By Harry Funk
Long before the sun rises, before the birds begin to chirp and bus drivers start their engines, Katarina Mertz is ready for action.
“I normally wake up around 2:30 and then get here at 3:30,” Katarina Mertz says. “On the weekends, you get an extra two hours of sleep because we don’t open ’til 8.”
At Madsen Donuts in Castle Shannon, her mission is to help ensure that a full complement of the featured product is on display in time for the day’s first customers.
That involves doing mostly everything by hand that very morning, from rolling dough and cutting it into circular and oblong shapes to applying the types of glazes, sprinkles, fillings and frostings that people enjoy as part of their breakfast treats.
Working right along with Katarina are Madsen’s owners, Mt. Lebanon residents Brian and Milica Peltz, who are following a time-tested tradition for making donuts.
In 1938, a gentleman named Carl Madsen began selling them out of his truck in Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio. He eventually opened a store, which remains a favorite destination for members of Brian’s family during more than half a century of summer vacations to the resort town.
On a recent trip, Brian noticed a sign on the door stating an interest in franchising the operation. He talked with current owner Keith Biery, whose family bought the business from the Madsens in 1974.
“He said, ‘We have such a great following of people from Pittsburgh. I think you’d do well. However, I rejected eight other people. If you want to follow the recipe, follow the program, we can continue the conversation,’” Brian recalls.
The Madsen program is to stick pretty much with donuts – along with coffee, of course, and other beverages – that are prepared fresh daily. And the recipe is the one that Carl perfected for the enjoyment of generations of Genevans.
Because much of the business in Geneva-on-the-Lake is seasonal, the original shop is open primarily from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
“So we’re kind of venturing into uncharted territory with opening this franchise all year long,” Brian says. “I asked them, ‘What does a Wednesday in January look like, saleswise?’ They don’t know.”
As such, the Peltzes have been doing quite a bit of guesswork when it comes to quantity.
“We don’t want to disappoint anyone, so my quote is always, how hard to you rub the crystal ball every day to figure out how many people are coming?” Brian explains. “All I can do is look at the statistics, but we’ve only been open for two months.”
The business launched Aug. 9 amid a strong buzz about a new shop specializing in handmade donuts.
“We opened at 6 a.m., and we sold out by 9:30,” Brian reports. “Now the situation is, how much do you make each day? So the next day, of course, we made double. And we had leftovers.”
Madsen never has carried day-old donuts, so the Peltzes donate leftovers to everyone from police officers and firefighters to employees of local stores. But their objective, of course, is to sell whatever they do produce.
They encourage customers to preorder, which in turn can give them and their employees a better idea of how much that should be on any given morning.
As far as Katarina and the other folks who work for them, the Peltzes are highly complimentary.
“We really treat them right and appreciate them very, very much. We work with their schedules. So when they say, I can’t work next weekend because I have a cheer competition or am visiting Grandma, no problem,” Milica explains. “We want to help them. We want them to come help us. And they’re just a really nice group of people.”
Opening a donut shop represents their first venture into entrepreneurship.
“I agreed because of the product,” Milica says. “I knew the donuts were really, really good, and coming from Europe, I do appreciate a good pastry.”
She was living in Germany and working at Flughafen Frankfurt am Main – that’s Frankfurt International Airport – when she met Brian, then a supervisor for U.S. Airways. They have been married for 29 years and have three children: Alexander and Nikolas, college students, and Jasmine, a senior at Mt. Lebanon High School.
Milica is a nurse at Boyce Middle School in Upper St. Clair. She also lends her name, somewhat reluctantly, to the Madsen Pittsburgh exclusive Milica’s Classic ’21, a blend of coffee beans developed in conjunction with Nicholas Coffee & Tea Co. in Market Square.
“I told them what kind I wanted, a medium roast that’s not too bitter, not too earthy, just a good cup of coffee,” Milica explains, adding if she decides down the road to tweak the blend, “I can always go back and see what we can do.”
When the Peltzes opened as the first Madsen Donuts franchise, they received a handwritten letter of congratulations from members of the founder’s family.
“They said they’re very happy that their grandfather’s recipe is still being done, because a lot of places close and the kids don’t continue,” Brian says. “We’re keeping it a family-run business.”