In the March issue of SAVEUR, we take on the all-American subject of donuts. One of the trends we noticed is a return to artisanal, homespun donuts, but with a twist—creative, boutique handmade specimens in unusual flavors made with quality ingredients and an unusually high level of attention to detail. No one typifies this new wave of donut shop more than Mark Isreal, the owner of The Doughnut Plant in New York City. His single-minded pursuit of deep-fried excellence made us want to know more about the man behind the donut, and how he got started. He spoke to SAVEUR senior editor Gabriella Gershenson recently about what it took.
For the past 19 years I've been making donuts. My grandfather had a bakery in North Carolina, and he made donuts, too. They were the last things he made in the day. When he would make the donuts, it would be about the same time my father would get off from school when he was a little kid, and it was my father's job to glaze them. My father told me how he used to climb up on a ladder and glaze the donuts after my grandfather had fried them. My grandfather created a lot of his recipes, and the donut recipe was one of them. He started off also as a baker when was a teenager—just because he had to work. And then in World War I, he went to Paris, France, and was stationed, and he worked in the bakery there and made baguettes and bread for the French soldiers. And then when he came back here he opened his own bakery—at first in Minnesota and then in North Carolina, and that's where I was born.
My grandfather was very creative—he made cake mixes before anyone ever had a cake mix, before Betty Crocker. My father didn't become a baker—because he saw how hard my grandfather worked. My grandfather worked until just a few minutes before he died, just worked his whole life as a baker, and didn't really have much to show for it other than the work he'd done. My grandfather died when I was three years old, so I don't really remember him very well—but growing up I would hear people in conversations with my parents, saying that they liked my grandfather's stuff. So I grew up with all this. Plus my grandmother was still alive, and she worked in the bakery, and she and I used to make cookies and breads and all that kind of stuff as I was growing up.
Then I moved to New York, and I was working in restaurants and bakeries, and one time when I went home to North Carolina to visit my father, we were going through the old file boxes where my grandfather's recipes were, and there was this donut recipe, and it had no eggs in it—and I'm vegetarian, so I don't eat eggs, but I do eat dairy. So I was like, "Dad, this is great—it's like a vegetarian donut!" I was like, "We gotta make them now!" So it was this humungous recipe—like, pounds of flour and pounds of sugar. And so my dad did all the mathematics and we cut it down. We made donuts, and they came out so great. I was like, "This is the way donuts are supposed to taste"—you know, because I grew up eating chain store donuts. I never had anything like this before. And so it just stuck in my mind, this great donut.
My friends—I was always baking for them, cooking for them—and they were always like saying, "You should do something on your own," but it was never for me. But I was the kitchen manager at Angelica Kitchen, and I was working at the Greenmarket for somebody's bakery. I was thirty, and I just had enough. I would give away all my ideas. And people would use my ideas, and they were making money off of them. I got burned out.
So I thought, what do I have to lose? So I went to a coffee shop, and I asked them, "If I just made you something, would you try it?" They said, "yeah, we'll try it." So the next day I called my dad and got the recipe the donuts, and I made the donuts, and I had made a glaze, and put fresh raspberries into the glaze—which was an original idea that I added to my grandfather's recipe.
Everything I ate was organic and vegetarian. And this was '94. People weren't really into it—they were like, tofu and seaweed? But I took this recipe of my grandfather's, and I was using Ronnybrook Farm milk, I was using organic flour, and I was using sea salt, and organic raspberries from the farmer's market. So in the morning I took my donuts to this coffee shop—it was called Limbo, it was on Avenue A—and I took them into the guy, and he tasted them. And I probably had a dozen donuts. He tasted them, and he says, "How much do you want for these?" I named some price. I didn't know he was going to buy them right there. And he says, "I'll buy all that you have."
