Tuesday, July 16, 2024

‘You never know what life’s gonna bring’: Britts Donuts’ owner talks passing the baton, helping build a local institution

Britts Donuts staff pull out fresh doughnuts from the same fryer that has been used at the eatery since 1939. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

CAROLINA BEACH — “We have worked hard,” Bobby Nivens said, reflecting back on his 49 years owning and operating Britts Donuts in Carolina Beach. “We never take a day off during the summer unless we have to go to a funeral.”

Nivens has been running the local institution six out of 12 months a year, churning out hundreds of thousands of doughnuts since 1972. He even held down a career working for a chemical plant during that run.

Summertime is Britts’ bread-and-butter, as tourism is at an all-time high on Pleasure Island. Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Fort Fisher’s normal 6,000 population swells to 30,000 in June, July and August.

Britts’ truncated operational setup — opening seasonally — is by design. “That’s one reason I wanted it,” Nivens said. He and his wife Maxine like to travel each fall and winter. 

“A couple of years I stayed open into November, and we said, ‘Well, you know, we’re eating into our vacation time,’” the 82-year-old said. 

The shop opens weekends only every year in April through Memorial Day before going seven days a week until after Labor Day. Then Nivens closes shop until the following spring.

For six months, though, Britts packs in customers and has had the Nivens family working their fair share of 14-hour days. Nowadays, Nivens admits to being in the kitchen a lot less. In fact, the business owner is coming to grips with passing the baton. 

Nivens daughter, Lynn Prusa, and his granddaughters will eventually take over the business. “Yeah, this might be my last year — you never know what life’s gonna bring,” he said. “You never know. I would like to spend a little bit of time doing what we like to do — travel and things.”

Bobby Nivens bought the Carolina Beach shop from H.L. Britt in 1972 and will eventually pass on the operations to his daughter, Lynn Prusa, former town clerk for Carolina Beach. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

A frozen relic in time

It’s been a 67-year relationship between Britts and Nivens. He began working for H.L. Britt as a high-school student in 1954. Earning 40 cents an hour, Nivens cooked and served the doughnuts at Britts’ original location — once situated on the boardwalk where the arcade is now occupied. Britts has been located across the way at its current address, 11 Carolina Beach Ave., since 1969. 

Mr. Britt, originally from Goldsboro, NC, opened the donut shop in 1939. At one time, Nivens said, there also was a second location in downtown Wilmington that was open during the war and served shipyard workers. 

Nivens left Britts Donuts after high-school graduation in order to join the Air Force. He was stationed in the Philippines and Thailand, but said he managed to stay in touch with his former boss.

“I always told him, ‘You know, we’re friends, and if you ever want to retire or whatever, I would be interested,’” Nivens recalled. “Then the time came — he came to my house in 1972 and told me what he wanted for it.”

Nivens said when he went to the bank, they only offered him a paltry $500 business loan. Though he remains mum on what Mr. Britt’s asking price was for the doughnut shop, Nivens said, “It was enough to make my wife cry.”

“And the next loan I took out, when I bought this building in ‘75, she really did do some crying,” he quipped. “She said, ‘You have us so far in debt, we won’t ever get out.’ I told her, ‘We don’t have anything — what do we got to lose? I’ll make it work. I promise you: I’ll make it work.’” 

And he did.

Though Nivens doesn’t count exactly how many doughnuts come out of Britts annually, when he bought the business, he estimates it was churning out 20% less than it does today. Nivens has seen its popularity soar more than he expected over the last six or seven years. 

“I got five guys back there working at a time right now,” he said, referring to his kitchen staff. In a narrow space, a few make the dough, someone shapes the doughnuts, and a few fry and glaze them, all by hand in one fryer.

Three servers tuck in and out from the glazing station, grabbing dozens at a time for a line of people inevitably snaking down the boardwalk. 

“I’d like to include about three or four more staff back there,” Nivens said, “but there’s not a lot of room.” 

Britts’ setup and practically all of its equipment is the same as it was when Nivens bought the turnkey operation. He hasn’t added to it or knocked down walls or even redesigned the shop. The wood paneling walls and diner-style counter is like a frozen relic in time.

“That’s the exact same cooker,” Nivens said. “I’ve changed it around a little bit because the heating elements and stuff stopped working. That’s the same glazer we always glazed the doughnuts on. I don’t like changing things — it’s sort of sentimental, you know? It’s like, it’s why these doughnuts are so popular.” 

Nivens makes the doughnuts from the same recipe Mr. Britt started 82 years ago. He keeps the ingredients close to the vest; only he, his wife and daughter know what goes into each batch. He’s so protective over it, he won’t allow photographers into the back of the kitchen any longer to snap shots of the process. 

“Once, I let somebody from a magazine go back there and take pictures,” he said, “and the next thing I know, two or three years later, there was a video on the internet about how to make our doughnuts. Somebody took the recipe — of course, it’s not the true recipe — but they tried, and they sold it to the internet.”

