Madsen Donuts comes south

Brian Peltz has been hooked on Madsen Donuts since he was a kid on vacation in Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio. Now he and his wife, Milica, own a Madsen franchise in Castle Shannon.

At 6:30 in the morning, Brian Peltz is rolling in the dough.  Actually, Peltz is rolling out the dough for a fresh batch of glazed cinnamon sticks.

Already three hours into his workday, the Pat Haven Drive resident finds himself in his happy space—Madsen Donuts at 3609 Library Avenue in Castle Shannon.

New to the area, Madsen’s is a doughnut legend that started in Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio, in 1938, when Carl Madsen opened his iconic shop on the main drag of the Lake Erie resort town. Over decades of summers, dozens and dozens of western Pennsylvania families, including the Peltz family, have enjoyed Madsen donuts during annual summer vacations.

“We started going to Geneva-on-the-Lake in 1964. Now it’s like a reunion every year,” he said. “And we always make a doughnut run to Madsen’s.”

A couple of years ago, on another run to Madsen’s, Peltz inquired about a sign in the window that said franchises were available. Not long after, Peltz and his wife, Milica, celebrated their joint ownership of the first Madsen satellite location—even if they weren’t the first in line for one.

“Eight other people got rejected before us,” Peltz said. The reason? They didn’t want to stick to the Madsen recipe book, literally and figuratively.

“Some of them wanted to serve bacon, egg and cheese doughnuts or hot dogs and sandwiches later in the day,” he explained. The Madsen approach is straight forward: 12 types of doughnuts and rolls and nothing else. Still, Peltz manages to add some local flavor to his donuts, topping them with black and gold sprinkles on Steelers game days.

Promising to stick to the Madsen plan, Peltz completed a short apprenticeship in Ohio before making his first doughnut in Castle Shannon. After promoting his shop on social media and word of mouth, Peltz worked right up to the last minute of opening day on August 9.

Peltz has been a Madsen fan since childhood. Now he’s pioneering their brand in Castle Shannon.

And he worried about customers turning out.

“Of course, I worried that people might not show up,” he said. “I think about that every day.”

Whatever doubts Peltz had disappeared almost as quickly as the doughnuts that filled the display cases and rolling racks behind the counter.

“By the time we opened at 6 o’clock, eight to 10 people were lined up outside,” said Peltz. That rush of customers continued throughout the morning. By 9:30, every donut, cinnamon stick and jelly- and cream-filled pastry was gone. Still, Peltz worried.

“I didn’t want anyone to be disappointed,” he said. “What if someone traveled from the North Hills and we didn’t have any doughnuts when he got here?”

A couple of months later, Peltz says he’s still working on a formula to determine how many donuts to make each day.

“I check the weather forecast. I think about the day of the week and other things,” he said. “Then I rub my crystal ball and try to figure it out.”

One thing Peltz doesn’t fret about it is keeping the operation running smoothly. Along with his wife—whom he met when both worked for USAirways—Peltz relies on a dedicated crew that includes Manny Rana, a 2018 Mt. Lebanon graduate. A baker on the early morning shift, Rana attends Community College of Allegheny County later in the day. On weekends, current Mt. Lebanon High School students do everything from working the front counter to washing dishes.

Speaking of high school, two of the three Peltz kids—Nikolas and Alexander—already graduated from Mt. Lebanon, while Jasmine will receive her diploma next spring.

As customers pick up boxes of doughnuts for a local school fundraiser, co-workers and family and friends, Peltz drops a wire rack filled with cinnamon sticks into a vat of bubbling grease behind him. For 90 seconds or so, Peltz and Rana flip the pastries over and over with extra-long chop sticks till they’re golden brown all around. Then he transfers them to a table, where another employee dips them two at a time in a milky glaze.

People, not machines, do nearly all the work in making every Madsen doughnut. The only sign of automation in the place is the industrial power tool that Peltz uses to blend the seven or eight high-quality ingredients in every gigantic bowl of dough. Yes, of course, he holds the power tool. With both hands.

Peltz picks up a cinnamon stick—the warm glaze still dripping a bit—and hands it to a bystander.

“Go ahead. Take a bite while it’s still warm,” he said. “Did you ever taste anything that good?”

The bystander closes his eyes. No words are necessary. The smile on his face says it all.

Photography by John Altdorfer