They come by car, sometimes nearly weeping with happiness at The Holy Donut drive-through window off Route 1 in Scarborough, Maine. Some drive from three hours away. They want a respite of “doughnuts, coffee, and normalcy” during the coronavirus shutdown, an employee relates.
They drop by Blackbird Doughnuts in the South End for curbside pickup. They wait in socially distanced lines winding halfway down the block and across the street to enter PVDonuts on Ives Street in Providence.
These folks crave doughnuts. Not just any doughnuts. They want specialty doughnuts: gourmet brioche, cake, or potato rings like the Maple Bacon at Union Square Donuts, the Boston Cream Bismarck at Blackbird, and the Dark Chocolate Sea Salt at The Holy Donut.
“Before everything happened with COVID, people would grab a doughnut before they started their workday,” says Sarah Wallace (Belisle), culinary head for Union Square Donuts. “Now they get it, go home, and work. It’s a little treat that kind of reminds them of how things used to be, when everything was normal.”
People have eaten so many of these little treats that specialty doughnuts saw a 47.1 percent bump in growth this past April to June over the same period last year, according to Technomic, the Chicago-based food industry research firm. The reasons? During this stay-at-home period people are seeking more comfort food and snacking “as people’s schedules have gotten wonky,” says Technomic’s Lizzy Freier. As well, she says, people like “grab and go” purchases without lingering inside a shop.
Specialty doughnuts are also social-media eye candy. Technomic says Instagram and TikTok have been driving food trends as consumers stay home. A peek at the Instagram accounts of Union Square Donuts, Blackbird Doughnuts, and The Holy Donut reveals the allure: Chocolate frosting clings to golden pastry, cranberry jam bursts from centers, hazelnuts smother dough rings. “People eat with their eyes first nowadays, scrolling through their phones,” observes Wallace (Belisle).
Gourmet doughnuts are not cheap. Prices range from $2.50 to $5, compared with $1.25 for a standard doughnut at Dunkin. But Blackbird owner Rebecca Roth Gullo argues that there’s no comparison between specialty doughnuts and ones that are mass produced. “These are artisanal doughnuts with only about six ingredients in them,” she says. “It’s all from scratch, from breaking the eggs to scraping pods out of vanilla beans.”
During the pandemic, menus at specialty doughnut shops have been leaning on customer favorites. Blackbird brought back its best-selling flavors and now changes its menu offerings weekly, instead of quarterly. “We’ve never done that before, and people love it,” says Roth Gullo.
Wallace (Belisle), who used to run the now-closed Magnolia Bakery at Faneuil Hall and who was a 2019 Food Network Holiday Baking Championship finalist, taps into sentimentality. Her creations include a Chocolate Caramel Delight, a nod to a popular Girl Scouts cookie, and Peach Pie, a doughnut of slow cooked peaches in maple syrup, brown sugar, and cinnamon topped with crumbled pie crust.
“We’re in the nostalgia business,” says Ryan Howe, The Holy Donuts' director of business operations. “We give positive vibes.”
Specialty doughnut shops, like much of the food industry, haven’t had an easy time during the shutdown. Blackbird closed its five locations for one month, PVDonuts locked up for two weeks, Union Square Donuts was shut for nearly three months (the Boston Public Market outlet remains closed). The Holy Donut reduced operations, and recently let the lease on one of its Portland shops expire.
To survive, the shops regrouped. Some received federal loans via the Paycheck Protection Program, which allows loan forgiveness or repayment in five years with minimal interest. “That loan gave us a chance,” says Josh Danoff, Union Square’s co-founder. Howe says the loan enabled The Holy Donut to bring back furloughed staff members.
But PPP loans weren’t enough. These businesses also got creative in order to reach customers as they navigated new health regulations and work-from-home habits. Nearly all began or ramped up online ordering and curbside pickup. Some began selling doughnuts via delivery services. “People aren’t coming into the office anymore, so we have to get the doughnuts out to them,” says Danoff.
Union Square Donuts recently began a partnership with The Bagel Table, selling a rotating selection of doughnuts starting with the bagel restaurant’s Brighton outlet. The Holy Donut began selling a boxed trio of doughnuts in select Portland-area Hannaford supermarkets, and will open an Auburn, Maine, shop by year’s end. Roth Gullo says Blackbird readjusted enough to allow it to continue with plans to soon open a sixth shop in Beacon Hill.
“We’re cheering for each other,” Howe says about specialty doughnut businesses, adding that he is a fan of Union Square Donuts. These doughnut pros also share a similar mantra: doughnuts make everything better.
“You eat them to make you happy, or you are happy and want to be even more happy, or you are sad and want to be happy,” says Roth Gullo. Specialty doughnuts are a bit of happiness in six basic ingredients.