Entrepreneurs compete for the hearts and appetites of local doughnut lovers
By Michael Aushenker
It’s the beginning of a new Friday, and DK’s Donuts & Bakery co-owner Mayly Tao, the self-appointed “Donut Princess” of Santa Monica, is waving her magic wand.
As photogenic as the cartoon-vivid pink- and white-glazed pastries filling DK’s glass display case, the cheery 24 year old serves with a smile throughout the morning rush. Customers, mostly 20- and 30-somethings, enter the tiny strip-mall shop near the corner of 16th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard a dozen at a clip — a parade that will continue without pause for hours to come.
The main attraction, of course, is the doughnuts. But these aren’t your typical glazed, chocolate or sprinkled rounds of fried dough. Tao’s assortment boasts a rainbow of less-common flavors such as green tea, Nutella, strawberry shortcake, gooey cinnamon, pistachio, red velvet and maple bacon. And they come not only as “donuts,” but also as “Double-decker O-nuts” (a twist on the “cronut” croissant-donut hybrid craze) and “WOW-nuts” (a waffle-doughnut hybrid topped with icing, sprinkles or cookies).
“They offer something that’s different,” said customer Abigail Brucelo, pointing to a purple ube doughnut, made from the sweet yam popular in Filipino cuisine.
Tao’s mother, who came to America from Cambodia to escape the murderous oppression of the Khmer Rouge, took over DK’s with her ex-husband in 1981. But things didn’t get interesting until 2012, when Tao, fresh out of UC San Diego with a communications and marketing degree, took over with her brother Sean.
Expanding the menu with exotic, hipster-friendly, low-carb and protein-centric doughnut options as well as sandwiches and boba, Tao rebranded DK’s Donuts through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, embraced Grubhub and Amazon Fresh distribution (to as far as Orange County and San Diego) and overhauled the shop’s image down to its cartoony business cards and menu evoking J-Pop culture.
On Monday, Netflix ordered 25 dozen donuts from DK’s for its Emmys party.
So in a part of town obsessed with kale, breakfast smoothies and CrossFit, why is everyone so excited about donuts?
“A donut makes a lot of people happy,” said Larry Weintraub, who, with younger brother Ron, owns and operates the iconic Randy’s Donuts on Manchester Boulevard just west of the 405. “Sometimes, people come in grumpy. I really believe that a good donut changes your outlook a lot.”
Next week, the Westside’s “happy” factor is expected to skyrocket as East Coast favorites Dunkin’ Donuts opens the first SoCal outpost of what could eventually be as many as 1,000 California locations at a storefront at Wilshire Boulevard and 12th Street in Santa Monica.
Dunkin’ Donuts, Take 2
Massachusetts-based Dunkin’ Donuts’ long-planned march to the sea commences at 5 a.m. Tuesday at what used to be a hair salon, the store giving away free swag bags to the first 100 people in line and a year’s worth of free coffee to the first customer to cross the store’s threshold.
“We anticipate opening approximately 150 to 200 Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants in Southern California by 2020,” said Dunkin’ Donuts Public Relations Manager Justin Drake, including locations in Malibu, Whittier, Downey and Long Beach.
To say there is some excitement over the arriving Dunkin’ Donuts shops is understatement. Many a Facebook feed has been awash in orange and purple logos from East Coast transplants posting and re-posting the news, first reported in June, that Dunkin’ would be flooding the West Coast in full force.
However, this isn’t the first time the Dunkin’ army has tried to firm up the Western theater. Back in the 1990s, Dunkin’ attempted (and largely failed) to storm California. A few random outposts at Camp Pendleton and in the San Diego area are remnants of that initial push, but Californians craving a Dunkin’ fix might otherwise have to drive six hours east to Phoenix or eight hours to Flagstaff.
But Dunkin’ franchisee Gary Haar will not launch the Santa Monica shop as a novice. A veteran of the food service industry who opened his own food distribution company in Connecticut in 1991, Haar began running Dunkin’ stores in New Jersey in 2003. The Santa Monica outlet will be his eighth Dunkin’ but his first outside of Jersey.
