There is a question that burns deep in the heart of Corey Smale, the consummate, almost stereotypical, millennial entrepreneur.
He worked as a creative writer for five years, only to strike out on his own and launch a line of organic dog food, then ditched that project to begin a rum-themed ad agency called “Where’s the Captain?”
Those didn’t work, Smale said, partly because of his own lack of effort. It’s hard to get excited about Fido’s farm-friendly chow or trying to spot Captain Morgan like “Where’s Waldo.”
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “Most of the day, I would listen to podcasts and get high. To make something bigger than you, you really have to get committed to it.”
So in 2013, Smale and some swashbuckling friends-turned-business partners tried something else, reaching deep into Smale’s soul to run a business that answered the eternal question that, hyperbolically, kept him up at night.
“What can you do with a doughnut?”
Enter “Strange Donuts,” the insane asylum of breakfast pastries Smale curates in St. Louis.
Want barbecue ribs on a doughnut? How about caviar? Strange can hook you up.
“Doughnuts are something that is uniquely American and part of our culture,” Smale said. “Sure, doughnuts are über cool right now, but I want to be on the new edge of doughnuts.”
But are Berliners and beignets that popular right now? In a word, yes.
The cream-filled craze is bringing three new doughnut shops to Columbia in the next several months. Strange Donuts will open at 102 S. Ninth St., where Panera Bread used to be, by the new year. Harold’s Doughnuts, a zany craft bakery, is set to open at 114 S. Ninth in a matter of weeks. Dunkin Donuts will open at South Providence and Green Meadows roads after the new year.
Don’t forget about Donut D-Light at 1302 Vandiver Drive, Columbia’s only existing doughnut shop.
“At first, I thought, that’s a lot of competition, but Columbia is a big town,” said Donut D-Light retail manager Justin Hicks.
Prepare to launch the latest debate over the best doughnut in town, just as college students continue to wage war over whether Shakespeare’s, Gumby’s, Pizza Tree or someplace else has better pizza for late-night study sessions.
But will the three new shops coexist or flame out, and does the doughnut itself hold a consumer’s attention well enough to avoid the fate of a fad food?
Blenders smoothie shop, riding the early 2010s high of blended fruit drinks, closed Nov. 12 after just a year of operation. Nationally, TCBY frozen yogurt had more than 1,400 locations a decade ago. By 2013, it was down to 355 with hip, self-serve fro-yo joints popping up like ragweed.
Perhaps more ominous for Columbia’s latest sweet shops, Krispy Kreme doughnuts has lost 89 locations in the past 10 years and recently broadened its menu to include sweet sandwiches and ice cream. The brand disastrously tried to roll out a whole-wheat doughnut in 2007.
Fads “are something I’m definitely aware of and I talk about a lot,” said Michael Urban, owner of Harold’s Doughnuts. “You want a $1 doughnut at our shop, you can have that, but we’re going to push the envelope.”
Melissa Poelling fires up a kerosene blowtorch in the back of the Columbia Senior Center on Business Loop 70 and aims it at some perfectly good chocolate frosted doughnuts.
Poelling, the pastry chef (or doughnut wizard, depending on whom you ask) at Harold’s Doughnuts, is trying to toast the homemade marshmallow that sits in the center of the doughnut to finish up a few dozen s’mores pastries. But the blowtorch isn’t cooperating, so with a solid thwack to the base where torch meets gas, Poelling hopes to set the contraption straight. Success.
The s’more doughnuts, a chocolate pastry frosted with homemade graham cracker crumbles and that toasted marshmallow, are the latest creation for Urban’s gang, which is operating out of the senior center until their shop is ready to open.
And though s’mores are a bit more conventional than chicken ’n’ waffles a la Strange, it’s still a little out there in the doughnut universe.
“At this point, any combination can go to market,” said Jonna Parker, director of Neilsen Perishables Group. She tracks business trends on everything from fresh baked goods to produce and beef. “There’s a little bit of reluctance to something a little bit outside the norm, but if people really enjoy the taste experience, that has staying power.”
“Staying power” is the quality Parker is looking for to determine whether a food can survive market pressures and sustain popularity.
Fear not, doughnut lovers, she said. It’s a great time to be in the baking business.
At retail, doughnuts are selling 4 percent better than they did a year ago, according to Neilsen’s tracking data. Thirty-seven percent of those purchases are people buying fewer than a dozen, which means, Parker said, bakers are doing well to attract both regulars and occasional clients.
“Doughnuts are something that are very convenient to eat,” she said, “but they have that very indulgent possibility.”
And people aren’t just buying them for breakfast anymore, Neilsen observed. Doughnuts are becoming fitting substitutes to satisfy any sort of sweet fix. Move over cookies and muffins. Doughnuts are largely following the example set by cupcakes, which sold like, well, hotcakes in the early 2000s.
“I think some of the flavors you’ll find in a doughnut are more relatable to a cake or cupcake, but we as a culture and we as bakers have always thought of them as a breakfast food,” Parker said. “Now the flavors that you see are kicking it up a notch.”
