Her arm was a blur as she filled boxes with the requests of salivating customers: one Bavarian cream-filled, three chocolate-iced and a couple of those with the pink sprinkles.
Ratliff is a 22-year employee of Carol Lee Donuts, which is located on North Main Street across from Food Lion. And although her service is fast, her mornings don’t often have down time.
“I can talk to you for another minute,” Ratliff told the Collegiate Times after the last of a rush exited.
Immediately several hungry persons walked by the shop windows toward the entry.
“Oh, maybe not,” Ratliff said.
Carol Lee has developed a loyal following since owner Norman Kidd opened the store in the spring of 1969. At that time, the business was next to the Lyric on College Avenue, and its signage displayed the franchise name “Spudnuts.”
The title was inspired by the parent company’s pre-made doughnut mix, which included potato flour as an ingredient. “Spudnuts” combined the slang term for a potato, “spud,” with the actual product’s name, doughnuts.
Kidd switched mixes after only a few years, and he had to adopt the franchise name of the new provider, Carol Lee.
After more than three decades in downtown Blacksburg, Carol Lee Donuts moved to its current abode in 2001 mainly to dodge rising rent costs. The space is actually shared with one of Kidd’s daughters, Sherree Surface, who has operated Carol Lee Cakes out of the building since 1979.
Her cakes are made-to-order, their designs either unique creations or derived from an array of templates visible on a wall. The designs range from a teddy bear for children and a tombstone for adults that reads “over the hill.”
Their new location is something of a family affair as the manager of Carol Lee Donuts, Melinda Strager, is also Surface’s sister.
Strager beats Surface to work each day, the preparation of the nearly 30 varieties of doughnuts preceding the rise of the sun. Between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., Strager begins mixing the first helping of dough.
“From the moment I put it in that mixer, it takes me an hour to get a doughnut,” Strager said.
Once at the proper consistency, the fresh dough is transferred into an automated assembly line machine called a “proofer.”
A plunger-like attachment stamps out the universal doughnut shape, a ring. Two rings sit side-by-side on one of countless small platforms. Attached on either side of the platforms is a chain, much like that on a bicycle. And similar to the mechanics of a bicycle, the platforms are propelled forward by rotating discs that guide the chains.
The doughnuts first enter a glass box whose internal temperature is 93 degrees. Following a path that looks like ocean waves, the doughnuts move slowly to allow their yeast to completely rise.
Once beyond the glass box, the doughnuts take a dive into a shallow layer of vegetable shortening heated to 385 degrees. After emerging from the frying process, the doughnuts slide under a waterfall that drips glazing. If not intended for glazing, the doughnuts are given other final toppings by hand, including icing and sprinkles.
Each batch yields 40 dozen doughnuts, and Strager said she and her five fellow employees churn out five to six batches per day. Because of the doughnut demand on Virginia Tech football weekends, they’ll arrive around 2 a.m. to almost double the output — that rounds off to about 5,000 doughnuts.
Offering only eight parking spots in front of its quaint building, Carol Lee sees its many customers commonly crossing the street for their sweet breakfast.
“I hope Food Lion doesn’t mind,” Strager said.
Blacksburg resident Jackie Watson said she’s frequented Carol Lee Donuts since 1985. She and her husband are hooked because, according to Watson, “they’re the best doughnuts anywhere, ever.”
And Carol Lee Donut’s fan base transcends humans. Strager said plenty of local farm animals gladly devour their leftovers.