Earlier this year, Haar and his wife took an apartment in the Santa Monica area, and he said establishing the shop has been a relatively smooth ride, the city easing them through the permit process.
But what has been particularly exhilarating for Haar with this location has been the anticipation, stoked by social media.
“It’s wildly exciting,” he said. “In New Jersey, when you open up a new store, it’s ho-hum, another Dunkin Donuts. Here, I’m amazed by the buzz and the following.”
He has seen scores of people take photos of the storefront’s logo and has been accosted by many area East Coast transplants with their nostalgic-for-Dunkin’ stories.
“It’s just unbelievable. It reinforces the logic and thinking that drove me to do this,” said Haar. “I feel pressure that I want to execute correctly and delight every customer that walks in the store. That keeps me up at night, making sure that I can deliver.”
Over the last few months, Haar has checked out the local competition and he believes his “consistent product” will fare well.
“I’m not impugning any other doughnut store, but they don’t necessarily focus on the coffee; we do. They don’t focus on sandwiches; we do. We do everything, and we do everything well,” he said.
Making Dough: An American Dream
Aside from larger donut-supplying chains Yum Yum’s, Winchell’s and 7-Eleven, Haar is entering a Westside donut culture all its own, where donuts seem to go hand-in-hand with croissants at small franchises such as Donut King and at the popular WenDy’s Donuts locations on Lincoln Boulevard at California and Washington.
Many of these mom-and-pop, doughnut-hole-in-the-wall shops are located in nondescript strip malls up and down Lincoln Boulevard, Centinela Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard.
On Thursday afternoon, Howard Raskin and his friend Gay sat at the patio table overlooking a parking lot in front of Sepulveda Donuts, near Culver Boulevard. The area retirees meet here all the time.
“They make them fresh; the people are nice,” said Raskin, who usually orders a buttermilk donut.
“I come here every day, take a break in between not doing anything,” his friend added with a chuckle.
Ten minutes later on Centinela, Diamond Donuts owner Jimmy Chau stood in front of his enterprise, explaining why the colorful sign on his establishment only reads “Donuts.” The Anaheim resident said the building’s owner had left his business’s name out when creating the sign.
Chau shrugged off any concern about the coming Dunkin’ invasion.
“It doesn’t bother me,” said Chau, who has run Diamond for 20 years and has full confidence in his steadiest sellers: glazed donuts, croissant and coffee. “We make quality donuts. We do better than Dunkin’ Donuts, Winchell’s and Yum Yum’s.”
Where Tao’s DK’s Donuts has found its niche in creating contemporary sugary delights, many other operators remain dedicated to the classics.
Contrary to trend-hopping on the cronut craze, Randy’s “sat it through,” Weintraub said, admitting they took a stab at their own version of a cronut “but we couldn’t get it going right. We stay with what we always had.”
In recent years, however, they have diversified the menu with various sandwiches, croissants, bagels and muffins.
Randy’s Donuts traces its roots back to 1953, when the iconic giant donut first topped the shop’s roof. In 1976, Robert Eskow purchased the shop and named it Randy’s after his boy. Two years later, Eskow’s cousins, brothers Ron and Larry Weintraub, purchased Randy’s and continue to operate it, coming in every morning at 4 a.m.
“We make extraordinary good donuts,” said Larry Weintraub. “The first time, they come because of the giant donut. Once they come, they come back because the donuts are so good. We got great response.”
Weintraub says thanks to a loyal customer base, they are not worried about Dunkin’. After all, they’ve survived the Krispy Kreme craze and an increasingly health-conscious Westside.
“Sometimes in January, they make a [New Year’s] resolution and you don’t see them for a few weeks,” he said, laughing.
Tao’s mother, Chuong Lee, is officially retired from running DK’s Donuts but still helps out. She’s also unfazed by incoming Dunkin’, and doesn’t knock them.
“They’re not that bad,” said Lee, who knows firsthand. She once co-owned a first-wave Dunkin’ in Hermosa Beach, running the franchise with her former husband from 1982 through 1990.
Lee observed how, over the years, several competitors have either closed up shop or fallen from favor, listing Winchell’s, Supreme Donuts and Krispy Kreme. She shines with pride over how her daughter has helped transform the family business. At first, Lee said she was hesitant with Tao’s idea to remake the menu, expanding it to 120 different items on every given week.
