Is the Doughnut Trend Here to Stay?
We got to the bottom of the upscale doughnut craze in Rhode Island.
Just after 8 a.m. on National Doughnut Day, the line outside PVDonuts in Fox Point in Providence spills out the door, builds up on the sidewalk and extends halfway down the block on Ives Street. About fifty people are waiting to buy gourmet doughnuts — in flavors like cereal milk, tiramisu and banana split — to bring into work or share with family and friends. In honor of the day, the shop is giving away a free sprinkle doughnut hole to the first 200 customers in line, and by 9 a.m., they are already gone.
PVDonuts is Providence’s first specialty doughnut shop, selling out on its very first day in business on Memorial Day weekend in 2016. Since then, several others have popped up in Downcity and beyond, including classic gourmet versions at Knead on Custom House Street, vegan, gluten-free doughnuts from Augusta Street Kitchen and dessert-like varieties at 4corners Coffee in Warwick.
It may seem like the fried treats are suddenly all the rage, but they’ve always been popular with Rhode Islanders, who grew up having doughnut shops on every corner and doughnut cakes for birthdays. From Allie’s Donuts in North Kingstown to Ma’s Donuts in Newport and Sip‘n Dip locations in the East Bay, bakeries have been serving them to customers’ delight for decades. A 2010 study by market-research firm NPD Group listed the Providence metropolitan area as having more doughnut shops per capita than any other region in the United States. Of course, this figure includes Dunkin’ Donuts (there are 179 locations in Rhode Island alone) and Honey Dew Donuts chains.
Before any of the specialty shops opened, Easy Entertaining in Providence launched Donut Fridays in 2014, and still makes a limited amount of doughnuts one day of the week. Recent flavors include renditions of the chefs’ favorite cookies remade as doughnuts. “It’s not a giant production, and you still get to make and enjoy fresh doughnuts,” says Easy Entertaining’s pastry chef Danielle Varga. “Who doesn’t love a nice fresh doughnut?”
As more and more bakeries and restaurants throw their chef’s hat into the doughnut-frying ring, some wonder if there will be too many options to keep afloat. “I don’t know how long-term sustainable that is,” says Peter Kelly, associate professor at Johnson and Wales University, who discusses food trends in his culinary classroom. “At some point, there might be market saturation. If everyone is doing some version of a specialty doughnut, then it’s going to become ordinary. Then again, Dunkin’ Donuts is perceived as ordinary but there’s one on every corner.”
Kelly compares doughnuts to the cupcake craze of a few years ago. “Cupcakes reached their peak with the television show, ‘Cupcake Wars.’ There were so many cupcake bakers and cupcake food trucks selling the same thing, and people were spending an awful lot of money on tiny pieces of cake with stuff on top.” Now gourmet doughnuts are the treats that fetch $2.50 to $3.50 apiece. But you can still get a dozen light and fluffy old-faithfuls for a third of the price at Allie’s.
“The first day my mom and dad opened, they made $38. A doughnut used to be under 5 cents, a dozen was 36 cents, and now to see how it’s evolved, we’re at $10.80 a dozen,” says Allie’s co-owner Anne Briggs Drescher, who owns the shop with her husband, Buddy Drescher. “I cringe when it’s time to talk about a price increase because I can’t get over how much a doughnut can cost.”
Because of the time, labor and ingredients involved, PVDonuts charges between $2.75 to $3.50 per doughnut and $33 to $42 per dozen. “I’ll never understand how people can go to those specialty shops and pay so much for a doughnut, but people do it,” says Briggs Drescher. “I don’t know whether it’s the word doughnut itself or what.”
Allie’s has sustained success through changing times. Nearly fifty years ago, the shop started serving simple yeasted and glazed, frosted, filled and old-fashioned doughnuts that continue to attract fans from near and far. Before opening the beloved bakery in 1968, Frederick Alvin “Allie” Briggs and his wife, Lucile, had seven kids and he was working three jobs to make ends meet. His favorite job — aside from delivering milk and hay as a farmer — was making doughnuts for a baker out of Wakefield. What he really wanted was to open a shop of his own.
“He needed a spot to take a nap, and he pulled in to this parking lot [where Allie’s is now located] and shut his eyes and he couldn’t sleep because the road was so busy,” says Allie Briggs’s daughter, Jane Miozzi, who works at the shop. “He said, ‘I’m making doughnuts for some guy in Wakefield, I’m running milk and hay, if I’m going to kill myself, I’d rather do it for myself.” He chose that location — the former house where he pulled over — to open the shop, and it’s been selling doughnuts like hot cakes ever since.
The Allie’s owners say business has picked up even more recently due to social media, and the influx of gourmet doughnut makers hasn’t impeded sales. “I’ve seen a lot of places in Rhode Island where over time, new things push them out and it hasn’t happened to us,” says Briggs Drescher. “We don’t feel new and modern is going to attack or hurt us. No, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
“A rising fryer floats all doughnuts,” says Anne’s son, Matt Drescher, who also works at Allie’s, handling social media and doing whatever needs to be done at the shop.
