Mornings are sweet at the pink house on Steuben Street

What would possess John Hill to sit wearing superhero pajama pants, his car idling in the pre-dawn hours on Steuben Street in Elliott?

Easy: "The best doughnuts I've ever had in my whole life."

Rush hour starts early at Better-Maid Donut Co., housed in a pink house that has been a city neighborhood landmark for decades.

Mr. Hill, of Crafton Heights, was Better-Maid's first customer yesterday after waiting for the shop to open, taking home a dozen doughnuts for $7.50, in a white box tied up with a string from a giant counter spool.

Better-Maid opens at 6 a.m. Wednesday through Friday and closes whenever owner Ken Smith sells out -- sometimes as early as 8 a.m.

On the weekend, Mr. Smith "goes daylight savings on everybody," opening an hour later to give him time to make extra doughnuts for the weekend crowd.

Mr. Smith purchased the shop about seven years ago, along with his brother, Al, who is no longer involved in the business but still graces the doughnut box in cartoon form.

Mr. Smith grew up in Elliott and now lives in nearby Ingram.

He grew up eating Better-Maid doughnuts -- or Pink House doughnuts as they're often called. When he delivered the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Press as a kid, another paper boy would bike up the sizable hill on Steuben Street and come back with doughnuts to fuel the paper routes.

Prices can't have changed much since then: Better-Maid charges $1.50 for a generous dozen of doughnut holes, 65 cents for a standard doughnut and $7.50 for a dozen.

The doughnuts remain largely the same as well -- crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel, if you know what I mean," said Mr. Smith, clad in a Steelers cut-off T-shirt and shorts despite subfreezing temperatures outside.

Mr. Smith, who previously worked in catering and food preparation, learned to make doughnuts from the previous owner.

Everything is done by hand, from the frosting on the eclairs to the cooking notes written on a folded square of paper -- though not in exacting detail. "I don't really count the numbers," said Mr. Smith. "I just make and make and make."

Mr. Smith works overnight making doughnuts, coming in at 8:30 p.m. and counting herds of deer out the shop's back window as he moves between the small fryer and the workspace where he frosts and fills his creations.

Right as the store opens, Mr. Smith and a crew of helpers prepare the special orders, delivering trays to cars and vans waiting outside.

Devinne Leventis, Mr. Smith's 17-year-old niece, fields phone calls from people wanting to know whether the shop is making anything special that morning (yes, French and sourdough) and whether a few can be set aside.

Customers stream through the store. Frank Moser of Grove City, who almost always comes to Better-Maid when he's in town visiting relatives, picks up his favorite Bavarian Cremes, while Mike Brown of Crafton gets his choice of jelly doughnuts for breakfast for himself and his wife.

"If you're not here early, you don't get the quality doughnuts," he said. "These jelly doughnuts are the best I've ever had, and I've had doughnuts all over."

Business has been good lately, said Mr. Smith, in part thanks to the Steelers. Nothing breaks a New Year's resolution like a black-and-gold sprinkled doughnut at a playoff game party.

The praise from loyal customers makes the long nights all worth it, he said.

"It's an outstanding feeling to be labeled one of the best doughnut shops in the city," he said. "It goes along with the Steelers and everything else about the city that's good."

Anya Sostek: or 412-263-1308.


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