughnut and use that as a base for multiple toppings and flavor combinations.
“And we were determined not to use a mix,” she says. “Most doughnuts today are made from a mix and we just didn’t want to go there.”
That line in the sand led to dozens of recipe attempts – writing down every step in stacks of notebooks – until they pulled out the “the one.”
“We named it the No. 42, because it came on the 42nd recipe we tried.”
The resulting buttermilk cake doughnut is still used to make countless variations today, like German Chocolate Stout with pecan frosting, Caramel Popcorn Apple topped with homemade pumpkin pie filling, Espresso Oreo, Peach & Blackberry Cobbler, Strawberry Pretzel and more.
The truck was an instant hit, until one fateful day two years later.
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The state fire marshal just happened to be having lunch nearby, when he noticed the Vandalia truck and came in for an impromptu inspection.
“He closed us on the spot, with customers in line,” she remembers. “We were speechless. We had gotten complete approval from the local fire marshal but didn’t realize there were additional fire suppression requirements from the state as well.”
While it’s a painful memory, it’s one she now attributes to the success she’s enjoying today.
“I guess you could say it forced our hand. Having a physical location was always our dream, but maybe it wouldn’t have happened had we not been shut down.”
They took a break to decompress, then stumbled upon the space they occupy today in a storefront on Tennessee Avenue.
“I remember looking around and thinking, oh my gosh, could this really happen?”
But the space needed a lot of love, a contractor walked away with five figures of their cash before completing the work and there was a fire in the new kitchen.
Woody said they became so discouraged that they nearly packed their bags and moved back to Virginia. Finding herself at a fork in the road, it was time to go big or go home.
“We had one of those moments where we said, no, we can’t be one of those people who just sit back and complain or give up. We have to take a risk, make a difference.”
So they found a new contractor to finish the main construction and rolled up their sleeves to do the rest.
“My husband used up all the vacation days at his job to finish the place. We laid the floor and did the painting. My kids did the tilework around the counter. This is a family business in the truest sense of the word.”
The new business opened in April 2021, serving only doughnuts and coffee at first, then expanding their hours and adding a lunch menu of fresh salads, grain bowls and more.
“It really has been a lot of trial by fire,” Woody says, “but it’s definitely made us stronger. Looking back at the shutdown and theft and fire and COVID and now Delta. If we can make it through all that, surely we can survive anything else that comes our way.”
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Steven Keith is a food writer and restaurant critic known as “The Food Guy” who writes a weekly column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and has appeared in several state, regional and national culinary publications. Follow him online at www.wvfoodguy.com or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.