The Rose City is considered by some to be the capital of doughnuts, a mecca for sugar-coated fried dough in a city that reveres all that is local, natural and organic.
Before Voodoo hit the streets, doughnut emporiums like Annie’s Donut Shop, Helen Bernhard Bakery and Tonnalli’s were churning out perfectly respectable and much loved iterations of the blue collar classic.
Then Voodoo Doughnuts happened. A doughnut was no longer just a doughnut but a symbol of the Portland brand: a marketing wunderkind and haven for quirky, out-of-the-box small businesses.
Then the world wanted a bite. Voodoo and Blue Star have set up shop in other U.S. cities and migrated across the Pacific — Voodoo to Taiwan and Blue Star to Japan.
At home, the doughnut ecosystem thrives, a harmonious marketplace that allows a remarkable number of doughnut entrepreneurs to flourish.
We talked with the owners of three of Portland’s most popular doughnut shops: Voodoo Doughnuts, Blue Star Donuts and Pip’s Original. The founders discuss origin stories, competition and the lack thereof, and what's driving the PDX doughnut craze. (Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity).
Year Established: 2003
Owners: Tres Shannon & Kenneth "Cat Daddy" Pogson
Doughnut style: Quirky classics
Fun fact: Doughnut are made three times a day to keep up with demand
OB: You started out in the music scene as owner of Portland’s X-Ray Cafe. How did you get into the doughnut business?
Co-founder Tres Shannon: It was the right amount of tequila and a cocktail napkin. It wasn't a well thought out plan. We wanted to run a successful business. And then it was doughnuts; let’s run a successful doughnut business. And here we are. We’re happy to still be doing what we’re doing, and we’re not bored.
OB: Are you surprised by the tourist hordes who line up each day?
I’m sorry it became a tourist trap. It wasn’t in the business plan. We get slapped around a little bit on the street about how we’ve sold out. But if you don’t like doughnuts, that’s totally cool. If you don’t like Voodoo, that’s totally cool.
OB: A lot of people say your doughnuts aren’t that good.
We make really strong, classic doughnuts. If our doughnuts sucked, we wouldn't be there.
OB: What do you make of Portland’s doughnut obsession?
It’s not just Portland, it’s everywhere. There’s doughnuts everywhere.
OB: How do you compete with third-generation doughnut shops like Blue Star?
All doughnuts are good doughnuts. We knew there would be competition. It raised doughnut awareness. I don’t think we’ve badmouthed other doughnut shops ever. We’ve been lambasted for whatever reason. I don’t know if it’s a human nature thing or a Portland thing; it’s just so odd. I’ve been hustling a long time in this town, and I feel, not just me Cat Daddy too, we ended up getting this wackadoodle idea and it took off.
OB: Are you a fan of Voodoo doughnuts?
It’s more like tasting wine now. I’ll go in and eat a bite of a couple of doughnuts and throw the rest away — which I always feel bad about — or I’ll eat the ones that don’t make the cut.
OB: Favorite doughnut?
I really like buttermilk bars. I don't think I’ve ever had a Grape Ape for instance. It kind of makes my teeth hurt to say Grape Ape. I like the more classic. It’s funny, if somebody buys a doughnut and they're really aficionados, they'll buy a cake doughnut or whatever’s fresh, or a crueler or glaze, something old-fashioned. If you can nail your old fashioned, and you can nail a cake doughnut, you know how to make a doughnut.
Blue Star Donuts
Year Established: 2012
Owners: Katie Poppe & Micah Camden
Doughnut Style: Upscale gourmet.
Fun fact: Shops close when doughnuts run out — daily
OB: What's your origin story?
Co-founder Katie Poppe: [Voodoo] put Portland on the map, but there wasn’t really a gourmet doughnut. Virtually every other doughnut is made of the same mix, same glazes and same fillings. So we thought: Why don’t we push the limits and see what we can do? Can we take the doughnut and use it as a culinary platform? We thought Portland is a place that would appreciate gourmet doughnuts. [Blue Star was modeled after patisseries in France, Poppe says]. Patisseries pay homage to how hard it is to bake from scratch.