“She’s very proud,” Tao said of her mother, “[but initially] she said, ‘Why are you giving me so much work?”
The extra touch seems to “make this into a foodie hot spot,” as Tao puts it.
During that transition, Manhattan-based cronut creator Dominique Ansel Bakery sent Tao’s shop a cease-and-desist letter threatening litigation over use of its trademarked “cronut” name.
Tao’s solution was to rebrand its hybrid “DK’s Double-Decker-O-Nuts” (with “Little O’s” for the donut-hole version).
And, as it turned out, even bad publicity is good publicity, says Tao, with local coverage of her initial cronut problem raising awareness of the reinvigorated shop.
A hole lotta hype
Dunkin’ is not the only highly anticipated donut shop coming to Santa Monica before year’s end. On Aug. 19, when Eater LA posted its hot list of “22 most anticipated fall restaurants opening in L.A.,” the Santa Monica Dunkin’ ranked No. 15, while Sidecar Doughnuts came in just four notches below.
Sidecar specializes in gourmet doughnuts with names such as Huckleberry, Plum and Marzipan and Saigon Cinnamon Crumb, with such ingredients as cardamom compote, zucchini cake and huckleberry glaze. Opening in early 2015, the Santa Monica location will only be the second Sidecar. The original, established by married partners Sumter and Chi-Lin Pendergrast and executive chef Brooke Desprez, became something of a phenomenon a couple years ago in Costa Mesa.
“Our goal was to reinvent the donut [in terms of] freshness, shop design and customer service. We make everything from scratch — cake mix, icing, filling. We fry our donuts every hour. They don’t have a shelf life so we throw them out after an hour [either given away or donated to a food bank],” Sumter Pendergrast said.
Sidecar’s menu differs greatly from Dunkin’ and even DK’s. They offer only eight to 12 flavors a week, half of which are constant, others are on a rotation, including seasonal donuts.
Well aware of the imminent arrival of Dunkin’, Pendergrast doesn’t see the chain as primary competition.
“The Dunkin’ model has changed quite a bit,” he said. “They’re really competing with Starbucks. They’re [big on] coffee. It’s a totally different experience.”
Haar’s manager, Lesley DeVictor, worked as a Starbucks district manager overseeing 13 stores before she joined the Dunkin’ team.
In addition to Starbucks, the new Dunkin’ has other competition in the neighborhood — a Krispy Kreme right at Wilshire Boulevard and Euclid Avenue.
Also an East Coast phenomenon, Krispy Kreme, introduced its hot donut craze to the West Coast in the 1990s at one sole location in La Habra; its parking lot flooded with long lines of cars going through its take out. But after rapid growth in the early 2000s, the hot donut craze had cooled.
Haar believes his company is poised to accomplish in 2015 what Dunkin’ failed to do in the 1990s. In 11 years, he has seen the company grow from the inside.
“When they were here before, they didn’t have the proper support in a lot of disciplines. They didn’t have the supply chain or the marketing worked out well, very little operational oversight,” he said. “Today that’s all first-rate.”
Over the past decade, Dunkin’ has further cemented itself as a purveyor of coffee that’s “the biggest-selling supermarket brand in California,” according to Haar.
The business model has also evolved, said Dunkin’ corporate spokesman Drake.
“We’ve expanded our menu quite a bit in recent years, and offer a wide range of hot and iced coffees, lattes and teas, Coolatta frozen drinks, breakfast and bakery sandwiches, donuts, muffins, bagels and croissants. We’ve also rolled out a new restaurant design which includes digital menu boards, modern décor, comfortable seating and free Wi-Fi for guests.”
Dunkin’ has also benefited this time around from home-grown publicity magnified by the growth of social media.
“That tells you the power of the brand resonates they took time to say something about it,” Haar said.
Back at DK’s, its enthusiastic customers debated whether they will consider trying Dunkin’.
Brucelo praises DK’s for its creative flavors but admits she’s intrigued by the chain’s dedicated following.
“I actually think that Dunkin’ has a great chance. It’s the novelty of it,” she said.