In February this year, I met Jens Krauer at the FujiLove Live conference in New York. Jens is an accomplished street and documentary photographer from Switzerland, and I have followed his work for some time. During our conversation, I mentioned that I had been contemplating working on a personal photography project that was unique to the Gulf Coast. He stressed how important it is to follow through on those types of projects.” You should never have regrets about not completing them,” he said. His words struck a chord with me. I knew our time in Southern Mississippi would likely be ending soon. However, due to a combination of fear, laziness, and self-doubt in myself, I had not followed through with my idea. After reflecting on what Jens said, I took his advice to heart. Had I not, I would have missed the opportunity to meet an incredible couple, David and Theresa Mohler, who run the TatoNut donut shop in Oceans Springs, Mississippi.
Tatonut – A Little Store with a Big Heart
The day after we moved to Mississippi, I had a coffee at a little donut shop called TatoNut. Located on Washington Avenue, in the beautiful gulf coast town of Ocean Springs, TatoNut makes bar none, the world’s best donuts. I fell in love with them immediately. The more I learned about the store and its owners, the more I knew I wanted to photograph and document their story. TatoNut is not just any donut shop; it is a pillar of the community run by an incredibly passionate, dedicated, and giving family.
Today David and Theresa Mohler run the shop that David’s father, Robert, started back in 1960. I am honoured that they took a couple of hours out of their hectic day to speak with me. And, that they generously allowed me to follow them for a morning with my camera. This is their story.
Did You Say Potatoes?
Now I’m sure you have eaten some great donuts before, but these are different. Not just because of their “secret” ingredient, or because the donuts are so light that they practically levitate. But because these treats are lovingly handmade each day by David, Theresa and the small staff they employ. They use a family recipe that their father created. The recipe replaces a portion of the all-purpose flour found in traditional donut recipes with potato flour. The lack of gluten in the potato flour is what gives these donuts their characteristically light and tender texture.
A Little Bit of History
As well as running TatoNut, Robert Mohler was a full-time air traffic control instructor at Kesler Air Force Base. David learned his strong work ethics from him. Robert would come into the store at midnight to make donuts and then leave for the Base around 6:00 am. That was when David and his six brothers would step in to finish up and help serve the early morning customers before their classes started at school.
In 1983 David borrowed $2,500 to take over the business from his father. Theresa began to work at the shop in 1988 when she was still in high school. They started dating when she went to college and married shortly after her graduation. Today David and Theresa work side-by-side to make dozens of traditional glazed donuts, as well as twists, Persians, cake, and filled donuts.
The Only Real Donut
David and Theresa’s day starts at 2:30 am when their alarm goes off. By 3:00 am they are at the shop and the preparation for the day ahead begins. David mixes batches of dough in the 80-quart mixer that replaced the original 20-quart one that his father used. The new mixer can hold a 50-pound sack of flour mix.
Once the dough is ready, it takes both David and Theresa to lift and empty the batch onto the rolling table. The 50-pound batch is then cut into smaller portions which are more manageable.
To make the traditional glazed donuts, David lays out dough on top of the cutting machine. It is a labour-intensive process which involves a lot of physical strength. At the same time, David uses a gentle touch to make sure the dough is just the right thickness and checks for air bubbles trapped in the dough before being cut.
A unique cylindrical knife efficiently cuts out the donut and its hole, leaving only a sliver of unused dough around the edges. The donuts are placed on trays and sent to the fryer.
None of the dough goes to waste. The holes will be cooked and glazed. And that irregular edge piece of dough? Well, more about that in a bit!
Once cooked, the donuts are drenched in glaze several times or dipped in chocolate or maple icing before they are placed on trays to cool.
All in a Day’s Work
One of the best sellers at TatoNuts are the Persians, a cinnamon bun inspired dount. David carefully rolls out the dough by hand, sprinkles it generously with cinnamon sugar and rolls it up tightly. It is then cut to size, fried and glazed.
