By Brian Murphy, Foodable Contributor
There are supermarket doughnuts, prepackaged, shelf-stable doughnuts, gas station doughnuts, the national chains, and then a vast sea of "decent," independent doughnut shops. Making quite the splash in this giant sea is the craft doughnut establishment. There is more to doughnut life than a good apple fritter and a buttermilk bar, and paying customers are demanding more.
The Voodoo Doughnut Connection
Portland, OR helped lead the way when it comes to out-of-the-ordinary doughnuts. Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland started out small and opened during non-traditional "doughnut buying" time, opening late nights, and being closed Sunday mornings for years. Their offerings ranged from rolling the doughnuts in cereal after glazing to the incredible "Memphis Mafia" fritter, a decadent, fritter-style doughnut with banana chunks and cinnamon, chocolate frosting, peanut butter, peanuts, and chocolate chips. Inventive, edgy, and sometimes profane, Voodoo Doughnuts created a word-of-mouth following that now requires them to have a theme park-esque queue where patrons willingly wait a long time to try the legendary fried dough covered with sweet glazes and sweeter or sometimes savory toppings (Bacon Maple Bar.) Voodoo doughnut boxes can be seen in and around public trash cans blocks away from their location. People take them to go, but they just can't make it very far.
Demand for Better Doughnuts
People have spoken and doughnuts have taken a move. Interesting and fun toppings are increasingly common, and while that average, glazed doughnut seems crazier with several pieces of Cap'n Crunch on it, some shops are taking it several steps further. There is more to interesting doughnuts than simply covering the same old doughnuts up with items from a yogurt shop mise en place. Think about the most significant part of the doughnut. The dough. Care must be taken here in order to produce something exciting. Flavorings in the dough, yeast-forward, slow-rise doughs, even sourdoughs are employed in establishments trying to create something different.
There is a world of glazes that needs to be explored. Think of simple syrups and the world of possibilities. Why not glazes? Ancho chile to saffron, bourbon to champagne, the subtle, sugary coat on a great glazed doughnut doesn't need to be cloyingly sweet and so familiar. Guests want variety they want to talk about it. The most successful independents are creating a buzz with product and inventive, even risky names, and the market seems to have an insatiable appetite.
No More Baker’s Dozen
Consumers are increasingly aware of health factors, and doughnuts aren't exactly the first thing that comes to mind when the word "health" is uttered. This is where the craft doughnut shops succeed. Craft doughnuts are increasingly something guests are willing to buy one or two of. A decadent treat that offers so much flavor and sweetness that one is enough. Nudge guests in the direction of a bakery counter; most customers don't ask for a baker's dozen on eclairs and Napoleons. Craft doughnut establishments are channeling this customer mentality and are confidently letting them know that their product is worth the higher price tag. There is an appreciated understanding that Donut Bar in downtown San Diego will deliver a large, quality product and most people only need one or two. Prices are higher than a "normal" doughnut shop, but oversized glazed doughnuts filled with a significant portion of Chantilly cream and freshly sliced strawberries soothe concerns of paying more when ultimately, it is still a doughnut.
Add Doughnuts to the Existing Menu
The craft doughnut is something that can be added to an existing menu. There are establishments that offer freshly made doughnuts certain days of the week, allowing the kitchen to utilize the fryers for everything else most of the week. A pastry chef is not always necessary, though some craft doughnut places do put products over the top when they start incorporating elements of pastry. A great way to start out a brunch could be to offer a plate of a few shareable doughnuts. Doughnuts and coffee too old school? Pair them with beer. Immediately giving craft doughnuts an edge, mixing up glazes and flavor to match the world of beer out there - suddenly the doughnut game is relevant around the clock.
Nomad Doughnuts in San Diego has the right approach and pairs up with local breweries for tastings and pairings. Limited edition doughnuts like a carnitas doughnut paired with local brews generate excitement and a tremendous word of mouth. As if their normal offerings like citrus pear jam-filled with chai and candied almonds didn’t already.
Time and attention to detail is required for any establishment, but doughnuts are one of those menu items that look easier to execute than they are. Poorly shaped, doughnuts can be explained away as "artisan" but there is value added in the wonder of a pastry case full of identically beautiful doughnuts.
As a menu addition, doughnuts present a few challenges: labor is a big one. Efficiency and dedication from the staff making the dough is crucial if the same product is going to be offered regularly. Iron out waste issues, and the cost of goods doesn't need to be ridiculously higher than that of a neighborhood doughnut shop. Obviously the staff preparing the doughnuts will have to be scaled depending on volume, but don't forget, guests are okay with the notion that doughnuts run out. Offer your signature doughnut with pride, but when they are gone, they are gone. Suddenly, guests are left wondering about the ones that already sold out. This has to be finessed, because a second visit without getting that Oaxacan chile and chocolate doughnut and the guest may be gone for good. There is a fine line between guests hearing that they need to get there early to get the best doughnuts and guests leaving feeling the place is poorly managed and need to increase pars.