Mother of four turns her flea market shop into a doughnut destination
More than 15 years ago, Mary Byler was facing a mountain of debt from a hospital stay.
Now, she faces a mountain of flour every Friday, but she’s not complaining.
Byler is the owner and founder of Mary’s Homemade Donuts & Coffee at the Rogers Community Auction and Open Air Market. Lines of more than 40 people often wait to buy one of her 14 homemade doughnut varieties, ranging from vanilla glazed to chocolate to apple fritters.
But Byler, 40, would never have started the business except for a life-threatening illness that left her and her family heavily in debt.
The Amish mother of four was diagnosed in 2000 with POTS or postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. POTS sufferers experience life-threatening changes in their heart beats when they stand up after lying down. The condition afflicts up to 3 million Americans.
“I had to stay in the hospital in Pittsburgh, and we rang up large medical bills,” says Byler, who like many Amish eschews health insurance. “One bill was $18,000 alone. Once I started feeling better, I started thinking of ways I could make money to pay the bills. I thought of baking cookies and cakes, but a lot of people do that. But not everyone made doughnuts, so that’s what I decided to do.”
Doughnuts bring back fond memories for Byler, who lives in New Wilmington, Pa.
“My mother always made doughnuts for special occasions, and they were a treat,” Byler says. “When she baked doughnuts, the whole house smelled of them.”
Tinkering with her mother’s recipe, Byler began selling doughnuts at the flea market in 2001 in an outside booth. The first year was difficult, as she and her helpers had to fight the elements and meet state food regulations.
But her doughnuts – made on site and double the size of chain-sold counterparts – quickly attracted a following. To meet the demand, she bought a stall inside one of the barns.
“The first year we used 150 pounds of flour each Friday,” she says. “Now it’s up to 1,200 pounds.”
Customers don’t mind the long lines, which often stretch beyond the rope-partitioned area. Making a decision is difficult for some given the options.
“We come all the way for the doughnuts,” says Penny Nastasi from Gustavus Township in Trumbull County. “They are the best. The vanilla glazed is our favorite.”
Byler and her helpers – who can total up to 12 on busy Fridays – are driven by a friend to Rogers as Byler doesn’t own a car. Her farmhouse doesn’t have electricity or a phone.
Making a batch of doughnuts can take up to an hour, with the dough needing at least 30 minutes to rise. All of the dough is hand-rolled, and the doughnuts are fried in vegetable-based shortening that has no peanut oil. All are made on-site.
“My doughnuts are never greasy,” Byler says. “It doesn’t pay to use cheap materials.”
The line always moves quickly as Byler and her helpers, who include her sister and two daughters, work effortlessly amid still warm trays of fresh doughnuts. Some customers take photos of the operations; others request special orders, including heart-shaped doughnuts. Byler still laughs about one man who ordered a doughnut the size of a dinner plate as a joke.
“People often ask me to sell or give them my recipe,” Byler says. “I always tell them that if they have my recipe there’s no guarantee they’re going to taste the same.”
Among the seven varieties and seven specialties, the hands-down favorite remains the vanilla glazed, Byler says. Other favorites include the brown sugar and cinnamon, as well as the chocolate doughnut.
Byler credits her husband, who runs his own construction business, for her success.
“He’s is my silent partner,” she says. “Whenever I need something, he is there for me. He has built much of the stand.”
Success has brought its own challenges. Many of Byler’s customers constantly ask her to expand her business to other venues, or at least add another day or two to her work-week. At present, Byler only sells doughnuts on Fridays.
“I have another life besides doughnuts. I have my children and the farm. I don’t want to sacrifice my family for a business,” she says.
Long-time customers seem to understand.
Susan Berger, a hairdresser from Canonsburg, Pa., loves Byler’s doughnuts. Her husband, Ron, is a diabetic and is under doctor’s orders to avoid sweets. He makes an exception with the doughnuts.
“Spending a Friday morning in line isn’t my idea of fun, but these doughnuts are worth it,” Berger says, looking at her husband. “I know we shouldn’t, but we had oat meal this morning for breakfast. One doughnut’s not going to hurt.”