Bags line the Britts counter, tagged with customer names who await in an inevitably long line along the Carolina Beach Boardwalk. Britts is open seven days a week starting every Memorial Day, but closes mid-September until the following spring. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“It’s just a feel-good place to be”

Britts’ fanfare reaches far and wide. The shop has been featured on any and every “best list” imaginable. It’s been written about in Food + Wine, Saveur, even National Geographic. The latter listed Britts Donuts as one of 101 reasons to travel for food and drink.

“That’s worldwide right there,” Nivens said, almost surprised still as he pointed to the National Geographic.

Beside the magazine covers, old pictures are framed on walls; one features Nivens’ buddies who were Carolina Beach lifeguards in the ‘50s. Nivens’ mom and dad moved to the area around 1952, he said, “so I basically grew up on the boardwalk, and it was just the best place — the best place in the world to live.”

Even though he had to leave in 1957 to go into the military, he said the beach always remained home. He and his wife eventually settled back in the area, and Nevins took a job at a chemical plant in Riegelwood. He continued working there after making a career move into the doughnut business. 

“When I first bought the shop, I just really had five people working all the time,” he said. “Now I employ about 25.”

One server, Dawn Johnson, first took a job with the Nivens family back in her teens. As an adult, she became the finance director for Carolina Beach, where she worked with Nivens’ daughter who was the town clerk. When Johnson decided to retire seven years ago, she thought resuming her summertime shifts at Britts would keep her active.

Plus, she said she considers the Nivens family and feels pride toward the Carolina Beach institution. Most people agree. The former mayor even honored Nivens in 2019 with a key to the town. 

“Most people that come in are in such a happy mood,” Johnson said, “and are happy to get the doughnuts. It’s just a feel-good place to be.”

As tempting as the sweet rounds are, Johnson said she refrains from grazing too many during shifts. But that doesn’t mean they’re always off limits, per se.

“I mean, I try to keep it down to one,” she admitted, “but sometimes we have those days where we’re on a twofer.”

She and the staff have their own preferences on cooking temperatures: One server likes the doughnuts darker and crispier, another lighter and fluffier. 

“I like them a little lighter where they’re kind of doughy, but there’s enough crispiness to it that the icing just melts,” Johnson described.

They also hear from customers about the best ways to reheat and eat a Britts donut. Some say there’s a perfect microwave zap at 8 seconds. Others say put it in a pan with a pat of butter. 

Still, everyone agrees fresh is best. Nivens ensures there are no preservatives in the recipe, which makes them taste best hot and straight from the fryer.

“It’s so light and airy,” Johnson described. “It’s like you’re getting this taste of wonderfulness, but it’s not heavy . . . They remind me of a croissant.”

The line was spreading down to the gazebo on the boardwalk one Saturday morning, as Johnson awaited orders. Patrons were patient as rain drizzled overhead sporadically.

The shop looked slightly different than normal, as plexiglass windows separated diners from the person working the register. The dining area had been shuttered from Covid-19 since last season. Folks walked up one at a time, placed their orders, paid, and stepped back outside to wait to be called. 

Johnson aligned white bags on the countertop, each marked with names in black Sharpie. Drew Blue was one. Visiting from out of town, it was her first Britts experience. 

“My best friend, who lives in Raleigh, always raves about Britts and my college roommate always talks about them,” Blue said. “So I decided, on my way out of Wilmington, I would stop over and see what the fuss is about.” 

Daughter Avery hung close by her mother. “I like sprinkles,” she said. 

Britts is an all-glazed, traditional donut shop — no frills. Nivens said he tried his hand at a chocolate variety once, but it didn’t stick.

“When you get a craving, you just have to do it,” a lady waiting behind Blue said. “I live in Indian Trail and came here for the weekend just to come to Britts. It doesn’t matter if it rains, it doesn’t matter what it does weather-wise, I knew I was coming.”

The pandemic seemingly hasn’t lightened the lines. Though Britts had a slow start to its 2020 season, opening May 10 last year, about a month later than normal, Nivens said business remained steady. “Income was down, naturally,” he said, referring to the month of lost revenue. “But there’s only so much business you can do here in this space unless we expand.”

He has been approached numerous times to franchise and even considered, at one point, putting Britts in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, Aspen and Vail, Colorado, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Franklin Graham reached out to ask Nevins to open a Britts in the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.

“And I just told him I didn’t think it would work,” Nivens said. “We decided one Britts was all we needed. We enjoy life. We didn’t want to be tied down with all that stuff. I think we did the right thing.”

Britts Donuts is open from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, starting Friday, May 28, through mid-September.

Donuts come fresh from the fryer and head to the glaze station. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
The doughnuts are shaped by hand before heading to the fryer. Made-to-order, come in by the “tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands” daily, according to owner Bobby Nivens. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
The Britts Donuts shop is like a frozen relic in time, still outfitted with the same equipment and even decor, including the counter tops from the original 1939 location. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
A picture of H.L. Britt, the founder of the doughnut shop, hangs among numerous framed magazine covers that have featured the shop over the years. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
During the pandemic customers were allowed in the shop one at a time to place orders; the Britts dine-in area remained closed. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
Britts Donuts serves only traditional, glazed sweet rounds by the dozen for $10 or individually for $1. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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