This is Leslie Polizzotto, the co-founder and co-owner of The Doughnut Project, a self-proclaimed “mad science meets culinary venture”. Although Leslie says that she was never interested in cooking (and still doesn’t cook), she’s always loved the art of dining and doughnuts even more so. So when the opportunity to open a doughnut shop was presented to her by her future business partner, Troy Neal, she decided to go for it. Formerly working as an attorney, Leslie had just moved to New York from California but her law firm didn’t have enough work to bring her on at the time so she decided to work with Troy to turn the doughnut shop dream into a reality. They began meeting twice a week at a cafe to write their business plan and started raising capital from friends and family as well as outside investors. And even though neither of them were chefs nor had owned their own business before, they sold people on their belief that doughnuts, like a meal, should be a balance of flavors that are inspired by real food and cocktails. This differentiating factor allowed them to raise the money that they needed and they were able to open their flagship store in the West Village in October 2015. However, the business has grown and continued to be successful due to Leslie and Troy’s commitment to creating an atmosphere in their stores where everything from the music to the art on the walls is part of a larger, unforgettable experience that centers around their unique doughnuts.
Leslie grew up in Virginia and North Carolina and says that her home was very “traditional” when it came to food. It wasn’t until she was older, when she was working as a lawyer, that she really got into food through watching Food Network and The Cooking Channel. She went to work at a construction management company straight out of high school where she worked in every position from a file clerk to a tax accountant to an HR manager. Her husband lived in California and worked for the same company and they met at a business meeting in New York and then dated bi-coastal for two years. After two years, Leslie decided to move to California and they got married. But because she had always felt that she had missed out on going to college in order to work and wanted to get her degree, she enrolled in Santa Monica Community College. After deciding that she wanted to major in art history, she transferred to UCLA and then went on to law school because she wanted to become a lawyer for the arts. She graduated from law school in 2008 and due to the economic conditions at the time, the only job that she was able to get was doing litigation at a law firm. She admits that it wasn’t exactly her chosen path but she was lucky to get a job at all and actually enjoyed what she was doing. But after a few years she began getting frustrated by the monotony of her career. She felt she was doing the same thing every day: driving to work, parking, going to her office and working for 10 or 12 hours and then driving home. She started watching food shows to relax but began learning a lot about food and getting really interested in different cuisines. Despite her newfound passion, even Los Angeles had begun feeling “one dimensional” to her and she felt like she was living in a bubble.
What Leslie did enjoy were her frequent trips to New York. She would travel with her husband, who’s in real estate, to visit his client in New York five or six times a year and she loved the diversity of the city and that there was always something new and interesting happening. She also loved that she could go to the restaurants of the chefs that she saw on TV and would schedule as many reservations as she could fit in during her stay. It was during one of these trips that she met Troy at Eataly. Leslie and her husband loved to go to Eataly and sit at the bar and over time she became friends with Troy, who was the bartender there. Troy mentioned that he wanted to open a doughnut shop and that he had been practicing making doughnuts at his apartment and once Leslie showed him her camera roll full of pictures that she had taken of doughnuts and said how happy they made her, they bonded over their mutual love. Eventually Leslie decided to make a change and move to New York and take the bar exam so that she could practice at her law firm’s office in New York. But since they weren’t able to start her right away, she began trying to figure out which of her passions she would pursue in the mean time: art or food. She had unfortunately lost contact with Troy due to a misspelled email address so she decided to do some art consulting. Then one day she was walking by a restaurant in Midtown and saw Troy working through the window. She ran inside and immediately began asking him about the doughnut business. He said that he was still practicing but he wanted to do it and Leslie convinced him to let her help get the plan in motion. Looking back Leslie says that were so dumb and naive because they were both making good money at their jobs and had no idea how hard it is to start a business. But they went in with blind faith and jumped in with both feet.
Leslie says that her husband encouraged her to make the switch into the food industry. Even though she enjoyed what she was doing as an attorney, it wasn’t fun. She wanted to do something that made her happy and thought “why not do something that makes other people happy as well?” Working with Troy felt like the right fit for her and once she and Troy made that decision, they were going to do whatever it took to make the business work. However, they struggled in the beginning. Their renovations took six months instead of three so they opened two months already in the hole. They had no money for advertising or marketing so opening their doors on that first day Leslie says was “very scary”, especially because there was so much pressure on them to deliver for their investors. They had two employees helping them make the doughnuts and run the front of house and although they had some customers coming in, they were only scraping by. In January 2016, they were invited to compete in Doughnut Fest in Brooklyn against ten other doughnut shops and ended up winning, which was a huge boost to morale because it got their name out there and it also gave them $3,000 to invest back in the business. But their big break came a month later in February 2016 when they released the Everything Doughnut and Leslie says their lives “changed overnight”. They felt like they might be pushing the envelope with this doughnut because although they had always had unique ingredients, this doughnut had a touch of garlic in it and they weren’t sure how customers would receive it. Leslie had invited some Instagram influencers to taste test it and Mike Chau, the father of foodbabyny, took one of the Everything Doughnuts and took a picture of his son’s face in the hole of the doughnut and posted it on Instagram. Shortly after Gothamist called for an interview about the doughnut and within an hour the story had been posted online. Within 24 hours, they had calls from NBC News, The Wall Street Journal, The Chew, etc. asking for interviews and a line of people out the door waiting to try the Everything Doughnut.
