It's just past 6 a.m. when I pull up to the back of the Columbia Senior Center. The sun isn't quite up yet (neither am I) and Columbia still sleeps; yet somehow, somewhere magic has been happening.
Just inside the back doors of the building, a large kitchen is alive and cooking (shameless puns) for three hours already. I ring the buzzer and Melissa, better known as "the Doughnut Magician," answers the door with a huge smile.
If I wasn't awake before, I am now, as the smell of doughnuts wafts through my nose and warms the cold chill that was present in my poorly heated car. I thought 6 a.m. was early, yet the few people running about the kitchen have been here since 3, rolling and cutting dough, prepping for the rest of the week, glazing and boxing finished products.
Melissa immediately hands me a piece of homemade graham cracker that will later be used to make a s'mores doughnut. I understand why she is a magician both because I have no idea where she pulled this graham cracker from and because it tastes just as perfect as the filling she asks me to lick off of a spoon next.
If it were 3 or 5 or 6 a.m. outside, you wouldn't know it. Melissa beams as she tells me about the upcoming opportunities for the holiday season: homemade candy canes, taffy, candy glass, cream, butter toffee, and more (people, those are all going on doughnuts, how can you not beam?). They try at least one new recipe a week (read: experimenting with bacon). I feel myself starting to drool. She continues on about her love of candy and I agree wholeheartedly.
Melissa isn't the only one who lights up the place. Other Harold's employees (the four jammin' in the kitchen this morning) Meggie, Allison, Joe and Keaton share her sentiment. They love the atmosphere of their workplace and the people they share it with. "You get up and get work done with great people," Joe, self-proclaimed King of the Dishes, says.
And how could they not? As the "magic hour" of 4 a.m. reaches, doughnut making becomes much more than a roll of dough and a little glaze. It becomes a show. Melissa says that mornings are usually accompanied by an array of other friends, mainly Celine Dion and 2 Chainz (they need to "keep it fresh!"). In between these, you'll find a few 80's power ballads, some group harmonizing and maybe a few made up words. "You get to know everyone when it's 3 a.m.," Allison, who is in charge of production, says.
As the magic hour comes to a close the kitchen busies itself with preparing for clean up, boxing and finishing any other tasks. Joe mops around the kitchen (and I happen to accidently get in his way every time I move). Keaton decides which taste tests will make for the best end-of-shift breakfast and Meggie boxes doughnuts for the day. Michael, the owner, has come in to grab some orders, talk to other media and check in with his employees.
After one more taste test of cream, they begin to wind down. It's clear to me that this has become a special place and even more clear to me that once the shop on 9th street is open, their own kitchen will be even more so. As I've said before, Harold's mantra is to "Love Your Craft," and the love in this place is as profound as the "My Heart Will Go On" solos they belt in the wee hours of the morning.
I'm unsure of what to boast about more: the doughnuts, the people or the atmosphere, because they are all a string of wonderful cliches that work isn't work if you do what you love and you love doing it and you love the people you do it with.
So I'll leave you with this: everything about these people and this place and what they do is what people dream about when they think about their future jobs. It's what people desire when they think about waking up and heading to the office everyday or when they get in the car after a long shift. It's an ideal, a goal, an accomplishment to be a part of something like this (or to witness it first hand) and it's going to light up 9th street like a ball of sunshine.