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HOW VOODOO DOUGHNUT MADE THE MOST WITH THE YEAST

HOW VOODOO DOUGHNUT MADE THE MOST WITH THE YEAST

By Luis

By now its no secret, Portland is slightly off-kilter and most of its residents wouldn’t have it any other way. A city that prides itself on its ever-evolving free spirit, this Pacific Northwest gem was just the place I needed to gain some inspiration for the past few days. Quite possibly everyone I know that’s spent some time in Portland can’t go a few sentences without mentioning Voodoo Doughnut, an institution that once made Anthony Bourdain feel ashamed of himself for loving so much. Intrigued by its continued popularity over the last decade and consistent line-ups for sugar-loaded delights, I made my way to the shop’s original location on 22 SW 3rd Ave. and paid a visit to one half of the founding duo, the warmly eccentric Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson.

Aside from its signature brand of product, which includes fan favorites like the bacon maple bar and blood-filled voodoo doll, Voodoo Doughnut has positioned itself as much more than just your local, wacky donut shop, slowly developing into a brand, adored not just within the states, but worldwide. Having recently announced the launch of Voodoo Doughnut Recordings, collaborations with several local companies and even mentions in The Simpsons, the story of co-founders Kenneth Pogson and Tres Shannon is yet another tale of the American dream, made possible though a series of fortunate events alongside plenty of imagination and hard work.

Pogson and I spoke about the rigors of dealing with such a trademark-heavy brand and how he’s managed to see progression in a company he would have never expected to reach the levels it has, including two storefronts in Portland, one in Eugene, Oregon and a fourth in Denver, Colorado.

Voodoo Doughnut Co-founder Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson

THE OREGON TRAIL

LUIS: What initially brought you out to Portland?
KENNETH “CAT DADDY” POGSON: I was chasing tail. Someone who moved up here from Memphis and got a job dancing ballet. That didn’t work out and I almost got in my car and drove home. It was a couple of years, I gave it a good shot, and when it was over I almost drove off, but was like, “You know what? I like this place.” And I figured I’d give it six months, so I signed a six month lease and that was in ’91 or ’92.

And you’ve been here ever since?
Pretty much, I went back home to help my mom when she was dying and stuck around here for a while. I thought about staying, but once it was all over I was like, “I’ve got to get the hell out of here.” Then another time I went back for a little bit and that was the time. The first time I went back I had a mission. The second time I went back the day I got there I was like, “What the fuck am I doing here?” And it wasn’t long after that I came back and that was the path to this.

When I came back that time I laid it on the ground with a mission to open [my own business] and found my business partner. Not to open a donut shop, just to open and go into business and kind of be a bar because I had done that for the last 20 years. But opening a bar is twice as expensive as opening a donut shop. Daunting.

So we had the epiphany that there wasn’t a donut shop in downtown Portland and still no one can prove to me that there ever was. Plenty of donuts in town but the downtown core - couldn’t find anything in the city directory looking all the way back. So that got me to thinking and we ran with it.

That’s when the naysayers began.

A LATE NIGHT IDEA TURNS INTO REALITY

I’m guessing you guys had zero experience making donuts?
We had absolutely no experience. Now, we had a lot of experience in some ways. I have lots of business experience - I have a degree in hospitality, my business partner ran a club for four years. We knew how to run a business, but neither of us knew how to make donuts. And even though I’ve been in hospitality since sixth grade, when I got my first job, I’ve always been closer to the front of the house. Whether I was managing or bartending.

Out of my 20 years’ experience before we opened, I’d worked a line, cooking probably six months out of that entire time. So I didn’t know how to cook professionally. That was definitely part of the challenge to it.

What I did is when I was back home in Memphis, my Dad forced some southern hospitality and just decided that he would call the local donut shop that we had been going to since I was a kid and said, “Hey, my son wants to open a donut shop in Portland, Oregon. Would you mind showing him the ropes?”

And the guy gracefully said yes. I think he was playing a little poker too because he said, “Yeah, sure, tell him to be there at 5 o’clock on Saturday morning.” And even though I hadn’t been in the business I knew that 5 o’clock on a Saturday morning is when the action is going on. It’s not that busy at that point but I knew that you had to be there, making product to sell for when it gets busy.

So I show up bright-eyed - well, I don’t know about bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 5 AM when I had been out partying the night before. But I showed up 10 minutes early, hung out, shook some hands, and helped out for two days. I didn’t do anything - I helped where I could, I washed dishes, and I watched.