Whether it’s Providence or North Kingstown, doughnut makers struggle to keep up with the demand. PVDonuts sells 1,700 doughnuts on a weekday and up to 2,400-plus on a weekend day, while Allie’s sells about 500 dozen, or 6,000 doughnuts on a slower day and 9,000 on a Saturday or Sunday. “Some days we can’t keep up,” says Miozzi. “People are incredulous as to why we can’t make just one more doughnut.”
It’s 5 a.m. inside PVDonuts and co-owner Lori Kettelle and three bakers, including Melissa White and Hanna Mikulandra, have been rolling dough since around 2 a.m. The streets outside the building are quiet, windows are dark, street lights are bright and the sun has not yet begun to rise.
“Today we were able to have four people rolling so it got done a lot faster. We are usually done rolling by 5 a.m. but today we finished by 4:15 a.m.,” Kettelle says, adding that they work ten- to twelve-hour days, five days per week, though she’s usually there on Mondays doing management work. “We are finding ways to go faster but keep the quality of the product, and make more.”
Today, they’re preparing 1,600 to 1,700 doughnuts. Kettelle, who is twenty-seven, has bleached blonde hair that’s tied up with a pink bandana, her black T-shirt is dusted with flour, and her signature cat-eye eyeliner (from last night) flares out from the sides of her eyes. She carries a tray of two dozen yeasted doughnuts to a rack — made from twenty-four-hour raised brioche dough that rests overnight — where they will proof until they are ready to be fried. Sometimes they puff up too much and “get all trunky” — stretched like an elephant trunk — but the solution for that is to paint the fried dough with icing and coat it with Fruity Pebbles cereal. “Cereal Milk makes everything pretty,” she says.
While Kettelle mans the fryer, her assistant baker and “stress-reliever,” Melissa White, finishes Oreo doughnuts. Pre-mixed glazes, including coffee milk, matcha, chocolate and more, are stored underneath the counter where she pipes frosting onto two dozen chocolate doughnuts. White spent time working inside various Rhode Island bakeries, including Wildflour, with Kettelle. A pink cupcake tattoo appears prominently on her left triceps. She recently got inked with a doughnut tattoo along with a few of the other bakers.
PVDonuts attracted fame during its pre-shop days on Instagram, when Kettelle — a 2012 Johnson and Wales University graduate who grew up in New Jersey — saw a void of gourmet doughnuts in Providence and started making them and offering them to her husband Paul’s CrossFit gym members in 2014. After the couple got married, the Kettelles were ready to begin selling to the public. She started out renting commercial kitchen space at Hope and Main in Warren, but outgrew it within a month, and then moved to Sin Bakery in Providence. When that spot also couldn’t meet their needs to satisfy growing demand, PVDonuts found a larger storefront of its own in Fox Point and reopened last September. Paul now works full-time for the doughnut shop, managing social media, dipping and decorating doughnuts and doing prep work.
At the Fox Point shop, they created the Friendsgiving doughnut topped with fried chicken from Bucktown, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving. Attention-grabbing photos drew a national following from Thrillist and Refinery29. More recently, they released a March ’90s menu, starring doughnuts named after popular snacks like Pop Tarts, Dunkaroos and Rice Krispies Treats, which picked up international press from the Daily Mail, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and Delish.
The popularity of the doughnuts took off as the business posted photos of their pastry creations. “If a few key people focus in on whatever it is you are selling, it’s almost like an algae bloom,” says Peter Kelly. “In the first hour, you have 1,000 people, and an hour later, you have 100,000. When one of those communities bumps into another, it just explodes.” Photos posted on social media make us crave food items, he says. “You can see it immediately, you can drool over the picture they post, and I think that experience makes people want to go and try it.”
The PVDonuts ’90s idea came from listening to decades-themed playlists while making doughnuts. “We listen to ten hours of music every day. When we got to the ’90s, someone said we should put Pop Rocks on a doughnut, and it spiraled out of control,” White says. “When the girls out front came in, we were like, what’s your favorite ’90s snack? And pretty much everyone had a common love of Dunkaroos.” Lunchables and Pizza Rolls did not make the cut.
Employees contacted General Mills to track down the original Dunkaroos. That snack wasn’t available, so they focused on a funfetti flavor using crushed graham crackers, vanilla frosting and jimmies for the epically popular treat. General Mills followed up by sending PVDonuts an order guide for bulk cereal along with massive free samples of Cocoa Pebbles and Lucky Charms (which they put on a Lucky Charms doughnut for St. Patrick’s Day).
At PVDonuts, there are no formal ideas meetings. Creativity happens organically. As the baking operation prepares for the day, brainstorming while working is a part of the job. But they also visit other doughnut shops as part of their vacations, and they broadcast their research and finds on Instagram stories. The Holy Donut in Portland, Maine, is a favorite, and other staff members have visited bakeries in San Francisco, New York and even Iceland, where they experienced a build-your-own doughnut bar and doughnut milkshakes.
“It’s like a community. When we go to these places, we mention we have a doughnut shop and they get so excited,” says baker Mikulandra, who has celiac disease and is helping to eventually develop a gluten-free doughnut recipe. She also has a blog all about french fries (which are gluten-free).
