DERBY, Conn. — Like countless other stretches across the country, Route 34 here is populated with the usual retailers: Walmart, Verizon, McDonald’s, CVS. One store, however, stands out, not only because of the retro feel of the red sign proclaiming “Heav’nly Donuts,” but because its parking lot is filled with more than 100 classic cars, and the amplified sound of the Diamonds’ 1957 hit “Little Darlin’.” There, under a Persian blue awning, Anastasios (Ernie) and Efterpi (Effie) Badas gather a community just as they have every Sunday for 30 years.
Behind the counter, Effie wears a visor and headset, flashing a smile as she fills orders from the drive-through window, waits on counter customers, and dashes to the kitchen. Son Peter works by her side. The doughnuts they serve are indeed “Heav’nly,” made from scratch. Outside, Effie’s husband, Ernie, wears a Heav’nly Donuts jacket and a Nikon camera as he greets both newcomers and regulars like old friends. They fill his ’48 Crosley station wagon with food donations for the nonprofit Spooner House nearby. This charity event marks the first of Heav’nly Donuts’ weekly summer cruises.
The road to this gathering began 5,000 miles across the globe in Greece.
Ernie’s father, Peter, grew up in the village of Agia Paraskevi on the island of Lesbos, where he lived through the Depression, the German occupation, and Greek civil war. He was a farmer, growing olives and raising sheep. Ernie explains, “Everybody did a little bit of everything to survive.” His best friend was Effie’s father, Dimitrios Saragas. After the civil war, the two men and Effie’s uncle scraped together money to buy a truck and start a delivery business. None of them could drive, so they hired a driver. The business was a failure.
Hoping for a better life, Badas came to America in 1955 to settle in a small Greek community in Ansonia, Conn. Like many immigrants, he was able to get a job working at a factory, even though he spoke no English. Soon, his family joined him.
Effie’s father died in 1971. Effie did her part to support the family by working at their new bakery, just down the street from Ernie’s grandmother’s house. When Ernie’s family visited the village on vacation, their paths crossed. Effie recalls, “I met Ernie when I was 13. He stopped in the bakery to get a bread and I told my sister ‘I’ll take care of him!’ ” Soon after, her mother asked her if she planned to go to college. “And I say, ‘No, I’m going to the United States and I’m going to go work for my brother.’ I had this dream of working for [my brother’s] doughnut shop and going to have my hair done once a week. Buying new clothes. Things I never had in Greece. And then I said to myself, ‘I’ll meet Ernie and I’ll marry him.’ ”
In 1977, when she was 16, Effie moved to Massachusetts. Her brother George Saragas owned a Mister Donut franchise in Andover. Three days later, not speaking a word of English, she went to work at the store serving customers. She went to night school to learn English and community college to become a dental assistant, working at Mister Donut nights and weekends.
In a scene reminiscent of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” Ernie and Effie eventually met again as adults, at a wedding. They hit it off, dated, and married in Greece in a double ceremony with Effie’s sister. They settled in Connecticut and Ernie worked 80-hour weeks as a foreman in a factory. When he was laid off, they became taken with the idea of owning their own doughnut store. But first, Ernie had to learn how to make doughnuts.
He answered an ad for a nighttime baker at a Mister Donut on Route 34 in Derby, Conn. The owner happened to be Greek, and gave Ernie the job despite his lack of experience. He devoted one year to learning the trade. Each day, after baking doughnuts from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., he went home to drink a cup of coffee with Effie, then worked another eight hours at a friend’s garage. He’d sleep for two or three hours, then return to make the doughnuts. When the year was up, he went back to work at the factory and waited for the right opportunity to arise. It came when Ernie and Effie went to Derby to introduce the Mister Donut owner to their new baby, Peter. The store was for sale.
That first year, Ernie’s friend Pete Weitzler suggested they host a car cruise night. They were old friends and both “car guys.” The lot was completely filled that first Sunday. The cruise nights became a weekly tradition. Today, they attract 150 cars a week. Ernie explains, “It’s a common bond. We get people — blue-collar guys to lawyers, stockbrokers — the common bond is the cars. When you see them on Sunday, you don’t know what they do, you know what kind of car they drive.”
Within a couple of years, Ernie and Effie doubled their business, and in the mid-’90s became an independent store. Effie’s brother George had two Heav’nlys in Massachusetts. Ernie and Effie chose the same name because there were already napkins and cups printed. Little by little, Effie added Greek specialties to the menu, which now includes the likes of avgolemono, spanakopita, baklava, and galaktoboureko. And, recently, homemade dog biscuits.
What has sustained Heav’nly Donuts for 30 years? In large part, devotion to the business. “I love my customers,” Effie says. “That’s my life. This comes first. . . . Everything else comes second to me.”
Son Peter is determined to keep the shop’s legacy alive for many more. “I don’t want to see it disappear,” he says.
653 New Haven Ave., Derby, Conn., 203-734-4185.Jocelyn Ruggiero can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @foodiefatale.