So I sold him the donuts and then I went home. And I thought, "Oh, that's nice." So a little time later, the phone rang and it was him. And he said, "I'm sold out." So I got up in the morning and I made them again and took them to him. And they kept selling out, and he kept a standing order. This went on for maybe a week or two. I had a roommate at the time, and I said, "I'm going to go to Balducci's"—this was when Balducci's was the coolest store in New York.
My roommate was laughing at me! He's like, "that's a food store," you know? A gourmet food store. And I just took them in, and I saw the manager, and I said, "I have these donuts, I make them myself." And he said, "Okay, let's go in the back room and I'll try them." And he ate them—he says, "Wow." And he wrote up a purchase order right there! So I had two store or three stores, and I thought, okay, where else can I go into? I'll go into Dean and Deluca—just to test this out, see what happens. I had no appointments, nothing—I just walked through the door. And I said, "Would you try these?" And then they bought them right on the spot, too. And so that's how it started. It was so different in my life, because so many doors in my life were closed. And then when I started the Doughnut Plant it was just like every door opened up—and so fast.
And what I was doing was very unusual at the time. This was like before all this artisan stuff, and all this "made in Brooklyn" and farm-to-table. No one was really doing this. It was big bakeries and this little guy on a bicycle. I was going to the farmer's market and buying strawberries and blueberries before it was this cool farm-to-table thing. I was just doing it because I was incorporating things from my life. I mean, I used to go to the farmer's market everyday—Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday—just for myself, because my mom and I used to go to the farmer's market when I was growing up. She was doing all of this stuff, and I was just doing it, too.
After a couple of weeks I quit my job at the bakery. So I made donuts from my apartment for six weeks. And I had a roommate at the time—and there was flour and sugar everywhere. I was getting up early in the morning and waking up my roommate, and the apartment was a mess. So I went to my landlord, and I asked, "Do you have some kind of space for me—anything?" He said, "If you want it, there's a boiler room in the basement of your building—I'll just give it to you." You can see it on YouTube if you type in "doughnut beginnings, Doughnut Plant," and you'll see the basement that I started in. And I just painted the whole thing, and went to the Bowery and I bought a mixer and a fryer, and that's where I started—in this boiler room. And it was free. And I was in this space for five years, alone.
My grandfather had died when I was 3, so I had no one to teach me how to make his recipe. My father had only glazed the donuts, and he couldn't remember. So I had the recipe and I had to learn how to use it. So as I was making the donuts—the five years that I was in the basement alone, just me and the dough—was where I'd learned the technique that I use to make donuts. And I learned it just by learning—the dough was teaching me every night. In a way that was like the greatest thing, because I wasn't copying anyone—I wasn't even copying my grandfather. I came up with my own technique because there was nobody else there! So that's how my donuts became unique.
If you look at it, it was like a prison, it was like a brick wall, and there was like one window with a fan in it. So I would come to work at night at eleven o'clock, and then I'd make the donuts, and then I would be mixing the dough, cutting out the donuts, proofing the donuts, frying the donuts, and glazing them, all at the same time. I had it timed out so that I would know when to mix. I'd be mixing the first dough, and then the second dough, but then when I'd get to the third dough, the first dough would be ready for cutting out the donuts. And then I'd put them in the proof box. And then the second dough, I'd be cutting those out, and then I'd have to fry the first batch while I was cutting out the second batch, and mixing the fifth batch. I was running around the bakery.
I was 31 when I started. I couldn't do it now, because I'm older. It was difficult physically, but I had so much energy. And plus I was very enthusiastic, because it was the first time in my life where I was set free to do whatever I wanted, and no one could tell me I couldn't do it this way.
Though the donut recipe was based on my grandfather's donut, my father tells me that my donut doesn't really resemble my grandfather's donut, because I use my own technique, and I changed the measurements a lot. So it's only based on it. My father tells me mine taste totally different than his.
