Food Mission

A simple craving that turned into 1.5 million doughnuts a year

I’ve heard many great (and some bad) food business ideas over the years. I’ve even thought of a few good (and bad) ideas myself. It’s fun to daydream with friends on what could be the next successful food truck or café, but it’s another to actually go for it.

Six years ago, Portland native Leigh Kellis, founder of The Holy Donut, did just that—she went for it. Kellis didn’t have a business or culinary degree, and she admits she wasn’t even interested in owning a business or becoming the next celebrity chef. Her only motivation was a craving for a not-so-junky doughnut.  

“In my 20s and 30s, I always felt conflicted about wanting to enjoy life and eat good things but not knowing how to do that in a healthy way,” says Leigh, who is now 41. “Doughnuts are the ultimate food that people say ‘stay away from them,’ but everyone craves them.”

With no other reason but to satisfy a hankering—as good a reason as any—Leigh became “obsessed” with making doughnuts in her apartment (on Munjoy Hill at the time) while maintaining a job as a bartender at Portland’s Otto pizzeria. She pored over a stack of books at Borders bookstore, wrote down recipes and practiced every day for three months.

“A lot of them were not good,” she says, “but when I got to the potato recipe, it hit a nerve. I even called my dad and said, ‘You gotta come try this.’”

Fresh Maine potatoes are the not-so-secret ingredient to all of The Holy Donut’s offerings, which include maple, chai glazed, Allen’s Coffee Brandy, fresh lemon, pomegranate, pure vanilla glaze, sea salt and cinnamon sugar, to name a few.

The initial sale was small—a plate of six doughnuts to a local café followed by a year of door-to-door sales—about 12 doughnuts at a time.

“It was a very slow evolution,” Leigh says. “Not everyone has $50,000 to start a business or hire a team, and mine evolved so slowly—the money and the team.”

Two years after Leigh started her quest for the perfect doughnut recipe, her first storefront on Park Avenue in Portland opened on March 16, 2012. The second location, on Exchange Street in Portland, opened in October 2013.

What began as a sample plate to a coffee shop has grown to 1.5 million doughnuts a year. The Holy Donut makes 6,000 on a Saturday alone.

Now with the help of nearly 35 full-time employees, Leigh has effectively created a doughnut empire. Except that this empire still hand cuts and hand fries—there’s no machinery. The doughnuts are all made the same way as that original batch of six. Exact numbers of each type of doughnut available is logged every day, along with the day of the week, season, weather and special events in town. Leigh says it’s not a perfect science—they often sell out way too early or have too many and that, at times, it gets maddening.

“It’s not the most efficient way to do it,” Leigh says. “It’s very old fashioned and labor intensive.”

While Leigh used to make doughnuts every single day, she says she has phased out of that almost completely. When I spoke with her over the phone she was on a two-week surf trip with her 12-year-old daughter in California.

“I have a lot of freedom, which I love,” she says. “I jump in when needed to make coffee or clean the floors, but I’m learning to step back as much as possible because I think it’s better if I don’t hover.”

Leigh is always thinking about what’s next—the next meal and the next business idea (now that she’s completely kicked butt at the first one). One of her goals is to continue to give back to the Portland community that supported her during her first years. While she’s inclined to open a third shop in the near future, she’s keeping in mind what she wants her life to look like: “I want to maintain values and what’s important to me,” she says.

I asked Leigh if there’s a particular dish or recipe she’s been obsessing over lately (given her self-proclaimed tendency to obsess). She delighted in telling me about all of the fish tacos she and her daughter have been enjoying in the Golden State. “We’ve revolved our day around when we get to eat fish tacos again,” she laughs.

Even after discussing her success as Maine’s (and perhaps New England’s) doughnut queen, Leigh can still be caught saying things like, “I’m not the best cook in the world, but I love to try”—which, in short, is the secret ingredient to anything.

For making the perfect doughnut at home, Leigh recommends an oil thermometer for exactly 375-degree oil and a great dough recipe. She’s no stranger to discovering bad doughnut recipes, and in fact, some of the first ones she experimented with, like the green-tea glazed and zucchini doughnuts, did not turn out so well. Leigh still eats doughnuts regularly for recipe testing and sniffing out the competition.

“I love to eat doughnuts still,” she says. “But I rarely (never) find a competitor’s doughnut that I like as much as potato doughnuts!”

The Holy Donut has two locations in Portland: 7 Exchange St. & 194 Park Avenue

If you want a doughnut, head to The Holy Donut. If you’re in the mood for tacos, here’s one of Leigh’s favorite Recipes.

SAN DIEGO-STYLE FISH TACOS

Fried white fish
Soft taco shells
Shredded cabbage

FOR THE SAUCE:
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 lime
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon dried dill weed
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground chipotle chili powder
1/2 teaspoon capers, minced
1 hot pepper, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped

In a bowl, mix sour cream and mayonnaise until blended. Squeeze the juice from one lime half, then mix. Add all spices, mix thoroughly. Add minced pepper and cilantro, and whisk. Cover bowl and refrigerate. Serve chilled. Spoon white sauce over fish tacos.

Claire Jeffers is a freelance writer living in Portland. She’s worked as a cook, server, recipe tester, barista, bar reviewer, cheesemonger and personal chef. These days, she’s a home cook, but only when she can fight off the temptation to dine out.

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