Third generation moves in at Donut dynasty
NATCHEZ — Jason Tyson stands over a tray of two-dozen uncooked doughnuts on a worktable in The Donut Shop.
The tray will hold another 16, and he’s got probably half that many ringed around the fingers of his left hand. With his right, he quickly flips a couple more pre-doughnuts out of a flat dough on the workspace in front of him with a circular pastry tool.
He’s done this ritual off and on since he was 14, and Jason — now 34 — hardly has to watch what he’s doing.
Down the workspace and past an industrial mixing machine, his mother — Mary Tyson — eyes the doughnuts already on the tray.
“Are those first cut or second cut?” she asks.
Jason responds that the doughnuts are first cut, meaning the pastries were cut from the dough the first time it was rolled flat instead of the second.
“Everything on that side of the tray is too thick,” Mary responds.
Jason grins at his mother, before looking back at the tray.
“You see?” he says. “She has been doing it for so long she can look across the room and critique what I’ve done.”
But Jason is willing to take pointers from his mother. She and his stepfather George Scott have run The Donut Shop since 1991, when they bought it from Mary’s aunt and uncle, Dot and Junior Price.
Now, they’re handing the reins of the iconic Natchez bakery to Jason.
When they decided they were looking to retire, Tyson and Scott put a “For Sale” sign outside the building, drawing daily queries from long loyal patrons about the future of the business.
At the time, Jason didn’t want to take over as the third generation in the family business. He worked as a lineman for the City of Vidalia.
“I always said I would never have anything to do with this place,” he said. “I had a good job, good benefits, but I started thinking about my future and what I wanted to do.”
Mary had been pushing him to take over for the last four years, Jason said, but it wasn’t until after a two-hour conversation at the family camp at Easter that he was swayed.
“When that ‘For Sale’ sign went up, he was ready to take over,” Mary said. “He knew mama would be proud.”
By June 1, Jason was working at the shop, and is running operations.
“We had two, three, four people a day asking when I am taking over, saying they were glad (the shop) isn’t shutting down,” he said.
Mary said she had a good reason for wanting her son to take over when she retired — she knew he would treat customers the way they should be treated.
“Jason is a worrier and a worker — he’s always worried if the customers are happy, if the product is good — so I know he has what it takes to run the business,” Mary said.
“It’s good to know that (the shop) is going to somebody who cares about it like I did.”
When Mary and George first started working at the shop five years before they took over, they were both welders and George wasn’t much of a cook, she said.
At that time, the now shuttered International Paper mill had an early morning shift and being ready to feed the stream of mill employees going down and coming up Lower Woodville Road, just across from the shop’s John R. Junkin Drive location, meant being at going in to work at 1 a.m.
Back at home, Jason would get himself and his sister ready for school at home with the sunrise.
“If it wasn’t for Jason helping us with his little sister, we would have never been able to come in at 2 a.m.,” Mary said.
With the changes in Natchez’s industrial climate, the shop’s hours of operation have shifted forward to allow the owners to sleep a little later, though only a little — work now starts at 3 a.m. The years of early morning glazing and tamale making have made for a unique view of the people of Natchez.
“I have seen a lot of kids grow up right at that front window,” Mary said.
Not long afterward, a man walks up to the window with a child.
“It is very rewarding,” George said. “Every day, you see people bring kids here, and then when they are grown, they bring their kids here.”
But Natchez-area natives aren’t the only ones to make pilgrimages to the bakery. The shop was featured in Alton Brown’s food travel guide “Feasting on Asphalt,” and Mary said more people than they can recount have stopped by and asked them to sign the shop’s page in the book.
“We have had people tell us, ‘We rerouted our trip 200 miles for this,’” she said.
In another instance, a supplier told them about how the shop’s fritters were discussed as far away as the Carolinas, George said.
With retirement, Mary and George will take time to do some things the schedule of working at the shop never let them, and they’ll spend more time with their grandchildren.
“I’ve got some things I want to do, what some people call a ‘bucket list,” but I’m not going to call it that,” George said. “I’m just going to call it ‘things I enjoy doing.’”
But they won’t be completely done with the shop, at least not yet — George will still make the tamales.
Jason said he won’t be changing the shop, but he will be adding new products. Every month will feature a new pastry, and if the item sells well it will go on the menu full time.
“He might add some products, but as far as how we make the dough, he’s not going to change it,” Mary said. “It’s a real positive knowing the shop will keep going, and a positive knowing that Natchez will continue to get what they love.”
The thought is reinforced by a piece of paper a customer recently left behind with a handwritten note.
Thank you, it says, for finding a way to keep The Donut Shop from closing.