Watching that guy - there was only one guy doing it - and probably what I would have two or three people doing at my place at this point. What I saw is that I could do this, I could figure it out. And not only could I figure out, but I could train my business partner who not only hadn’t done 20 years of hospitality, but didn’t even cook at home. I could teach this guy how to do it. That was the challenge of figuring it out.

So we did what I thought was a smart thing to do, we found a provider to sell us the product. We told him, “We’ve never done this so if you want us to do your product right, show us how to do it.” So we went to LA and for three days and took a crash course with three guys. They had 150 years experience between them making donuts and pastries. They eventually set us loose and we came back here saying, “What the hell are we doing?”

How did opening day go?
I’ll never forget the opening day asshole move I pulled. While you’re learning to make donuts, you don’t make 5,000 donuts - you make maybe 300 donuts. So on opening day, I’m dreaming big and I take the whole 50 pound bag and throw it in the mixer. “I’m going to make the biggest batch ever, I’m going to rule the donut world!” This is day three or something like that.

It would’ve been all right if I had put the dough hook on the 80 quart mixer instead of the paddle that I put on the 80 quart mixer. I almost broke the mixer, things started grinding, and I’m looking at it, “What the hell? What the hell?” I realized I put the paddle on. There’s the first 50 pound batch that was destroyed and thrown away.

And then what you also find out when you throw out a 50 pound bag of yeast is that yeast expands. So you put it in the garbage can but then the garbage can turns into a cupcake.

All the problems we had were donut problems. Learning the process of that and getting used to that. Marketing and business we nailed from the get go; we never had a problem with that. We’re hams for the camera, we both had been on stage for the last year doing what we do and both of us had a microphone in our hands and we were talking donuts, talking donuts, talking donuts. So that wasn’t a problem, but the donut errors were a hit and miss at the beginning.

We grasped it pretty quick. It’s a simple process. It is chemistry, there is some chemistry in there, and you’ve got to nail that as simple as it is. That’s hard to teach people, that you have to do step one and two before three. If you skip 2 then 3 doesn’t happen because of the chemistry. But we’ve pushed hard on that and got over that.

The famous raspberry “blood-filled” Voodoo Doll donut

A HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE

Does a “healthy” donut actually exist?
Yes, we call it the vegan donut. That’s a yes and no question. Vegan donuts don’t have any animal products in them at all, but they’re still chock full of sugar, they’re still fried in oil; which is not good for you. That’s about as healthy as we can get.

You can take the sugar out, and then it doesn’t taste like a donut. You can make them smaller to have less calories, but you’re still eating a donut. You could try and go gluten-free but - number one, if you’re truly gluten free, then you shouldn’t even walk into my shop; if you’re celiac, if you truly have that disease, you shouldn’t walk into my shop because there is flour dust no matter what. Therefore, if I made gluten-free products in the shop, then there would be flour dust on them.

We did experiment just to try and make some gluten-free [donuts]. You need those glutens, that’s the rubber band that holds the bread together that makes the donut. I know that we’re not selling a healthy product, but my thing is that moderation is the key to the magic in the hole - a treat every now and again is okay. You should not eat a donut every day. I’ll be the first to say that: Don’t come and have a donut every day!

They would’ve probably killed me in the twenties and thirties and forties during war time when that was a staple and they did eat donuts every day. Our modern society doesn’t need a donut every day. But you know what? A treat every now and again, I believe, is okay.

The Simpsons find inspiration from Voodoo Doughnut for its Portlandia takeover episode

NYQUIL DONUTS AND THE SIMPSONS

Obviously the shop’s been featured on a ton of shows, but for you, when was the moment where you were like, “Cool, we made it, this is awesome.”
Yeah, we were actually on the 20th anniversary special [of The Simpsons] with Morgan Spurlock. He came to interview us just because we’re in Portland and did crazy donuts. Then because of that, that was five years ago, so just a couple weeks ago we did a 25th anniversary special on German TV. It wasn’t an authorized The Simpsons deal but the show was doing a, “It’s been 25 years!” So they flew their host to Portland. I’ve dealt with a few of these international interviews, they fly people to Portland for 36 hours and fly them back; it’s insane.

They spend more time traveling here than they actually spend here. They came in and wham-bammed. We talked donuts, we talked Simpsons, we made Simpsons donuts, and all that type of stuff.

