By Eric Fritzius
Just south of Lewisburg, in an unassuming former barbecue restaurant, located right at the northern junction of the Hwy 219/Fairlea loop split, is what might be the worst kept secret in the county. Granted, it can be difficult to keep any secret under the best of conditions, but when Arthur Forgette and Debbie Porter, the co-owners of Lewisburg’s newest restaurant, Retro Donuts and More, decided to stage a soft opening for the place on August 20, they found it more difficult to keep it quiet than they had assumed. They opened with no publicity or fanfare, hoping to simply draw a reasonable number of walk-in customers to allow their freshly-trained staff to get their customer-service sea-legs beneath them under less-stressful conditions than a full-blown grand opening. Forgette smiles and shakes his head when asked about it.
“We ran out of donuts at about 12:30 on the first day,” he says. “A few key people in town that have a lot of social media followers put us on Facebook and just blew us up at lunch time that afternoon. We had a line 20 deep.”
Considering their titular confection, not to mention the many months of rumors of the shop’s impending arrival, it’s no surprise customers were eager to sample their wares. “It’s been very busy,” Forgette says. “We sold almost 7,000 donuts our first week.”
Forgette and Porter are already successful restauranteurs in the area, having opened the French Goat in downtown Lewisburg just over three years ago. Owning their own French restaurant remains a dream fulfilled. But they had long noted a donut shop-shaped hole in the culinary spectrum of Greenbrier County and they wanted to be the ones to fill it—all puns intended. Unfortunately, finding a suitable location proved a challenge, so the dream remained a dream for over a year. After When Pigs Fly Barbecue closed their restaurant location on the edge of Fairlea in 2017, this changed.
“I had my eye on this space for a long time knowing this would be a great location for what we wanted to do,” Forgette says. He contacted the landlord about leasing the space and then he and Porter swiftly found the creation of their dream donut shop becoming a reality.
Having had so long to think of what they would do, they had definite ideas of the type of shop they wanted to create. It would be a donut shop, but one that served as an all around breakfast spot with more savory breakfast items as well. It would be a place that was bright. Classic. Retro. Retro Donuts and More was officially a thing.
While the building was being renovated, Porter began planning the décor, one that suggested a diner from the `50s or `60s, complete with aqua-blue booths, pink-stooled bar seating along the front wall, and matching pink chairs at the chrome-edged tables dotting the restaurant floor. “We wanted to create a happy space, a happy environment,” Porter adds. “A place where you came in and felt happy and welcomed. Hence all the pink.”
The music from the speakers would be Forgette’s favorite `60s rock, with Elvis, the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane and more, which were also reflected in the framed 45s and rock posters on the walls.
“We wanted an atmosphere where it could be fun for kids and families and older adults could kind of relive some of the songs they knew when they were kids,” Forgette says.
However, it takes a good donut to make a good donut shop. They turned to Reed VanDenBerghe—an area chef known for previous acclaimed restaurants such as Union’s Moxy Café, among others—to help in the development of the donuts.
The development of the basic donut recipe may not have taken Chef Reed very long, but they knew getting it right on a daily basis would take practice for the cooking staff. “You have to have a quality consistent product every day. It has to look the same. It has to feel the same. We’re cutting our donuts by hand every morning,” Forgette says, noting that their donuts are all hand cut. “You roll the dough out, you mix the dough, add the yeast to the mix, add the water… it’s got to be the right temperature. It’s really scientific.” They also developed cake donuts, which do not require yeast or proofing, and can be made more quickly.
The design of the donuts came next. “Solomon Lamb is a guy who moved here from New Jersey, and he’s on our team at the French Goat,” Forgette says. “He’s really taken the donut ideas to the next level.”
Retro offers 12 to 15 different varieties of donuts each day. They offer the basics, such as glazed, cake, cinnamon and sugar, and lemon and raspberry-filled donuts each day, but then allow themselves to get creative with the ones they call their gourmet donuts. These have flavors combinations such as Oreo Peanut Butter Swirl, mascarpone glaze with blueberry drizzle, maple bacon, and even Fruity Pebble-coated donuts are all frequent choices. There are different ones each day.
“It’s all about flavor town here,” Forgette says. Of their gourmet donuts, maple bacon is a regular favorite. “And we have a secret ingredient in the glaze,” he says. “We use Smooth Ambler whiskey. We’ve done the whiskey with the spiced apple filling as well. We cook the alcohol out of the whiskey, but it gives it a really nice smoky flavor.”
The donut makers come in at 11 o’clock at night and work all night to prep the 1,000-plus donuts they will make and hand-cut on any given day. “So, when you have a donut at 8 o’clock in the morning, it was just made three or four hours before,” Forgette says. “We’ve got a good creative team. I just let them do their thing back there.” And I come in at 5 o’clock in the morning, after they’ve worked all night, and they have these great donuts and great ideas,” he says. “And we have a lady who’s a great decorator—Teresa—she does all of our decoration for the donuts.”
“We’re a bakery so it doesn’t carry over,” Porter says. Meaning, when the donuts are gone, they’re gone. “We don’t keep anything.”
And for their non-donut menu items, such as the sandwiches and breakfast bowls, they teamed with Samantha Hall, another area chef known for her work at the Market on Courthouse Square in Hinton, who created not only savory breakfast dishes but lunch items as well.
“Samantha really took the menu, and my ideas and vision, and really knocked it out of the park,” Forgette says. “We wanted to make sure we had lots of flavor in everything that we did.” The Queso Bowl, for instance, contains potato hash, chorizo, black beans, queso, pico de gallo, avocado, and a sunny side egg. Or, for the more health conscious, the Harvest Bowl, which is a kale blend with barley, quinoa, avocado, fresh tomato relish and a sunny side egg. They also serve breakfast sandwiches, such as bacon, egg and cheese, spicy sausage, or even veggie. Each is served on a special bun.
“The bun is actually a donut,” Forgette says. “We make a donut, we don’t cut the hole out of it, obviously. It would become a filled donut. But instead of putting any sugar or any glaze on it, we slice it in half and then we grill it on the grill and give it a nice toastiness.” The donut buns are also used for lunch sandwiches, such as the Retro Burger, the Herbed Chicken Salad Sandwich, and the Spicy Black Bean Burger.
Most items on the menu, including sandwiches, bowls, salads and soups, are under $5 with the majority under $4. “We wanted to make sure that you had something that was very price-friendly,” Porter says. “That’s very important. To really try to make it affordable.” And both breakfast and lunch items are always available during the daily 6 a. m to 3 p.m. business hours.
Retro has a wide selection of coffee and espresso, using the same high quality, fair trade coffee they serve at the French Goat. This attention to eco-friendliness extends to their disposable plates and plastic cutlery. “We wanted to make sure we used all eco-friendly products, so all of the plates and the bowls are compostable. Even the plastic is made from sugar cane and is recyclable and biodegradable. And we’re also using paper straws as well.”
Repeat business has been booming. “We have people who have been here four or five days in a row because they like the Harvest Bowl, or they like the Queso Bowl, or they like the Retro Burger,” Forgette says. And while their attempt at a quiet opening was not so successful, the crowd it drew is ultimately a good problem to have. “I think it’s kind of obvious that there’s a huge demand for fresh donuts in this town.”