It’s lunchtime at BJ’s Donuts & Eatery. The small eatery is humming, the donut shelves almost empty.
Pat Riley is in the kitchen, making sandwiches. The special that day is ham and potato soup and a turkey and cucumber sandwich. Not a bad deal for nine bucks.
One customer, though, is hankering for a Charlies – a homemade pizza pop. She’s had them a lot over the years, buying her first one when she was in high school.
Many customers at BJ’s Donuts are regulars like the Charlies fan. They started coming to the donut shop when it first opened in the early 1990s on Highway 97 – in the strip where the Pizza Man is now. They kept coming when it moved to Birch Avenue, to sit quietly over a pot of tea and an apple fritter, peruse the used book, or visit with Riley and her husband Allen.
“We have lots of regular customers,” Riley, 60, said. “All of our friends have come and helped at one time and it’s just got bigger and bigger. It feels like we’ve got a great big family.
“When we were across the highway we got a lot of high school kids and now they’re coming in here with their kids. It’s kind of neat to see. Some of them are from out of town but they make a point of stopping and say ‘I used to come here when I was a kid.’”
The Rileys are Red Seal journeyman cooks who worked in logging and other camps around B.C. They decided to buy the donut shop in 1995 so they could settle down and raise their two adopted boys. At the time time, the shop was mostly donuts with the traditional Charlies pizza pop – a favourite among the high school kids from nearby Peter Skene Ogden Secondary.
With more space, the Rileys added more tables and expanded their offerings to include soup and sandwich specials. Riley is the chief sandwich maker, while Allen has the early morning donut shift because “he likes to do it, he’s an early riser,” and she’s not. The walls were previously covered in Riley’s mother’s cross-stitch but now feature photographs and artwork from residents around the region.
”We just wanted a business. We were adopting our boys and we wanted to stay home and raise them here at home,” Riley said. “We just kept expanding to what the town needed.”
Riley said she never expected the donut shop to become a local hangout. The Lions meet at the shop twice a month, while people like Judy and Robert Banas have been dropping by for the past 15 years – proof the Rileys are doing something right.
“We enjoy it so much – the donuts are fantastic and the people special,” Judy said. “It’s just a great place with great food. Nobody makes a better sandwich than Pat.”
Riley noted they have never strayed from the early intents of the donut shop. While some restaurants previously toyed with the idea of wispy salads – a few carrots and lettuce on the side – BJ’s has continued serving hearty meals, along with their “famous” Apple Fritters.
“That was the way it always was around here. I don’t think we went through that trend for a little while when it was just three little carrots on a plate, really, because the loggers and people who live here, they work and they need the food and can’t play with a little tiny plate of stuff,” she said. “We just try to be honest and give people their money’s worth.”
Besides running their brick-and-mortar business, the Rileys also offer catering services as far away as Williams Lake, Bridge Lake and Canim Lake. They had several Christmas parties earlier this month but with COVID-19 lurking around, they were asked to serve individual meals rather than buffets. They also do a lot of weddings and are booked for a trappers’ convention in May.
Their recipes are based on family favourites and requests from customers.
“(Allen) gets mad at me because I’ll have a dinner for 200 and I try a new recipe on something,” Riley said. “I don’t necessarily follow a recipe. I just have an idea.”
Riley said there are days when they feel like throwing it all in – especially in these days of COVID when people come in and won’t wear their masks or aren’t vaccinated and “you get a hard time about it. Right now it’s the big challenge,” she said.
But they have learned to adapt.
“We made a commitment to our customers so we have to keep doing it,” she said. “We had to do takeout so we went to that, just whatever the demand is.”
The Rileys plan to retire in five to seven years although they haven’t set an actual date. Their plan is to spend more time at their home in the Imperial Ranchettes. The fate of the family business is unclear, as their boys aren’t interested, Riley said, but added: We have grandchildren now. I might be able to train some of them to make donuts.”