Overnight Leslie and Troy had a new customer base and a new demand that they had to meet. They had been creating the doughnuts with a stand up KitchenAid Mixer so new equipment had to be brought in. They also had to change their recipes in order to make larger quantities of doughnuts, which Leslie says they figured out through trial and error. Troy and their doughnut maker had to test batches and keep tweaking it until they got it right. The success of the Everything Doughnut also added a new layer of complexity to their operations by creating benchmark that their other doughnuts would be measured against. They now had an expectation to consistently generate delicious and creative products, so they started doing collaborations with alcohol and food brands. They created a restaurant series where they worked with chefs on doughnuts inspired by some of their dishes. They created seasonal flavors and came out with their “weekend flavor”, which is only available Friday-Sunday every weekend then goes away forever. Leslie says this aspect of the business is an ongoing creative process and they always have new collaborations going on, which allows them to create unique recipes for the glazes and toppings, which is challenging but also fun. Especially since the recipe for the dough is very, very rigid so they always have to be careful when they’re baking to make sure that exact amount of each ingredient is going in. But they’re glad that food and beverage has become such a huge part of the business since that’s what they pulled most of their inspiration for their doughnuts from. Troy was a bartender so he had the cocktail experience and Leslie is a huge foodie that has been to restaurants throughout NYC, so she had the food knowledge to understand what ingredients taste best with each other. They use seeds, spices, salt, meats, cheese, vegetables; all different types of real food to make sure there’s a good mix of sweet, salty, spicy and savory. Even if they have to have a staple item like a chocolate doughnut on their menu, they try to put a unique twist on it so that it’s different from what everyone else is making. The excitement around the recipe creation is what keeps people coming back for more.
More than just the unique flavors of their doughnuts, Leslie hopes that customers who visit their stores (they opened their second location near Central Park in January 2018) remember the entire experience, as that has always been a vision that she and Troy shared for the business. They want people to feel happy when they walk in, whether that’s from being greeted by an employee or recognizing the music that’s playing or watching the movie on their TV. They tailor their music to the customers in the store to create the ambiance they think that they would enjoy and relate to. They also have merchandise that they sell (tshirts, socks, hats) so that people can wear their brand and promote them but also as a way for someone to have a tangible takeaway from their visit. They don’t want their doughnuts or their stores to be forgettable, which is also why the design of the stores isn’t stark white or earthy tones. Everyone else has the “white tile, clean look” so they decided to flip it on it’s head and do a “rough”, New York graffiti style that attracts customers outside and entices them to come in and check it out. They also added chandeliers, marble counter tops and gilded frames around their street art to bring in the lowbrow, highbrow concept of taking a “street food” like a doughnut and elevating it to a sophisticated meal. It ties back into the doughnuts themselves- that you can take something as simple as a doughnut and make it fancy.
Leslie says that it’s funny that they do so many different collaborations with their doughnuts and “projects” with corporate custom orders because the name of the business was originally supposed to be Doughnut Bar. But another company in San Diego had already taken that name and they were advised to choose something different in order to expand their brand. However, she feels like it’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy because now the name works really well for what they do. However, she finds that the most challenging part of the business is not being in control of every project that’s going on within the company. When she practiced law, it was only her in control of her own success but now she has to delegate and trust Troy and her employees to make sure that the business is running as it needs to. She has to depend on a lot of people, which is difficult for her to do sometimes. She says it’s a good thing that it’s impossible for her to do every aspect of the business because she would if she could, it’s just in her nature. But she’s working on realizing when it’s time to take a step back and trust the system that you’ve put in place. One the flip side, the most rewarding part of the business for her is the people, both her team and the customers. Getting to meet new people and establish relationships with local customers as well as people from all over the world who come into the shop to get their product is something she loves about being an owner of a local food business. One of their biggest supporters is a man from Germany whose been to their shop five times and buys all of their merchandise, which she says is amazing to know that your business has that big of a reach. Because she used to work in an office where she would shut her door and read and write by herself for 10 hours a day, for Leslie there’s nothing better than being in a environment where every day is different and there’s a new challenge to solve.