Cupcakes, or really any hand-held pastry, are the perfect medium to try out new flavor combinations, Parker said. They’re hand-held treats that can serve as a canvas to any sort of topping or frosting. And they do well in a retail market, when passers-by can peer through a window and pick one up for a snack along with a cup of coffee. Plus, new flavors can sell just as well to any demographic.
Tiger Hotel Operations Director Jim Wohl said at the Velvet Cupcake, the hotel’s in house cupcake-centric bistro, sales are spread out between individual purchases and larger orders. Cupcakes are great for birthday or office parties, he said, but to increase clientele, Velvet Cupcake also makes wedding and specialty cakes and operates a “Panera-esque” cafe replete with salads and sandwiches, Wohl said.
“It seemed like a natural extension of what we do,” he said. “On both coasts, the interest in cupcakes is waning. We had to have a bridge from that.”
But sales are up 100 percent from 2013, Wohl said. The shop still pumps out 800 cupcakes a week with six standard flavors and two new ones in rotation. Parker said although cupcakes might not have the cultlike following they once did, they’re certainly not a one-hit wonder.
“They actually changed the way a baker brings their goods to market,” Parker said. “I think a lot of people look at fads with the rise of standalone shops. We’re seeing that with doughnut shops. When something opens up new, people get in line for it. Then when another two or three shops open up, the lines aren’t as long. It’s not as new, but the sales still hold up.”
Wohl, who has a 20-year background in full-service dining, said that is because once a product gets exposure, such as Harold’s s’mores doughnut or Donut D-Light’s bacon-maple long john, it’s easily replicated, meaning any baker worth his or her salt can enter the market. In baking, barriers to entry just aren’t that high.
Bakers can experiment more, Wohl said, because they have to create the product from scratch every day and throw out any leftovers at the end of the day.
“Imitation works,” he said. “Outside of specials of the day, that’s where originality stops” at other food businesses “because you don’t want to put something on the menu that doesn’t work.”
It’s hard to imitate Strange Donuts, mainly because few have the energy to keep up with Smale and the gang.
Strange has its own video game, “Strange Donuts vs. The World,” available on the Apple App Store and Android Market. It hosts concerts at its Maplewood shop. It designed a line of Halloween masks at the end of October. The shop is more than a bakery, Smale said. It’s a cultural icon.
“Aside from doughnuts, what our model represents is that people like small, independent kind of things,” he said. “It’s a sign of culture. When you have that, you’ve got a cool town.”
And is Columbia a “cool town?” Sorta. It just needs a doughnut shop.
“There’s not a lot going on especially on the doughnut scene out there,” Smale said. “For as many kids and people that are out there and support cool things, that are strange themselves, there’s a great audience out there. We look for places that support culture and small ideas that can support big ones.”
Culture and atmosphere are almost as much a product as the actual baked goods, Smale said. But that’s hard to track, said Neilsen’s Parker, because those business models are so dependent upon individual markets.
But as bakers broaden their horizons to embrace customers looking for more than the morning sweet to go with their coffee, the actual setting of the shop is crucial, she said.
Strange promotes an environment that becomes a cultural cornerstone for dedicated groups of regulars and a point of civic pride for funky residents, Smale said.
Harold’s is more of a craft bakery, said Urban, wired with its own coffee blend and already supplying Cafe Berlin with a few batches a day to add to its dessert menu — literally Berliners.
Donut D-Light plans to hold to its morning hours, said retail manager Justin Hicks, to continue to cater to a clientele of regulars. Hicks said half of all sales are from people who come in for breakfast. The other half are purchased in bulk for the morning, when customers might buy several dozen to share with co-workers or take to events.
“We’ve been around long enough that we’ve got a set amount of regulars, and we don’t think they’re going anywhere,” said Justin’s brother, Curtis Hicks. He worked at the shop through high school but left the family business, owned by parents Kevin and Cindy Hicks, after he graduated from Central Methodist University in May.
Anup Thakkar, the franchisee of the new Dunkin Donuts, did not reply to requests for comment.
Velvet Cupcake installed power outlets underneath each of its booths to encourage patrons to sit down and plug in.
“We really do want to promote ourselves as a relatively quiet place where you can come sit and work or study, have a cup of coffee and, yes, have a cupcake,” Wohl said. “Those are our roots.”
With a spread like that, Smale said, Columbia shouldn’t be too concerned about culinary cannibalism.
“I know some people who think its a battle, but it’s not,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is compete with anyone.”
He even reached out to Urban earlier in the year to offer him some help in setting up shop.
“I think they look at us and see us as another small business just trying to make it out in the world,” Urban said.
It’s just that all those small businesses seem to do the same thing: fry some sugary dough and coat it with anything under the moon, including turkey and stuffing.
That competition is a little disconcerting, Justin Hicks said, but that is the way business should be.
“We’ve always had the feeling we might not be the only ones in town,” he said. “But our goal isn’t to do good because people have no choice.”