Walking into Vegan Donut Gelato, you’ll see all the familiar signs of a traditional mom-and-pop donut shop — the no-frills decor, a countertop with self-serve coffee and a variety of bagged teas and, of course, a large glass case filled with a classic assortment of raised and cake donuts, including glazed, chocolate, jelly-filled and sprinkled donuts, along with bear claws and apple fritters. Other than a menu on the wall that says “Vegan Donuts,” there’s no indication that the offerings here are all made without dairy or eggs.
Owner Sam Kang wants it that way. He wanted to open a donut shop for both vegans and non-vegans that harkens back to ones they visited in their childhoods.
“When [customers] come here they say, ‘It’s all the same, like a normal donut shop!’” said Kang. “People are so excited; after becoming vegan they haven’t had donuts for a long time.”
The most popular choices at Vegan Donut Gelato are glazed, chocolate and jelly-filled. While the shop focuses on making classic flavors, it does offer some unique ones, like a maple bacon donut (made with soy bacon, of course). But unlike the other East Bay vegan donut provider, Pepples Donut Farm, which is known for its unconventional flavors — like Whisky Tangerine Fig or Szechuan Chai — Vegan Donut Gelato fulfills more traditional donut cravings.
Customer Sandy Nachampone is not vegan (she abstains from red meat, though), but was drawn to visit Vegan Donut Gelato. She described the shop’s donut holes as “really good — fluffy and airy, light.” Her companion, Wesley King, said he’s been trying to go animal-product free for several weeks. They are both Oakland residents and said they will visit the shop again in the future.
Kang knows donuts and ice cream are a famous duo, so he decided to offer vegan gelato for customers. Traditional gelato differs from ice cream by using a higher proportion of milk and a lower proportion of cream and eggs, or no eggs at all. Kang makes his gelato with almond milk and a plant-based emulsifier to thicken it. Customers can enjoy a scoop in a cup or cone, or sandwiched between two halves of a donut. Gelato flavors run the gamut from rocky road to lemon cheesecake.
In case you were wondering, Kang is vegan. His commitment to a plant-based diet began around 26 years ago, motivated mainly by wanting to eat ethically. He believes consuming animal-based products “impacts the environment, impacts your health, impacts the animals.” By showing people that — contrary to popular belief — vegan food can taste just like any other food, he hopes it encourages them to consider veganism.
Prior to opening the donut shop, Kang, who is from Indonesia, ran a plant-based Vietnamese restaurant in Sunnyvale but found that it was too much work and sold it after eight years. After taking a break for a couple years, he decided to “do something different” and thought of vegan donuts. He was drawn to the idea of making donuts because they’re an American food staple, and no one around him was offering standard versions in vegan form. He opened the first Vegan Donut Gelato in Modesto a year-and-a-half ago and opened the second location in Oakland in September 2017 with co-owner Xuan Hua.
The Modesto location was a testing grounds for Kang. He purposefully opened his first location in a city with a smaller vegan population than the Bay Area so that he could perfect his products before introducing them in an area where animal-free options are plentiful and high quality.
“We wanted to be good before entering the Bay Area because I know in the Bay Area the response will be good, but we have to a good product to offer to the people,” Kang said.
When a solid vegan place opens in the Bay Area “everybody tells everybody” in the vegan community, said Kang. So far Vegan Donut Gelato is a hit, with a 5-star Yelp rating and almost 150 reviews.
Kang also sells his donuts wholesale across the East Bay. They can be found at The Butcher’s Son and Alchemy Collective Café in Berkeley, and Black Spring Coffee Company and Subrosa Coffee in Oakland. Kang said that cafes have been the ones to approach him about selling his donuts at their businesses and is open to working with others.
Kang is also looking to expand Vegan Donut Gelato’s presence in Oakland by opening up a second location. Although he could not share the location at the time, he said he is in the final stages of confirming his next spot.
Beyond filling bellies with donuts and preparing for the next location, Kang said his main goal is to “hopefully turn people vegan — one donut at a time.”