Every morning beginning around daylight, the line forms in Alys Beach.
In the early morning hours, it's mostly a line of dads who were given their list the night before and are now dutifully following through on their assignment. The moms with youngsters in tow and bikini-clad teens will come later. The dads, with their list in their fists, though, will be adored like a king when they arrive back at their house with sacks full of the revered Charlie's Donuts.
"Besides having the best donuts anywhere, people on vacation make a point to return year after year and take their kid's picture in front of the truck. It's like a destination. One woman was going to enter her kid's pictures taken in front of the truck in a Best Vacation Picture contest," said co-owner Charlie Mingus with a chuckle. "We have had 55 people in line at one time!"
This is pretty good for a former little white Sunbeam bread truck with an awning set in a not-readily noticed section of Alys Beach.
The truck opens its windows every morning at 6 a.m. to a line that formed earlier and has been patiently waiting.
But those eager for the tasty treats knew they must get there early because the donuts aren't made onsite, but trucked in that morning from a kitchen in Bonifay, and once they are gone, they are gone. And that usually happens by 10 or 11 a.m.
"We don't keep anything overnight," said Mingus. "Everything is made fresh daily by hand, the old-fashioned way."
To keep down on the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth at sell out — and that has happened — Mingus encourages all who want donuts to call in their orders 24 hours in advance.
"I got a call once from Tupelo, Miss. from a family that was on the way down and wanted to make sure they would have donuts their first morning," Mingus said proudly.
What makes Charlie's Donuts so sought after is the way they are made, said Mingus.
"We tried every mix until we got it right," he said. "We do something different that brings up the flavor. We have small margins and no sophisticated equipment. Every donut is handmade and hand dipped, and filled individually by hand. It takes a little army of folks, but it's what makes them better. Even our cinnamon rolls and twists have cinnamon throughout and not just sprinkled on top. That's what makes it. I taste the product every day. They're the same size and same amount of chocolate and we don't measure. It's all labor intensive."
The Charlie's Donut truck is not the only thing that is old in the company. Mingus's small army uses a glazer from the late 1960s to glaze the donuts.
"We're just a little mom-and-pop establishment," says Mingus modestly.
His foray into the donut business was totally by accident, says Mingus.
After 20 years service in the United States Army flying helicopters, Mingus retired to Bonifay, where he bought a pine tree farm.
One day, he struck up a conversation with a "young kid" in his early 30s driving a lumber truck that was helping build Mingus's farmhouse. The young man was also ex army.
"I asked him what he wanted to do with the rest of his life and he told me he had always wanted to open a donut store," recalls Mingus.
That young man was John Smith, who is now his partner.
While in Germany, Smith had worked in a donut store.
"I had no product knowledge except I like to eat donuts," said Mingus. "But I said, heck, let's do it."
The first day open, they were out of donuts by 8 a.m.
Mingus again credits the success to his tremendous product.
"They are all made like they were in 1930s and 1940s. It's hard work and slower this way but you get a better product," he said. "Our glazed donut is 2.5 or 3.5 ounces and tastes like an old-fashioned sour cream pound cake. If you get some peach ice cream and put a scoop on there you create a masterpiece."
Charlie's Donuts offers 12 to 14 different varieties of donuts made every day in Bonifay, and he now has 21 employees.
In addition to locations in Bonifay and Alys Beach, Charlie's Donuts now has locations in Daleville, in Milk & Honey in Marianna, Montgomery, on campus at Auburn, and he supplies donuts to Modica's Market at Seaside. He is also poised to open two more locations.
"It is a product that is so good it is unbelievable," says Mingus. "When I worked for the government, that was work, but this is fun. I never thought I would be doing this."
At a cost of 99 cents to $1.60, Mingus said this is the only deal you'll get on 30A.
Charlie's Donuts is open until the donuts run out, seven days a week.
To advance order, call 547-2960.