Twists are my favourite! I think they hold more of the glaze than the regular circular donuts do. Again, David rolls out the dough by hand. Then strips of dough are twisted into a rope, joined at the end, and then twisted into a braid. A dousing of glaze finishes these treats off.
The Edge Bits
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Much of the 44 miles of coastline was erased by the storm surge, leaving nothing but foundation slabs where houses once stood. The TatoNut store was one of the lucky ones. It managed to make it through the storm with only minor damage to its awning. At first, David and Theresa felt very guilty. Why had their business been spared when so many of their employees’ and friends’ homes were damaged or destroyed? They were very hesitant to reopen TatoNut so quickly. But Ocean Springs needed a sense of normalcy, and opening TatoNuts was one way to do that. A way to lift the spirits of those far less fortunate than themselves.
To reopen, the Mohlers had to find a new flour supplier. Before the storm, their flour mix came from New Orleans, but this was not an option now. So, they had it shipped Fed-Ex from Birmingham Alabama. During the days after the storm, they used bottled and boiled water for the glaze. They didn’t even have coffee the first few days after they opened.
Now, typically David would never reform leftover dough, as many chain donut shops do. Instead, all his donuts are cut from the first rolling. If scraps of dough are collected and re-rolled, the dough becomes tough, and the texture of the donut changes. But after Katrina, nothing could be wasted. David started to save the irregularly shaped pieces. He gathered up the other scraps, rolled them out, and cut more irregular pieces so that none of the scraps got discarded. The pieces were fried up alongside the donuts, glazed or iced, and became known as Katrina pieces. There is still a demand for Katrina pieces. So much so that the Mohlers continue to make them today!
A Test of Faith
The wrath of Katrina spared the Mohlers, but tragedy struck the family in 2009. Their youngest daughter, seven-year-old Sophia, was diagnosed with a rare form of terminal childhood cancer. Hoping for a miracle, they closed their business and moved into Ronald McDonald house in Houston, while trying to maintain some sense of normalcy for their older daughter, Katelyn. Their faith is deep-seated, and they remained steadfast in the hopes that Sophia would recover.
David and Theresa were overwhelmed by the support they received from the community. From prayers to fund raisers. Everyone in Ocean Springs remembered how giving the Mohlers had been after Katrina. Now it was the community’s time to give back.
Just over a year after her diagnosis, Sophia sadly lost her battle with cancer. Theresa says that she would rather have lost her home and business in Katrina rather than suffer the loss of a child. And although they were grief stricken, together they poured their heart and soul into TatoNut, and into giving back to the community yet again.
Lineups Out the Door
TatoNut is always busy! Midweek they sell an average of 300 dozen donuts a day. Sales rise to 350 dozen on Fridays and to over 400 dozen donuts on Saturdays. There are often lineups that stretch out the door and around the corner, especially on Fridays and Saturdays.
Although some days the “sold out” sign goes up before the doors close at 5 pm, David likes to have 10-15 dozen donuts left at the end of the day. “This always gives the customers something to choose from,” he says. Any leftovers are taken to charity kitchens in the area or to cold shelters when the weather turns. Nothing is ever thrown out.
The End of the Day
David and Theresa’s passion for making donuts and their dedication to the community is abundantly evident. They frequently receive letters from patrons thanking them for all they do. One letter that Theresa showed me said, “I want to let you know your little business is ‘more than donuts’ to our family and many of us Ocean Springs families.” Another note had a photograph of a young man in army fatigues holding his TatoNut coffee mug. The message read “Thanks TatoNut … spreading joy all the way around the world!”
TatoNut is far more than just another donut shop. Thanks to David and Theresa, TatoNut is tightly woven into the fabric and blood of the Mississippi coastline, epitomizing southern hospitality. If you are ever in Southern Mississippi, I can’t urge you strongly enough to pay them a visit!
Tatonut is open from 5:30 am until 5:00 pm Tuesdays through Saturdays and is located at 1114 Government Street in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.