“I know the face, the name, and the donut,” says Seng Phothisanh.
When I first meet Phothisanh, it’s about 11:45 on a Tuesday morning. She waves a guiding hand in front of the bakery display at Puffy Cream Donuts in Eagan. Twenty-four big metal trays could theoretically fit in this display, but there aren’t 24 trays in the display at this moment. There are three. One has a couple of long johns, another has a few donuts, and that third tray looks about half-covered with glazed donut holes.
Puffy Cream opens at 5 a.m. and is 15 minutes from closing. There are three maple-frosted cake donuts left, and I take two of them. Over those next 15 minutes, many of the remaining donuts are sold and one customer sounds bummed out when she hears all the maple-frosted cake donuts are gone for the day except one.
Phothisanh has a lot of faces and names to know.
She had no prior experience making or working with donuts when she took a job working for a family friend at Puffy Cream back in 2002. She had been a stay-at-home mother for several years prior to that point while her husband, Osah Phetsarath, worked as a manager at a car dealership. She wanted to go back to work and the situation was right. Their children had reached school age and her parents had moved into the house. She punched in for the first time and headed on a path to donut domination.
Phothisanh’s endearment to the shop and its customers grew over the next 10 years and when the opportunity came to buy the business in June 2012, Phothisanh and Phetsarath took it. Phetsarath left the car business two years later and joined her at Puffy Cream. You’ll never believe this, but selling a donut is much less onerous than selling a car.
“You open the door at 5 a.m. and everyone walks in with a smile,” says Phothisanh. “They walk in happy and they walk out happy. You never see frowns when they come in. We’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is like a dream come true for us.’”
Phothisanh says the Long John twists are her favorite donuts. I think they’re mine, too. They pull apart in little cotton candy-esque fluffy bits, and practically melt in your mouth. There’s also a powdered donut I love. It vaguely resembles a curling stone, but it’s filled with whipped chocolate and a little flower of frosting pokes out from one side. That one might be my favorite.
But the maple-frosted cake donuts might be my favorite favorite. Maple-frosted cake donuts are my default setting, and Puffy Cream makes fantastic maple-frosted cake donuts. I’ve found that two maple-frosted cake donuts pave a path to a really great day, so let’s hope some nincompoop doesn’t go in there just before you and leave only one.
Phothisanh had to learn how to make all of these when she became owner in 2012. She had to learn these, she had to learn the bear claws, the apple fritters, the raised donuts, the old fashioned donuts, and the cinnamon rolls. She recalls working 17-hour days while she learned all the roles she hadn’t previously performed.
She also recalls the first batch of raised donuts she ever made.
“It didn’t look good,” she says. “It didn’t look good at all.”
She explained how, if too much water is used when preparing the dough, humidity can build up and cause the donut to absorb too much oil while it gets fried. A good raised donut is airy and pillow-soft. The margin for error isn’t quite so slim with cake donuts, she says, and you can spot a good cake donut by its golden exterior and small donut hole.
“Once you get used to it,” she says, “it’s a walk in the park.”
Phothisanh emigrated from Laos in 1980 when she was nine years old, and graduated from Richfield High School in 1988. From there, she moved to Eagan and then to Lakeville with Phetsarath. When Phetsarath left the car business, they worked side-by-side at Puffy Cream until his death in 2016.
“He loved the shop,” she says. “There were days where we had the day off, and he would come and just clean. I was like, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’”
When word spread about Phetsarath’s passing, family and community members alike were quick to lend a hand. Some pitched in with deliveries; others helped her sell donuts at special events and holiday festivals.
Phetsarath was a big Vikings fan. Phothisanh told the story about his favorite Vikings hoodie. He’d wear it, wash it, and keep on wearing it the same day, she says. After he passed, his nieces and nephews bought a legacy brick at US Bank Stadium to commemorate him. A replica of the block is at the shop, on top of the bakery display next to a photograph of him.
Phothisanh says Phetsarath smiled all the time.
“When you walked in the door, he had the joker face,” she says. “There was never a frown on his face, ever. I was like, ‘Do you ever get mad?’ He would be like ‘Why? There’s no reason to be mad.’ I’m sure my husband is looking down on us, smiling, pleased that’s we’re still in business.”
There are two booths in Puffy Cream Donuts, alongside a pink-painted wall dotted with donut decals. It isn’t a big shop; you’ve got the two booths, the bakery display, a soda fridge, one table, and that’s about it for the front room. From my usual position, that of the bakery display-gazer, the production room in the back doesn’t look much bigger. Yet, Phothisanh and her team crank out about 2,000 units per night. On Friday, that number soars over 5,000.
“There are days where we’re sold out at 8 a.m. or 7 a.m.,” she says. “We have a set schedule every day. Friday, it’s triple.”
They start around 8 p.m. in the back to have the first batches ready for wholesalers when they arrive at 4:30 a.m. the next day. Phothisanh says 15 of them make the trip from downtown Minneapolis alone. When the front doors open at 5 a.m., customers are coming from as far off as Woodbury and Shakopee and suffering the Uptown Minneapolis morning rush to get there.
Puffy Cream Donuts aren’t always packed up and UPS’ed overnight, but Phothisanh will make an exception for something like Amy Klobuchar’s meet-and-greet out in Washington D.C. This happened about a year after Phothisanh took over ownership of Puffy Cream. Other politicians have held meet-and-greets right at the shop.
“One of [Klobuchar’s] secretaries called, and said she wanted to give her business to a local bakery in Eagan,” says Phothisanh, “so they picked us. I boxed up my donuts, the UPS guys picked them up and overnighted them to DC. I’m like, I hope they’re still good! If they shake up the box, can you imagine what they looked like?”
One of Puffy Cream’s specialties is making of donuts in the shape of big numbers. Phothisanh explains how giant numbers are hand-cut and fit into a box normally reserved for batches of two dozen donuts. Peruse the Puffy Cream Facebook page and you’ll see some 8s, you’ll see four-digit years, a 15, an 18, a 79, and an 102! But Phothisanh says 103 is the highest age they’ve made.
Phothisanh says they put a lot of love and a lot of effort into their donuts every day. Phetsarath used to say each customer was a like blessing, and the customer-centric approach has lived on through the work of Phothisanh and her team today. She emphasizes to her team the importance of making sure everything is of the highest quality and that customers are well-taken care of in the event something goes wrong. She tries her best to answer donation requests affirmatively.
“We’re here to stay, and to make everyone happy,” she says. “Every time someone calls me, it reminds me of Osah, telling me to give back, that it’s the right thing to do. I believe in making people happy.”
Puffy Cream Donuts is located at 3390 Coachman Rd. in Eagan. If you’re coming south on Interstate 35 East, take the Yankee Doodle Rd. exit and head right. You’ll find it in a shopping center with a Lucky’s Gas Station and ZZQ Barbecue. More information about Puffy Cream Donuts can be found on their Facebook page.
CHECK THIS OUT!
Did you catch Friday’s story about the couple bringing us modern takes on classic Lao dishes at Soul Lao? One of the co-owners is Seng Phothisanh’s nephew, Eric! You can check out their story here.