The first one, though, locally, we were on the front page of The Living Section because of our NyQuil donut. “Night of the NyQuil Donut” was the title of the article. It was written in an E.E. Cummings style so the article was actually shaped in a circle like a donut and hide Tres and I’s ugly mug in there. I forgot I had performed a wedding that night beforehand and had put black lipstick on for this wedding. And forgot about it so it was barely on and I’m posing for the cameras and totally forgot about it until I saw it on the front page of Living Section.

That was cool locally. That was like, “Man, we’re going to get press.” But the national one that really blew my mind was a few months later. We got a call around 9 at night from people on the East Coast who were watching the Tonight Show and Jay Leno made a joke. He didn’t mention Voodoo Doughnut specifically, but mentioned, “A donut shop in Portland, Oregon is putting caffeine in their donuts so I guess you can stay awake for your heart surgery.” Pretty lame joke, but the phones rang off the hook.

It went nuts, it got a lot of attention from a lot of people, and then we started doing a lot more national press.

Around what year was this?
This was, I want to say, the first summer in, so within three or four months of opening. So shortly after that, we went out on the wire, which is such an old term now with this modern age. But when it went out on the wire, it went nuts. We started doing radio interviews all over the states and Tres and I just thought it was funny because we were still working 18 hour days then. So we ended up doing morning shows all over America, and I think it worked out too because everyone wanted us up at 3 in the morning to do East Coast. We were working so [hard]. “We don’t have to get up. Just call us at work, we’ll just stop for a few minutes and do the interview.”

I feel like since then we’ve just tried to keep up with the ball and answer the phone. We’ve gotten a little more selective about who we will and won’t talk to simply more on the time scale. High summer and stuff, it better be a pretty big deal for us to stop. Because stopping anything during summer is really hard for everybody.

But yeah, it started then and then it just kept going. Magazines, television, international, movies - no good movies yet. A lot of B movies we’ve done stuff in. A lot of big television that’s been in town, they usually show up and - I feel like we play it cool because we’re not the people who, “Hey, Portlandia is coming to town. Call them!” That’s the lamest sales move ever. That’s part of my sales philosophy, that I feel like I’m selling a Cadillac or - I guess probably not a good word now, but selling a Toyota or something like that.

People want it and come to you. I don’t like going out and trying to do a sales pitch, that’s not my style and I’m not a good salesman that way. But we run a circus, which attracts people. I’ve said this a gazillion times, a circus is easy for me and Tres. A circus is really easy to go crazy with, but you’ve got to walk off with a good donut at the end otherwise everybody will show up once. You’ve got to get them to come back. They’ve got to leave with a good donut and a big smile.

Bacon Maple Bar alongside Rogue Bacon Maple Ale

THE IMPORTANCE OF BRANDING

Your branding is awesome. How much of an emphasis did you put on it from the beginning?
It’s huge, but we didn’t know anything from the beginning. The day we opened we had the logo: The baron on the donut, that’s the official logo. That’s one of our brands for sure. We only opened up with the logo, [with] “Good things come in pink boxes,” and “The magic’s in the hole.” And those were awesome, I thought they were great. But then we were lucky enough to have the council of our longtime lawyer, who at the very beginning, was only working for lunches. We’d take him to lunch and we’d get a lunch worth of free advice, until he finally said, “Boys, you’re beyond lunch and we’re a little bit beyond champagne dinner, we need to actually do some work here.”

So we finally got into the lawyer aspect and coincidentally our first lawyer is a trademark branding lawyer. So he was on our shoulders the whole time, “Protect, protect, protect, protect.” And he has been there to protect us while we have come up with the wacky ideas… I think we own 35 trademarks now.

We’d been buying up our name wherever we could and when I opened the place, I wanted to buy a house and I had kids, I wanted to raise my kids - that was my goal. Then that happened and things got much bigger than that.

So we have been looking at the bigger picture not only for - as we’ve jokingly always said - “world donut domination,” but just to protect ourselves because people are ripping us off left and right. Kroger puts cereal on their donuts now, everybody’s putting bacon on donuts now.

Its kind of tough to legally defend that, no?
No, I can’t copyright putting bacon on a donut. But, I can copyright “The magic is in the hole,” and Voodoo Doughnut and everything that belongs to that. I just need to try and stay ahead of the curve now that everybody’s doing what we’ve done. But protecting the brand is a big part of the issue now and if you don’t - if you let one slide that’s right in your face - that will be the next person’s excuse when you try to sue them or get mad at them for doing something.