The novelty of eating their own doughnuts has worn off for many of the PVDonuts bakers, “But if someone brings in Allie’s, we’ll be standing around devouring them,” says Kettelle. “We love the sprinkle doughnuts.”
It’s after 7 a.m. on a Wednesday in early May at Allie’s Donuts. The bakers have dubbed it “Wacky Wednesday” as the morning rush streams in. Two young men flip dough, while Jane Miozzi directs kitchen traffic and multi-tasks, and two finishers swipe frosting, dip jimmies and decorate doughnut cakes (which they call “big doughnuts”) including excavator and pitbull designs. Out front, four women fill orders and pour coffee, including Dottie Sachetti, who’s been there for about a decade and sports a big button with the Allie’s Donuts founder Allie Briggs’s photo on it. After Allie died in 2010, an employee had them made for everyone to wear, and Dottie sports hers every day.
This morning, making space for more doughnuts is a priority. Miozzi punched in at 2 a.m., but the fryers have been here since midnight. It takes about four hours from start to finish to make a single doughnut, and they create about fifty dozen at a time. Bakers mix the dough, which takes time to rise. Then the doughnuts are cut and proofed for forty-five minutes, before they are fried, frosted, dipped or filled, and then some are decorated with the trademark colorful jimmies. There are seven ten-pound boxes of rainbow-hued jimmies high up on a shelf, and each one is replaced at the end of the work day. The shop goes through at least sixty pounds of sprinkles a day.
“Clear for plain,” Miozzi directs the fryer, as he retrieves two dozen that have already been removed from the hot oil and placed on a drip screen. “Clear means I have a spot for them to bring out the new one,” she says. It’s like an orchestrated baseball game as workers communicate with curt shouts to let others know where they are in the process of frying and finishing doughnuts and cakes. They slide in and out of tight spaces, hustling trays of doughnuts to get them to home plate: the display counter, where they make the sale.
Even though they’ve been doing this for decades, meeting demand is still a struggle. They try not to, but sometimes they do run out. PVDonuts sells out frequently, which is the sign of a successful run. “You know what’s funny, it’s understood differently there,” says Briggs Drescher. “When they run out, people are like, ‘Oh shoot, I didn’t make it.’ And when we run out, they’re angry.”
Sometimes, customers don’t understand how a doughnut shop can run out of doughnuts. “We can only make them so fast,” she says. “We start before we open, but eventually that extra time catches up with us because we are selling them faster than they can be produced.”
Life wasn’t always rainbow sprinkles for the Allie’s family. Briggs Drescher is now semi-retired at sixty-two, spending part of the year in Florida with her husband. She started working at the doughnut shop before and after school at age thirteen, along with her fifteen-year-old brother, Ricky, to help her family get the business on its feet. “We would go in and work before school and after school and do whatever we could to help the family out,” she says. “Back then, it was all about getting it off the ground and doing everything ourselves to support the family without paying others to do the work.”
Soon, Dunkin’ Donuts came into popularity and commercials starring Fred the baker started to air. Fred would wake up early and say his catchphrase, “Time to make the donuts,” and that simple statement tortured Anne growing up. “That was like being bullied on a regular basis. It was taking something that was hard to do, and very labor-intensive, where you had to make so much volume in order to make a profit,” she says. “There were a lot of struggles in the doughnut business and people ridiculed it, teasing, ‘you gotta get up and make the doughnuts.’ That was hard for all of us as kids.”
Then the low-fat craze came along and doughnuts were deemed as unhealthy. At the same time, Allie’s started selling “big doughnuts,” or doughnut cakes, made by Lucile Briggs. One day, a customer asked for a big doughnut in the shape of a tractor, and the idea took off by word of mouth. “When this all started, our volume dropped for doughnut sales, but the big doughnut situation took over for the doughnut production that we lost,” Briggs Drescher says.
Now Allie’s has celebrity status in the Ocean State. “Anne’s the glue, the reason we all try so hard,” says Miozzi in an email. “She built the business up with integrity and hard work. First one in, last one out; the sacrifices she’s made are epic.”
Now Briggs Drescher’s son, Matt Drescher, is entrenched in the business. He’s taking on all the social media promotions while pitching in at the bakery. “He’s been through all of the things that I went through as I was growing up,” Briggs Drescher says. “He’s got a good mind for business and we’re learning a lot of things from him and he’s learning from us about how we did things in the past.”
Drescher has developed a few new flavors, he’s working on a gluten-free recipe and he helped to launch a free doughnut day inspired by the Twitter feed @RIProbz in honor of Allie’s forty-ninth anniversary. On June 1, they gave away one free doughnut to 1,600 people. Next year, their fiftieth anniversary also happens to fall on National Doughnut Day. “I can’t even believe how that worked out,” says Briggs Drescher with a laugh.
Other than taking advantage of social media, Allie’s plans to stay the same. “We need to protect what we have, and we need to keep what we have the same… America is all about choice. As long as we keep loving what we do and stand behind what we’ve done and don’t change out of any kind of pressure, then we’ll be fine,” she says. “So far it’s worked and we’re going to keep that mystery going until somebody figures it out, and that’ll be the day I finally retire.”