Kent Davis is no stranger to small business – he owns three in the Chattanooga area. However, Julie Darling Donuts is the only business he owns that is focused on food, and he sees it as a fulfilling labor of love. “I love small business. I love to cook. So I thought, ‘Let’s see how this works together!’” Kent laughs, “And every day that I come in here, I know I get to make someone smile – people come here to treat themselves, and that’s what I love about this place!”
With no prior experience in the food and beverage industry, opening Chattanooga’s Julie Darling Donuts in February 2008 was a leap of faith, to say the least. But Kent decided to surround himself with people who knew what they were doing, to recruit his family’s help, and to consult any expert and additional training he could find, all while pursuing a dream sparked from a conversation with his mother almost 10 years ago.
That conversation took place in the midst of a Davis family tradition. Kent and his wife, (you guessed it) Julie, have made a hobby of hosting multitudes of friends and family to sample what Kent calls, “The Food of the Summer.” “Every summer I take on a new, single food item, and experiment with tons of recipes trying to perfect it. We invite friends and family over to try it and hang out, several times, until the feedback is all positive,” Kent explains.
“If I could be a tiny part of someone’s memories like that, then I’ve really done something special.”
– Kent Davis
One year, Kent selected donuts as “The Food of the Summer,” and in his preliminary endeavors, he invited his mother to come over, hang out in the kitchen, and offer her advice. As Kent cooked his first batch of donuts, his mother, sitting at the counter nearby, breathed in and exclaimed, “Wow, it smells just like Mary Jane’s in here!” After asking what Mary Jane’s was, Kent heard the story of one of his mother’s favorite childhood memories for the first time. “Her face lit up and she told me about this little donut shop that used to be on McCallie Avenue, and that her father used to take her and her siblings there to get donuts for a treat,” Kent recounts, “65 years later and she remembers it like it was yesterday.”
In her story, Kent’s mother and her siblings looked forward to the little white paper bags that their donuts came in. She told Kent that she had always treasured that time with her father. “And I thought to myself, if I could be a tiny part of someone’s memories like that, then I’ve really done something special,” Kent says.
Following several notes from his mom’s memory, Kent pays homage in nostalgic ways: his shop bares the endearing name of a woman – Julie Darling, like Mary Jane’s. He even keeps stamped white paper bags on the counter, like his mother remembered so clearly. The interior décor carries an idyllic 1950’s styling too. But the flavors have moved into the 21st century! “We experiment with flavors constantly. I mean, there’s really nothing we won’t try,” Kent says, almost tongue in cheek, remembering some failed experiments. “We made a nachos and cheese donut once. And once only!” he laughs. But the shop makes different varieties based on recommendations from customers, social media, employees, and seasonal inspiration. “Every season is fun! You know, it’s been almost a year since we’ve had anything pumpkin flavored, and that first week that the fall flavors are out, it’ll be a blast!” Kent says.
Julie Darling Donuts brews local coffee and creates visually stunning confections with creative flavors like ‘pancakes and bacon,’ and their ‘Samoa cookie’ (to name just a couple). They partner with numerous nonprofits and other local businesses to support the Chattanooga community, and even set up a complimentary ‘coffee and donut pairing’ during Wine Over Water. As much as Kent keeps it a family affair, he also strives to keep it community oriented. “We put ‘Chattanooga’s’ at the beginning of our name and that was intentional,” he says, “We really want it to be Chattanooga’s donut shop!”