When Jay and Judy Yoder left Madison County to help start a new Mennonite community near Blackstone, a scarcity of jobs near their new home forced them to get creative about making a living.
With a family recipe, a truck with ample windows and five children to lend a hand, the Yoders created something sensational: a doughnut.
Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen started four years ago. On the family’s first trip to the 17th Street Farmers’ Market, they sold maybe 100 doughnuts.
Today, some in the family get up as early as 3:30 a.m. to begin the trek from Dinwiddie County to the South of the James Market, where they often sell more than 2,500 doughnuts.
For many fans, the reason for that success is obvious: The gigantic, misshapen rings are the best doughnuts they’ve ever had. To the Yoders, the reason their doughnuts stand out is because they’ve steered clear of the commercial instant mix used elsewhere.
“Her idea was, ‘Look, let’s not do that,’ ” Jay Yoder said of his wife, the food truck’s namesake. “Let’s have something different. We’ll have our own recipe. We’ll do our process.”
Before the couple married, Judy Yoder, whose family is from Madison, had a bakery with her mother. Doughnuts were a specialty.
When asked what the secret is, Judy Yoder’s response was quick.
“The sourdough,” she said. “I make that every week.”
Though the ingredients are prepackaged off-site so they’re ready in a hurry, the dough is mixed in the truck. It’s then set aside to rise before being shaped into rings, dipped in a fryer, glazed and hung on sticks in the window.
The doughnuts come in just one style, glazed, but the Yoders also sell fudge and free-range eggs.
The Yoders had help getting started from a friend in Tennessee, who allowed them to observe a similar doughnut process.
“Part of what created the buzz — the way they were doing it is that they would go out and actually make it at the site rather than making it at home and taking it out,” Jay Yoder said.
At the start, Jay Yoder still had to find other part-time work. This year, he said the doughnut business is “absolutely full-time.” On top of their regular three-day market schedule, the Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen truck also does bookings for birthday parties, weddings and corporate events. The Yoders have even had some inquiries about franchising.
“My goal is not to try to take over the world,” said Jay Yoder. “I’m not going to say never. But right now, for the next few years, I intend to keep it a family-based business.”
One of the couple’s three daughters, Kimberly, 13, has floated the idea of opening a doughnut shop in Richmond, but she and her dad agree she needs to finish school first.
“I think it would be fun,” Kimberly said. “The only thing is it would tie you down so much. You’d have to be there a lot.”
It takes three people to run the Yoders’ doughnut truck at full steam, and with plenty of prep work to do in the basement of the family’s house, all five children help out in some way.
“Every one of them has stuff that they do at home,” Judy Yoder said. “We all have our jobs.”
The two oldest daughters — Kimberly and Marcia, 16 — help out most with running the truck. Amanda, 10, Travis, 6, and Troy, 4, pitch in by folding boxes in the family’s basement. But being a family endeavor, everyone is called on to help in any way possible.
“I like doing everything,” Amanda said.
“The best is to glaze,” Travis said, “because I don’t get to do it so often.”
When a Mennonite community grows to a certain size, some families are sent out to start a new community elsewhere. It was that tradition that brought the Yoders to a farm between McKenney and Blackstone that also has cows, goats, chickens and pigs.
Jay Yoder, who hails from Kentucky, serves as a pastor for a Mennonite group that typically draws between 30 and 40 people. Mennonite literature is made available at the doughnut truck, and Jay Yoder doesn’t shy away from talking about his faith.
“One of the things that’s important to me is the Bible teaches that Christians are to be salt and light,” he said. “That’s the idea of just … relationships with people. Sharing your faith. Living your faith. … What I hope shines through at the end of the day is that we’re real. We’re not trying to put on some pretend thing.”
He said he and his wife feel very blessed to be able to make a living alongside their children.
“Traditionally, that’s something that was fairly important to us, and I’m talking about from a Mennonite or Christian perspective. Just as a part of responsible parenting, teaching your children also to work,” Jay Yoder said. “Equipping them with the skills that they need to be productive adults and contribute to society.”
Traffic was brisker than usual on a recent weekday morning at the Huguenot-Robious Farmers’ Market. With school approaching, it was the last day of the season that the Yoders and their doughnuts would be there.
A steady stream of people approached the window, many greeting the Yoders with the air of familiarity that comes with being a regular.
Marcia Germain, an artist who met the Yoders from selling her wares at local farmers markets, sat and painted the younger Yoder children’s names on their arms.
“We wouldn’t have a market if it wasn’t for them,” Germain said of the Yoders.
Pastor Earl Brown of Fifth Baptist Church certainly looked like a regular customer as he bought a box of doughnuts. They weren’t for him, he said, they were for the employees in the church office.
“They’re the ones who love ’em to death,” Brown said. “They make certain I come by here every Thursday.”
On Yelp, the online review site, Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen has a five-star rating, the highest. Comments there describe the doughnuts as “ethereal,” “divine” and “devilish rings of heaven.”
Between their three main summertime spots — Forest Hill Park, the Great Big Greenhouse and Westbury Pharmacy — the Yoders sell about 4,000 doughnuts per week.
They’ve had to turn down event bookings, mainly because they only have one truck. Their second one should be on the road within a month or so.
“We work hard, but it’s not just all work, particularly in this type of business with the family, with the kind of support that we’ve gotten from people in Richmond,” said Jay Yoder. “It’s fun making people happy.”
On the road
Check the Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen Facebook page for information on where to find the food truck. www.facebook.com/mrsyoderskitchen