An explorer organizes an expedition by studying maps and charts. A petroleum engineer prepares for a drill by scrutinizing geological surveys of the earth’s strata and seismic graphs. A ballet dancer prepares for a performance with years of training and practice. A competitive sailor reads oceanographic surveys, depth charts, and weather history, and a war historian does research on site, and in libraries. A donut shop owner eats a lot of donuts.
I am the latter.
I wasn’t always the latter. In my 40-year restaurant career, I never planned on opening a donut shop. Thirty years ago, I set out to open one restaurant with the hopes of being my own boss and being able to wear shorts, t-shirts, and tennis shoes to work every day. Seriously, I didn’t think past those few items. A half dozen restaurants and a couple of bars later, I am the owner of a small-batch donut shop.
The current number in operation is eight, though I have opened— and closed or sold— more than that. A few weeks ago, I told our new staff that this was my 18th restaurant opening (three as an employee, 15 as an owner). Though, out of curiosity I just compiled a list, and the actual number is 21. Until two weeks ago, none of those 21 concepts were a donut shop.
I have spent the past several years studying donuts. Most jobs that involve research include academic types spending a lot of time in libraries and think tank institutions. I just travelled around and ate donuts. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to chew it.
To me, the mecca for donuts in the United States is Chicago. Those people up there know how to fry bread and cover it with sugar better than anyone on the planet. Over the past few years I have made a lot of trips to the Windy City and eaten at dozens of donut shops dozens of times. Sometimes three and four shops in the same morning. There were no surveys or charts needed, just a well-trained belly, an iPhone, and a willing Uber driver.
In my opinion, the best donut shop in the entire South— District Donuts— is in New Orleans. Over the course of the last few years I have been there more times than I care to admit. I have visited donut shops from Coast to Coast and have the excess poundage to prove it.
There are three top manufacturers of donut equipment in the world. One is in Europe, one is in Japan, and the other is in Seattle. When I found that out, I flew to Seattle and spent a couple of days in, what my wife calls, “donut school.” Again, it’s a tough job, but… you know the rest.
I worked with a man that has made bomboloni (Italian donuts) for over six decades in a small kitchen at a friend’s villa in Tuscany, and we even brought in a 40-year veteran donut consultant into our Hattiesburg test kitchen who imparted his decades of wisdom on us in a matter of days.
Based on all of that research and development, we opened a small-batch donut shop in a tiny space next to our new breakfast joint. There is already a national chain donut shop in town, and a locally owned franchise which is owned by a friend of mine that has been established for over 40 years (it’s a place that has also added to my excess poundage as I have been a customer for all of those 40 years). They are both established in the market and— rightfully so— have developed and earned a loyal clientele. We looked for a small niche in the market. We don’t have tables and chairs, there is no drive-through window, the sales space is a mere 210 square feet.
The kitchen space we allotted for the donut-making equipment is even smaller. We make donuts by hand in small batches. We never make a lot, and when we run out, we’re out for the day.
In my research I found that potato yeast and potato flour added to the pastry flour make a lighter, less-dense donut, so we went in that direction. On a whim one day while experimenting in the test kitchen, I decided to use a single square pastry cutter to cut the donuts out of the dough. I then used a smaller cutter to cut a hole out of the middle. It was a square donut. It added size to the individual donuts and it made sense when placing them side-by-side in a rectangular box. Sometimes it’s research, sometimes it’s trial and error, occasionally it’s a fluke. We have incorporated all three into this journey.
The cool thing about donuts is that they are fun. My friend, business partner and collaborator, Wyatt Waters, says that donuts are the “most fun food.” They certainly create big smiles on a daily basis. Those smiles make the “research” worth every extra pound.