Are doughnuts the food trend that will stick around for good?

11 October, 2018 by
Brittney Levinson

Yeast-raised or cake? Filled or glazed? Sweet or savoury? There are endless options when it comes to doughnuts, and consumers can’t get enough of them. Here, Hospitality talks to four venues reaping the rewards of the doughnut craze and find out how they stay ahead of the competition.

Doughnuts on demand

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At Sydney’s Grumpy Donuts, yeast-raised doughnuts are what draw the crowds to the Camperdown store. The inspiration came from the United States, where director Elise Honeybrook and her partner would hunt down the light, fluffy doughnuts whenever they could.

“It was kind of a passion of our stomachs which snowballed into a business,” she says. “We saw a gap in the market — at the time no one else was doing them [here], so we taught ourselves how to make them.”

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Yeast-raised doughnuts are made in small batches and use yeast as a leavening agent, as opposed to cake doughnuts that utilise chemical leavening agents such as baking powder or baking soda.

“We mix all the dough together and it proves three times before it’s rolled out by hand,” says Honeybrook. “Every single doughnut is cut by hand, which takes more time and energy, but I think it’s worth it.”

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Donut Papi in Redfern also specialises in yeast-raised doughnuts, but are best known for their unique flavours. “My background is Filipino, so we try to put more South-East Asian flavours in our doughnuts, such as pandan and ube,” says director Kenneth Rodrigueza. “We try to be colourful and fun — we’re very experimental with our flavours.”

Customers at Shortstop Coffee and Donuts get the best of both worlds, with the Melbourne and Sydney stores serving cake and yeast-raised doughnuts. Co-owner Sinye Ooi says there are key differences between the two varieties.

“The yeast-raised doughnut is a sweet bread dough,” she says. “It’s more brioche-like and has quite a lot of butter in it. The end product is fluffy and soft, with a little bit of chew when you eat it.”

In comparison, Ooi says the cake doughnut is made with a cake-style batter resulting in a more dense texture. The pastry chef says cake doughnuts can be more versatile as different flavours can be incorporated into the batter, whereas yeast-raised doughnuts are usually flavoured with toppings and fillings.

Shortstop’s third type of doughnut, the cruller, has also become a menu favourite. “It’s crispy on the outside and soft in the centre,” says Ooi. “It’s similar to a churro, but much lighter.”

Not so sweet

Doughnuts are no longer confined to the sweet category — venues are incorporating doughnuts into savoury menus as well. Melbourne restaurant Dexter is known for its meat doughnuts, which are filled with the burnt ends of smoked beef brisket.

“When we smoke whole briskets, we cut out the perfect portion, so there’s a lot of waste,” says chef and co-director Tom Peasnell. “We wanted to find something to use that brisket [off-cut] — it’s really the most flavourful part of the beef, but it just doesn’t look nice on a plate.”

Peasnell adds cream cheese and house-made hot sauce to the burnt ends before letting the mixture set overnight. “We make the dough every morning,” he says. “It’s like a milk dough — water, yeast, flour, milk and a tiny bit of butter.”

The dough is left to prove before being portioned into balls, which are then proved a second time. “We wait for that to double in size and then we fill them by hand,” says the chef. “[We] let it prove again and fry to order.”

The fried doughnuts are then covered in sugar and served with hot sauce. “The sugar makes it look like a sugared doughnut, but we also need it because we’ve taken it out of the actual dough,” says Peasnell. “Without the sugar it’s a bit too savoury.”

Secrets to success

Whether sweet or savoury, the fundamentals remain the same. Honeybrook says making the perfect doughnut comes down to getting the base right.

“It’s like building a house, you need a solid foundation for it to be a worthwhile house to buy,” she says. Honeybrook says yeast-raised dough can be temperamental and will act differently depending on the humidity, temperature and even how long the oven has been on for.

“It’s something that you can never do in a half-arsed fashion, you’ve really got to pay attention to every single part of the process,” she says. “It’s a product that needs a lot of care and attention and a lot of research as well.”

Ooi says cake doughnuts require the same dedication. “You’ve got to watch the cake batter temperature when you’re frying,” she says. “We really need to take care in order to get the perfect cake doughnut, so they are not too oily or too dry.”

Standing out from the crowd

With so many competitors in the space, Ooi says having a variety of styles is a great way to set yourself apart from other doughnut shops. “I think our range and the variety we have definitely sets us apart,” she says. “We make all our jams and hazelnut spread — everything is made in-store. That definitely sets us apart in terms of quality.”

A revolving menu is the key to bringing customers back at Donut Papi. “We have a permanent menu with flavours including original glazed, cinnamon and the basic ones people look for every day,” says Rodrigueza. “We have monthly specials as well where we can play with our imagination — it excites us and our customers as well.”

Customers return regularly to try the new flavours Rodrigueza and his team create. “I try to research and talk to customers to see if they have special requests,” he says. Donut Papi recently collaborated with Indonesian instant noodle company Indomie to make a Mie Goreng doughnut, which was a hit both with customers and on social media.

Social media has also been a key growth driver for Grumpy Donuts, with Honeybrook saying it has been “the single most important part of our growth right from the start”. “I think our brand has become a very strong and recognisable one mainly through our online presence which is ultimately what brings people in store,” she says.

Persistence is key

Honeybrook isn’t influenced by what others are doing and instead she goes with her gut, believing if she enjoys eating a flavour, others will too. An example of that is the US-style fritters Grumpy Donuts sell, which are made with the same yeast-raised dough as the traditional-shaped variety.

“It’s all cut up into pieces and then pulled back together with the flavours and toppings, so it’s throughout the dough as opposed to sitting on top,” she says. While fritters are popular in the US, Honeybrook says it has taken some time for Australians to catch on. “Once we were able to get people to try them, they ended up being one of our best sellers.”

Peasnell admits it took some time before the meat doughnuts really took off at Dexter. “When we first opened, it was a bit of a hard sell,” he says.  “They take a whole staff member to make them, so it takes a lot of hours. They’re all done to order, so there’s a lot of moving around the kitchen and waiting for them to prove.”

He says the cost of ingredients, including premium beef and whole capsicums for the hot sauce, means they are an expensive dish to make. “We were really umming and ahing whether to keep it on [the menu], solely because people weren’t buying them and it was taking so much time [to make],” says Peasnell. But he persevered and now the doughnuts are a signature dish.  “Now, thank god, everyone gets them,” he says. “We can justify having one person doing that whole job all day.”

Making it profitable

Ranging on average between $4 and $8, doughnuts can be a profitable menu item if demand is strong. To keep customer interest high and make additional revenue, many doughnut shops wholesale to other venues or offer catering options.

For Donut Papi, half of the business is retail and half is wholesale and markets. “We wholesale to cafés and restaurants as well,” says Rodrigueza. “We have a burger restaurant that takes our glazed doughnuts and uses them as a bun for a glazed doughnut burger.”

It’s clear there’s no end in sight for doughnuts and their popularity with consumers continues to grow. If you’re considering getting into the doughnut game, or perhaps thinking of adding some to your menu, decide on the style, or styles, of doughnut you want to serve, and do it well. Creative ingredients, unusual flavour combinations and a strong social media presence will help you stand out from the crowd and keep your customers coming back.

Image: Grumpy Donuts Credit: Alana Dimou