There was someone who tried to open “Hoodoo Donuts” somewhere and we kept an eye on them for sure. Might’ve gotten into them, but they never got open. They had their signs up, they rented a place, this was in Memphis, Tennessee - which of course, all my friends in Memphis started letting me know about that so I kept an eye on it. But a lot of it is the marketing-branding that you have to look out for. People who will take a picture of that sign and then sell it. That bothers me. That sign is copyrighted - the sign itself is copyrighted as an image. And it’s a fine line, who do you get pissed at? If an artist comes here and paints that sign and sells that painting, then I don’t have that much of a problem compared to someone who comes to take a picture of it and sells 150 prints for $25 bucks a piece; that’s where I have a problem. Because they’re making money off my trademark.

There was somebody selling tiles. They were coasters but they were essentially tiles with that sticker on it. And they were flipping out offended that we were offended, and just like, “Well, screw you!” and I’m like, “Well, you’re making money off my product, you didn’t ask me for permission.” And when we asked them about it, we didn’t send them a cease and desist letter, we asked them about it. “You flipped out at me so you know what? Screw you, you can’t use it.”

So we go back and forth and we’ll try - I like the one that some tried where they’ll let them do it but as soon as they sell 25 prints, then they have to pay $100 a year or something. I’m kind of into that, it’s a small thing but at least it’s a contract that says we are in agreement that you can use our image for an extended time.

JOYS OF BEING A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS OWNER

What brings you the most joy out of your business?
You know, there’s answers for all of that. Being successful on my own, running my own thing - tremendous joy. Money, yeah, fine, whatever. As they say, once you get money, it doesn’t mean anything. it doesn’t bring you joy, it doesn’t answer all your problems. I have money. It’s okay, but it still brings a lot of worries.

But I think the funnest part of the job is doing weddings. Everybody’s happy, everybody’s joyous. And granted, out of the 300 weddings I’ve done, you do that big of numbers and not everybody’s going to be happy; there’s a couple of oddballs in there. It’s usually not the bride and groom, it’s usually the mother of the bride or the father of the bride. Pretty upset that they’re child is not getting married in a church.

But I hone in on those people and I treat them like - no matter if it’s a pissed off Marine that his daughter’s not getting married in a church, or a little old grandma. I go and give the grandma treatment, I make them feel welcome, I try to avoid the topic, but I try to at least make them feel like they’re in a comfortable place.

You do the weddings at the shop?
Yeah, we do them up at the shop. There is the agitation when I have to tell a customer to wait. One of my jokes with that is I’ll pick a customer and say, “We’re going to perform a wedding, it’s going to stop the line for three or five minutes, would you be willing to be the person who waits for the wedding?” I usually pick out the grumpiest person and they usually say, “No.” And then I go to the person behind them - and it always works - I go to the person behind them and go, “We’re going to perform a wedding, it’s going to take three to five minutes, would you be the person willing to wait?” “Yes.” “I’ll give you $20 worth of donuts.” Then that person in front is all [grumbling noises].

The one we just did, they had their tuxedo T-shirts on having a great time. I’ve had parties of 20 show up with bride, groom, full wedding parties, all dressed up in tuxedos and wedding dresses. It’s always kind of a fun experience to walk into because I don’t know what I’m walking into. I usually have to plan somewhat. One of my little tricks that seem to work a lot is I try to dress for the event. I have no clue who’s showing up, I don’t know if it’s going to be full dress or people in shorts and ratty T-shirts. Usually I nail it, the bride and groom will be wearing black and I’ll have a black suit on or something like that. That’s fun. But just the happiness and the joy - that’s nice.

The success is good too, I’m not going to dog that at all. The feeling of, “I did something that countless people told me would never work, couldn’t happen, not a good idea.” The people I give the most the most crap to about it are the people who really just hammered down, even six months in, “It’s a fluke!

Hey, it’s 11 years later and we’re still growing. So a little smugness in that, but you have to put it out there to get the grave; that’s one of the lines I say. You gotta at least put it out there. If you don’t try then how will you know? You have to fall down, I fell down plenty of times before the shop opened, this is the first legitimate business idea I’ve ever tried to push and got lucky and hit a home run.

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