I was able to come up with a lot of ideas. My grandfather just used to do vanilla glaze—I wanted to make different flavored glazes, but I didn't want to use artificial colors and artificial flavorings. So I would take fresh fruit from the farmer's market and put it into the glaze. That was the first original idea that I had that I put into the donuts—mixing the fresh fruit and fresh nuts into the glazes. I never saw that anywhere else. That's how I started my business. Everything's done by hand. No machines. Everything I was delivering was made that day. When I'd get to the stores, my donuts would still be kind of warm, because I'd just made them.
Most of my time in New York I rode a bicycle to get around, so when I started getting two or three stores, I had to get around to deliver, so I just took my bicycle and put two baskets on it and then I'd load it up with donuts, and deliver on my bicycle.
I kept going because I had nothing else in my life. The more I focused on the donuts, the less I had going on in other places. My friends would call me, and I'd be so exhausted. I'd be in the basement at like eleven o'clock at night, and then at seven o'clock, eight o'clock in the morning, then I'd deliver until ten o'clock, and then I'd come back to the bakery, and then I'd buy everything for the next night, and then I'd clean up the bakery by myself. I'd go to bed at eight o'clock at night, so, like—eight, nine, ten, eleven—I'd usually get about three hours sleep or something.
So, for five years I was working in the basement, and I had no money. Through the years I became friendly with my landlord, and the woman who used to take my rent money, she used to say, "Mark, you're a couple months behind on your rent," and I would give her donuts and she would kind of leave me alone. But it got to be where I was behind seven or eight months on my rent, and she was like, "Look, we're going to evict you if you don't start paying your rent." And I was like, "I'm working as hard as I can." But if I made a little bit of profit I would buy a sheet pan, or a bowl. I had no money. I literally started the Donut Plant with the money in my pocket. Before that, I always worked enough to pay my rent, and was just a guy on the bicycle, riding around, free of responsibility. So the Donut Plant made me responsible.
It was hard for me to get out of the basement, because I couldn't make enough money to get the capital you would need to open a storefront—and no bank would loan me money because I had no credit. So I was stuck. After five years I just couldn't deal with it. My father offered to give me some money, and my brother did, too.
Then I was looking at Grand Street, which is where I'm at now, and I met the landlord, and I said, "I've got this donut shop, and I need to open up a bakery—and I've got Martha Stewart and Emeril Live and all these other TV shows wanting me to be on their show, but I have no bakery!" I told him, "If you can help me open this bakery, I can do all these things." So he offered to help me, because he thought it would bring some attention to the space. And so he gave me a good rent and was very sympathetic, like my other landlord.
When I moved to Grand Street, it still was just me making the donuts. And then my father came, and my father would fry the donuts, and one of us would go sell the donuts in the front. And then I slowly started teaching somebody else how to cut the donuts, and then I had my first employee, and then I had my second employee fry the donuts, and I would still be involved. So I was slowly teaching people how to do things I was doing. And that's how Grand Street grew.
Now there's two Donut Plants in New York, nine in Tokyo, and three in Korea. We're trying to get some more.
Even when I went to Grand Street—even when I got bigger—my focus was still on the quality of the donut. I was always interested in changing the flavors. And there was a natural flow to flavors changing. So in spring I'd have strawberry, and then in late spring there'd be mango season, and then July would be blueberry, and then August would be peach, and in the fall there'd be apples—so there was a natural change of the fruit, and I was really interested in eating seasonally, just for myself, so I would let the donuts change seasonally, too. It kept my attention, too. I didn't want to have always the same flavors. I wanted them to keep coming, so I'd know what time of year it was. It was kind of fun. As the years went by, I'd get phone calls and emails—"When's this one gonna start?"
One year, we were on Grand Street, after we had the ginger donut for Chinese New Year for a bunch of years, and I didn't do it one year, and we got this mad email from somebody in Washington, and they were like, "I drove all the way from Washington to get your ginger donut, and you didn't have it this year!" And I was like, "Okay, I'm never going to do that again." I'm always going to keep my flavors in the holidays, because people depend on them.
Although now I still have the interest in being creative. I always focus on what I've done, and maintaining the quality, but to keep my interest, I have to keep creating new things.