These are not your typical glazed or jelled-filled doughnuts. Boasting unique flavors like smoked chocolate bourbon sea salt and lemon mascarpone, Johnny Doughnuts prides itself on handcrafted, artisan doughnuts made with organic ingredients from locally sourced vendors. Its food trucks make stops at places ranging from San Francisco street fairs to the Silicon Valley campuses of Facebook and Google. The business has won many accolades, earning spots on the San Francisco Chronicle’s top 20 food trucks in the Bay Area and the Thrillist’s 33 Best Donut Shops In America 2015. But even with its mobile success, Johnny Doughnuts decided it was time to set up shop in a brick-and-mortar location in Marin County. We sat down with Co-Founder Craig Blum to talk about Johnny Doughnuts’ rise to success, the decision to go brick and mortar and the lessons he has learned along the way.
"Take the time to understand what you’re doing, ask a ton of questions and don’t be in a hurry to make it happen quickly."
What inspired you to start Johnny Doughnuts? And why doughnuts specifically?
I’ve been in the food business for long time, as a serial entrepreneur who started his own restaurants and food companies. I was part of the opening team for the Hard Rock Cafe in Los Angeles, where I initially gained experience as a restaurant manager. The owner became my mentor, and I learned from amazing people about how to run a successful business. I went on to manage other LA restaurants, eventually fulfilling my dream of opening a restaurant in Hawaii while still in my 20s. I’ve always had a lot of vision, which is important for this industry.
As for doughnuts, I had never been in the doughnut world, but I do know dough — one of my previous businesses was the John Dough pizza crust manufacturing company. While I was working on pizza, something in my head said “doughnuts.” So, I asked myself, “Why do they taste as bad as they do, and why do I feel so bad when I eat them?” I came up with an idea for artisan doughnuts — I wanted them to taste like something made by a pastry chef, with locally sourced ingredients. I wasn’t sure if that was possible, but I spent two years researching recipes and working with pastry chiefs before I finally came up with the recipes we use now.
Why did you decide to start with a food truck?
The first time I saw a food truck was in the late 90s, when they were still brand new, and it dawned on me at that moment just how cool food trucks really are. It’s a kitchen on wheels that can go anywhere — you can take them out into the middle of nowhere and make amazing meals there. I didn’t understand why people in the food industry didn’t immediately grasp that, but I wanted to figure out how to make it work for me. I researched food trucks for about four years and met with people in that industry who gave me pointers. That’s how I learned to operate in the food truck industry.
Then why the decision to go the brick-and-mortar route?
Our trucks are beautiful doughnut shops on wheels, but our doughnuts can’t actually be made inside the trucks themselves. Everything is made in our kitchen in San Rafael, where the trucks load up and move out. We always saw our San Rafael building as the central kitchen, but we decided one day to add another employee to handle walk-ins. On Labor Day in 2013, we announced on Facebook and on our chalkboard outside the kitchen that we would be open and selling doughnuts from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. We opened the doors and literally sold out two hours later. So we immediately realized the need to have a brick-and-mortar shop. The food trucks give us the ability to reach people who can’t easily access our central kitchen, and our shop allows us to develop a strong sense of community in our neighborhood.
What are some of the highs and the lows you’ve experienced so far in running Johnny Doughnuts?
There’s always a learning curve for how to do business in a specific community and getting to know your neighbors. But opening up the shop has been a huge plus for us because we were immediately supported by local residents and businesses. Our State Assemblyman honored us with a Small Business of the Year award in 2015.
As food trucks go, I would say that owning one is not as simple as people assume. There are multiple government agencies you need to deal with, and if you operate in multiple counties, you have to go through a rigorous entitlement processes. We now have a lot of management experience in that realm, but there were a lot of behind-the scenes hurdles we didn’t know about when starting.
Has the new shop changed the way you run your business overall?
My business background is in running multiple units, so yes, we plan to add more Johnny Doughnuts stores. The next one is set for San Francisco — we’ll be opening in Hayes Valley at the end of 2016.
What advice would you give to small-business owners in the food industry, especially when it comes switching from food truck to brick-and-mortar, or vice-versa?
Take the time to understand what you’re doing, ask a ton of questions and don’t be in a hurry to make it happen quickly. Doing your homework and understanding the business model will help you flourish as soon as you open your doors.
The information and opinions in this article are presented as-is and may not be suitable for all readers. Please obtain appropriate advice for your particular situation.
©First Republic Bank 2016