OB: What’s your position on Voodoo?
I feel like we all have to bow down and pay homage to Voodoo. They are the first people that did anything remotely different with doughnuts. They’re the ones that it’s like, “Wow here’s a city famous for a food thing that’s creative and fun and different.” There wouldn’t even be a doughnut war if they hadn’t done what they did.
OB: Is there a doughnut war?
The media likes to play up who’s better as a doughnut war showdown. I get it sells. It’s something we very specifically try not to play into because I’m not competing with them. We’re very different. There’s pants, and there’s skirts. At the end of the day I feel like there’s room for everyone. It’s one big doughnut family, and we’re lucky the Portland market, as small as it is, can support everyone.
OB: Since launching in 2012, you have opened an additional nine shops in Portland, California and Japan. What's next?
All of our expansions have been on behalf of markets asking us to be there. I think part of the reason Portland brands are so popular right now is because people are seeing what we are doing. And they want to be a part of that. I’m at this point of expansion where [I'm asking]: am I literally exporting Portland, or am I exporting Portland ethos?
OB: Will the concept work in other U.S. cities?
I don’t think it would work in Kansas or somewhere like that. It’s a little bit of a boutique product. [Consumers] want to know it’s being made by hand; they want to know the ingredients are local.
OB: How can small businesses grow market share while staying true to their local roots?
When we go to Texas [hypothetically speaking] am I bringing the exact Portland vendors with me? Or am I exporting the Portland ethos and embracing the local suppliers in that community? It’s a really interesting question to think about. It seems to me it’s more the latter. People really like the idea of supporting local, and that’s the bigger picture they’re buying into.
OB: Your favorite doughnut?
What day is it? There’s the standbys and the seasonals. Right now it’s the sweet potato fritter. It’s basically Thanksgiving in a doughnut. I think about this doughnut at night sometimes. I’ll plan my day around this.
Year Established: 2013
Owners: Nate & Jamie Snell
Doughnut Style: Locally-sourced mini-doughnuts; Family-friendly vibe
Fun fact: 75% of weekend customers are first time customers, the split is 50/50 during the week
OB: Pip’s launched the mini-doughnut craze. What's the origin story?
Co-founder Nate Snell: My wife and I were at Pike Place Market about 12 years ago and tried the Daily Dozen. (Seattle’s fresh-made mini-doughnut cart). It was a real paradigm shift for us to have our first doughnut fresh out of the fryer. That made a huge impression on us that lasted over a decade. So how do I replicate that experience and keep mini-doughnuts? Over a period of a few months we finally achieved a breakthrough.
OB: Unlike other second/third-generation doughnut purveyors in town, you don’t want to expand.
We want to be a legacy small business that exists in Portland that people grow up with. We’ve been open for four years now, and it’s been so gratifying to see the four-year olds who were newborns when they first came in. Pip’s is a denominator in their life that brings them and their family a lot of pleasure and in turn brings us a lot of pleasure.
OB: So what is your business strategy?
I wanted to maintain the feel of a startup as long as possible. I’ve created an intentionality in all of my business practices — the hours I work, the hours we’re open — so ultimately it’s something I can continue and feel satisfied doing. Because I’m going to be here forever. It’s like groundhog day; I keep waking up, and I still own a doughnut shop. Why not enjoy it as long as possible?
OB: What's the thinking behind your hashtag, #CommunityNotCompetition?
I imagine the doughnut shops like a meter on an old time radio. In between that dial, you go through all sorts of doughnuts from one end of the spectrum to the other. If you don’t like us there’s plenty of other options, and I will be the first one to share what I think you’re looking for. There’s so much variety in Portland there’s no need for us to compete. Treating people well and making money are not mutually exclusive. Doughnuts may be the vehicle, but you’re all ambassadors for our mission of good will in our community. That’s what we're really doing here.
OB: What's your take on Voodoo's role in the doughnut market?
Doughnuts have never come in and out of fashion per-se. As far as Portland, it was a matter of not necessarily bringing in a doughnut culture but recognizing we had a doughnut culture thanks to Voodoo.
OB: Favorite doughnut?
Raw honey and sea salt.