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Nuts for Doughnuts

February 9, 2012 By:
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Michael Solomonov (left) and Steven Cook take advantage of one of the best perks of their job: an endless supply of free doughnuts.

If a doughnut-eating contest came to Philly, Zach Engel would surely have an edge.

Engel taste-tests up to 40 of the fried sweets every week -- a perk or health hazard of his job as the managing chef at the newly opened Federal Donuts, depending on how you look at it.

"I don't really eat anything" else, he says.

No doubt the dozens of fans who arrive at the store just after their favorite flavor sells out would eagerly trade places with Engel, at least for a little while.

Open just four months, the tiny shop has become a cult favorite, drawing long lines of customers and even film crews from cable television programs.

While there's nothing overtly Jewish about the place, it's owned by two prominent members of the tribe: chefs Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, and staffed by a few other Jews, including Engel.

The no-frills storefront just past the intersection of 2nd and Federal streets is a hole in the wall compared to the chefs' upscale Center City endeavors, such as Zahav and Xochitl. But nobody seems to care about the decor -- or that there's only three items on the menu: coffee, doughnuts and ... fried chicken?

Solomonov shrugs. "We just wanted to do things that were cool and interesting and put them in one place," he says, jutting his chin toward the window as a couple in sweats drives up in a cab for a doughnut fix.

"The fact that we can't answer that question is related to why people have taken to this place," Cook chimes in. "On paper, it doesn't make any sense."

Both have an affinity for fried goodies. Growing up, Cook says, his mom made poultry so often that he came up with names for the dishes like "Chicken Surprise No. 1." His great aunt made the best fried version, with huckleberry pie for dessert.

"If I'm not doing anything, I'm probably thinking about food 50 percent of the time," admits the 38-year-old.

The two chefs worked out the recipes together, settling on a twice-fried chicken with the customer's choice of dry rub or sticky glaze and a doughnut batter with a hint of Turkish spices.

"We spent a lot of mornings eating doughnuts," Solomonov says.

They still do. Solomonov estimates that he packs away about 10 doughnuts a week during rounds to the store.

"There are worse things to do," the 33-year-old chef says between mouthfuls.

It doesn't count though, he continues, because he doesn't know how many calories they have.

"We don't ever ask ourselves that question."

Since foodies and other followers were anticipating the arrival of Federal Donuts, customers mobbed the place as soon as it opened in October.

You literally couldn't get inside, recalls Bram Danciger, a 24-year-old communications major at Temple University, perched on the shop window ledge as he munched over an open box of doughnuts on his lap.

"They'd sell out in the first 10 minutes."

The initial chaos didn't deter the South Philly resident, who says he's been back maybe 15 times. He doesn't have a favorite doughnut, though. "I just love them -- every single one."

Even with additional staff and a new dinner shift of fried chicken on weekends, the store still can't satisfy demand. They sell up to 300 doughnuts on weekdays; up to 600 on weekends, Cook says. The chicken is harder to keep up with because there simply isn't space to store more than 600 orders.

By 10 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, only three kinds of "fancy" doughnuts remained, which cost $2 apiece and come in flavors like "Halvah Pistachio" and "Piña Colada." Those were gone within the hour, a tragic disappointment to the next customer.

"They're out!" she complains, whacking her friend on the arm.

"Oh no, no raspberry!" moans another.

To make up for it, Engel offers them samples of new flavors he's been perfecting -- a chili-mango sugar blend for the fresh doughnuts, which are cooked to order for $1.25 apiece, and a Coke glazed variety. The store offers only six fancy options at a time, Engel says, but they've rotated through 20 different flavors. It took three weeks to get the ingredient ratios just right for a S'mores concoction, he says.

Ironically, Engel, who has grease burns tattooing his arms, says he's not a huge fan of breakfast food. Up until last fall, he had little experience making doughnuts, aside from kosher-for-Passover matzah ones during a previous job cooking for the Hillel at Tulane University in New Orleans.

It's stunning to see what lengths people have gone to get them, he says. Customers from Fort Washington have woken up before daybreak in order to arrive before the store opens at 7 a.m.; others desperate for chicken have tried to place orders at 9 a.m.

Quirky customers and all, Cook says, it's been a luxury to have so much interest in such a fun business.

Considering the location "off the beaten path" in South Philly, "I wasn't thinking this is going to be the next big thing in our portfolio," Cook says. "Who knows, this could be the most successful thing we do."

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