British Columbia

40 years of 'old-fashioned sugary goodness': Lee's Donuts to pass on the torch

It's Vancouver's oldest donut shop, home to the famous honey dip. As the original owner retires, what does the future hold for Granville Island's traditional handmade treats?

Started in 1979 by self-professed 'hippy-dippies,' brainchild of Granville Island couple changing owners

Lee's Donuts has stuck to its traditional recipes for nearly four decades, and CBC Radio food columnist Gail Johnson says that's not about to change. (Gail Johnson/CBC )

It was 1968 — the height of the free-love and civic rights movement on the West Coast — when Betty-Ann Lee met the love of her life on a Vancouver campus.

The pair courted, married, and eventually settled down in government jobs but never let go of the feeling they wanted to travel a more offbeat path.

Eleven years after their first date, Lee and her partner Alan opened Lee's Donuts, a Granville Island staple that Lee is finally passing on to a new generation of bakers.

Lee told On the Coast food columnist Gail Johnson that the shop, now 39 years old, was originally Alan's idea.

Betty-Ann Lee, (right), is passing on the torch of Vancouver's oldest doughnut shop. (Gail Johnson/CBC)

"He saw an ad in the paper for a doughnut-baking course in Minneapolis," Johnson said. "So, as one does, he flew down and took it."

In the summer of '79, Lee's Donuts opened for business, thanks to help from the pair's mothers. One helped lay tile, while the other worked the counter.

They hired a head baker who's still around 35 years later. He and the Lees insisted on hand-forming each doughy treat after a failed experiment with a cutting machine, which churned out tough pastries. 

"Since day one, this place has focused on simple, old fashioned sugary goodness," Johnson said.

But after all this time, the doughnut market has evolved into an unrecognizable domain, one dominated by bizarre incarnations of the old-fashioned delicacy.

Savoury herb-infusions, toppings ranging from Fruit Loops to NyQuil, and "eyebrow-raising shapes" aren't uncommon in the world of doughnuts today, Johnson says.

Lee's most popular pastry remains the humble Honey Dip, however, and the new owners have said they won't stray too far from the Lee family's model.

"Good news for fans of Lee's," said Johnson. "The new owners know that you don't fix it if it ain't broke."

With files from CBC Radio One's On the Coast