It’s an understatement that the restaurant industry was hit hard in 2020. Syeeda Aziz-Morris, the second-generation owner of Pharaoh’s Donuts, was understandably afraid that no one would come out for the opening of the bakery’s second location in October of that year, a time when many people weren’t venturing indoors anywhere. But the renovation of the space had taken longer than anticipated, and Aziz-Morris and her family reached a point where they decided they couldn’t afford to not open.
So with trepidation, Pharaoh’s Donuts in the Central West End opened on Halloween 2020… to a line of customers that wrapped around the building.
“It was so surprising, but I was so grateful and thankful because people weren’t coming out then,” Aziz-Morris says. “So to see a line of people coming in to see Pharaoh’s, it’s a really great feeling.
“It really gives us the drive and determination to keep going.”
Aziz-Morris’ father, Amon Aziz, launched Pharaoh’s from the ground up back in 1994 when she was just five years old, delivering donuts to gas stations and corner stores. She credits his sheer determination in making the business a success. In fact, at first, family members told Aziz his donuts were terrible – but he didn’t give up.
“He didn’t let that deter him,” Aziz-Morris says. “He kept at it, kept trying to figure out the best formula, how to make them good. It was his drive: He just kept going until he made the perfect product for Pharaoh’s and people love it, thankfully. I think that’s what it was – his drive and determination to make something really good.”
Pharaoh’s became a sleeper hit in gas stations throughout the St. Louis metro, with longtime favorites that garnered a cult following like a classic glazed donut, glazed twist, glazed cake donut, jelly- or custard-filled, an iced long john, an apple fritter and donut holes.
In 2014, Aziz opened his own shop downtown, and began making a name for Pharaoh’s in earnest. Since then, Yelp has named it one of the top 100 donut shops in the country, St. Louis Magazine dubbed it one of the best donut shops in St. Louis, and it won not one but two Riverfront Times blind taste tests.
And six years later, they were looking to grow – moving to a larger downtown space in January 2020, with plans in the works for a second Pharaoh’s spot.
In choosing the neighborhood for their second location, Aziz-Morris says she and her father tried to look for a location where there was nothing like Pharaoh’s. Aziz had eyes on the Central West End space thanks to his frequent trips to the neighborhood as a member of the St. Louis Chess Club, which has its headquarters there. He noticed consistent foot traffic thanks to area students, plus visitors and employees at Barnes-Jewish Hospital — also making it an ideal spot for those folks to run in and grab donuts and some coffee.
Their instincts on the neighborhood being a good fit for Pharaoh’s were right.
“People really appreciate Pharaoh’s,” says Aziz-Morris, “and they love our product. It really feels good.”
Aziz-Morris says she simply grew up around donuts, recalling early mornings of her childhood spent riding around with her father making donut deliveries. She didn’t always plan on joining the family business, though — with a laugh, she blames the typical teenage urge to get away from your parents. Luckily, she ultimately decided to partner with her father.
“That just made sense to me,” she says. “Everything else just didn’t make sense; I might as well continue on with his legacy, to build it, and try to make it bigger.”
In the future, she’d love to expand Pharaoh’s to be a full-fledged bakery featuring custom cakes, cookies and other baked goods. But —
“Donuts are always number one,” she assures the Pharaoh’s fans. In fact, her own children are already growing up alongside donuts just like she did. The youngest will ask for a tiny ball of dough to play with, her son will request window-washing duty at the shop, and the oldest daughter?
“She’s like my mini-me. She’s gonna be the boss,” Aziz-Morris says with a laugh.
Beyond the classics, Pharaoh’s also serves more fanciful creations, available bright and early at 6 a.m. Try the bacon-topped glazed donut, red velvet cake donut, iced cinnamon rolls, cheesecake crumb donuts, or the aptly named Death by Chocolate.
Despite the wealth of creative sweets available, Aziz-Morris finds herself continually drawn to the old standards.
“My favorite fluctuates, but I’m really a classic girl,” she says. “I always say, as long as you’ve got a good base donut, anything else is gonna taste good – we started putting more and more stuff on things, and people love it, but me?
“I love a good glazed donut that came right out of the fryer. Just give me something plain and I’m good.”