Doughnut Shops Are the New South Florida Sensation

Inside an ordinary bleach-white warehouse in Little Haiti, three aproned workers covered in flour carefully line up warm batches of freshly fried dough. Anna Davis, a 29-year-old blonde with wide ocean-blue eyes, nervously stands over a silver tray of 24 doughnuts. Her trembling right hand hovers a centimeter from a pastry topped with a mountain of vegan coconut-chocolate ganache. She delicately lowers a quarter-size baked banana chip onto the frosting and then gently nudges it higher.

"It's all about details," she says.

Max Santiago, a lanky, bohemian 41-year-old fond of using bandannas to tie up his straggly brown hair, lets out a sigh. The Salty Donut's executive chef isn't happy with the banana chip's final resting place.

"I want it angled," he says firmly. "The angle is going to set us apart."

Davis admits she has spent two weeks trying to master banana-chip placement. "I'm a perfectionist," she says. "But I learned about a different level of perfection here. It adds pressure, but it's why we're so successful."

It might seem like a lot of effort for a doughnut. But Santiago believes that intense attention on detail is the reason a line of customers wraps around the Salty Donut's Wynwood storefront three days a week.

"We're a fine-dining, gourmet dessert," Santiago adds. "The second someone bites into one of our doughnuts, they can tell the difference. We're not like other doughnut shops."

At the Salty Donut, Davis and a dozen other pastry chefs handcraft upward of 6,000 four-inch doughnuts every Thursday through Sunday.

In less than a year, the Salty Donut has led a renaissance that has spread throughout South Florida. Five other shops, including Miami's iconic but long-shuttered Velvet Creme and James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov's Federal Donuts, have either returned or announced opening dates since the Salty Donut's inception in late 2015.

The Wynwood shop features a different eclectic flavor each week. There's the traditional glazed, boasting a Tahitian vanilla bean coating. And there's the guava-and-cheese-stuffed dough topped with a cookie crumble. Or maybe smoky torched pumpkin custard or Nutella stuffing is your thing? They easily act as meal replacements, which explains their $4-to-$6 price.

But as far as the Salty Donut is concerned, Miami hasn't yet come close to reaching overload. "We try to push our envelope every day," says cofounder Andres Rodriguez. "We don't worry about anyone else besides ourselves."

Nearly every civilization has an iteration of the doughnut. There are Italy's bombolini — vanilla-custard-stuffed dough dusted with powdered sugar in Italy; Germany's Berliners — fried, sweet-yeast dough filled with marmalade and glazed with icing; Poland's paczi, similar to the Berliner; and Israel's sufganiyah, a jelly doughnut.

The earliest reference to the doughnut is in the Bible's Leviticus — "cakes of well-stirred fine flour mixed with oil" — where they were noted as an offering worthy of God.

Sometime in the 17th Century, Dutch settlers brought olykoeks — oily cakes — to Manhattan, then known as New Amsterdam. Deep-fried in pork fat, they were nicknamed oliebollen — oily balls — thanks to their crooked, barely round shape.

In the mid-19th Century, Elizabeth Gregory, the mother of a New England ship captain, used nutmeg, cinnamon, and lemon rind to whip up a special deep-fried dough. Its center was so thick that it wouldn't fully cook. So Gregory stuffed each middle with hazelnuts and walnuts, which explains the name "doughnut."

Gregory's son, Hanson, re-created his mother's concoction, forming a hybrid that is exceedingly common today: a doughnut with a hollow center. Some historians say he was stingy with ingredients; others argue the simplicity was meant to ease digestion.

"Everything about a doughnut is for pleasure and leisure. It turned into a tradition."

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It took time for doughnuts to become mainstream. During World War I, they were dispatched to millions of infantrymen in France, becoming a symbol of American culture. When immigrants landed on Ellis Island, they were often greeted with doughnuts.

In 1937, the first Krispy Kreme shop opened in Salem, North Carolina. Now there are more than 1,000 locations in 20 countries. Open Kettle, later renamed Dunkin' Donuts, began operating in Massachusetts after Krispy Kreme. Today more than 11,000 Dunkin' Donuts outposts dot the globe.

Though doughnuts have been an established staple of American society for more than 100 years, it took a lifetime for Miami to get a taste.

The Magic City's first homegrown shop, Hadler Doughnuts, later renamed Velvet Creme Doughnuts, opened in 1947. Jim Hadler, a hardworking family man, left his native Minnesota in his early 20s to open the store at SW 33rd Avenue and Eighth Street, located in today's Little Havana where a Nissan dealership now stands.

Velvet Creme quickly became Miami's doughnut shop of choice. It was best known for a simple, traditional glazed variety — an airy, circular piece of dough dunked in a sea of sweet icing. After a few minutes, the frosting went crisp, though the dough remained warm. Other popular favorites were powdered sugar, chocolate glazed, and strawberry-filled.

"It was a late-night and early-morning hangout," says Dr. Paul George, a local historian at HistoryMiami.

It was also a laid-back breakfast spot for tourists. "You'd grab a cup of coffee, a doughnut, and just lounge for a while," George says. "Everything about a doughnut is for pleasure and leisure. It turned into a tradition."

About 30 years later, Hadler decided to expand. He opened a second shop, across South Dixie Highway from the University of Miami, and established a wholesale business. After a decade, he retired and gave the business to his son, Gary.

"Jim loved baking, and he loved sweets," says Robert Taylor, Gary Hadler's brother-in-law and Velvet Creme's current owner. "He made each doughnut by hand, like people are doing now with craft doughnuts."

But in 2000, a family illness abruptly stymied the business. "Gary was in and out of the hospital with stomach problems," Taylor remembers. "He got so sick that he couldn't do the job anymore."

About two years later, Gary was in a near-fatal car accident. Doctors found a tumor in his brain and recommended surgery. "They botched it," Taylor says. "He became legally blind and unable to work."

Gary died five years later, in 2008. Days earlier, he had looked into Taylor's eyes. "I asked him if he ever trademarked Velvet Creme," Taylor remembers. "He said no. And then he asked me if I'd resurrect the brand for him."

In late summer 2015, Max Santiago, then a pastry consultant for Lure Fishbar in Miami Beach, received a private message on LinkedIn from Andres "Andy" Rodriguez and Amanda Pizarro, cofounders of the Salty Donut.

"We're going into the pastry realm and want to talk to you about it to see if you are interested," Santiago remembers.

The three met for lunch at Café Demetrio in Coral Gables to "feel it out," Rodriguez says. The secretive couple (who required New Times to sign a nondisclosure agreement before reporting this story) were vague about their plans. But Santiago, who had just opened Seagrape inside the former Thompson Miami Beach Hotel with chef Michelle Bernstein, was excited anyway.

"You know what we really need?" Santiago remembers saying to Rodriguez and Pizarro at the lunch.

"A doughnut shop... And we need to put it in Wynwood."

Rodriguez and Pizarro looked at Santiago. They smiled silently.

"I remember him going on and on about how trendy doughnuts were," Rodriguez says. "When he said that to us, Amanda and I nearly fell out of our chairs."

Before the Salty Donut ignited Miami's doughnut craze, only a few independent shops had tapped into the otherwise untouched market. But across the nation, doughnuts had already amassed a large following. Tired of franchise-made treats, consumers craved a locally made product. The Doughnut Plant, one of the first artisanal doughnut shops in the United States, opened in New York in 1994, leading to the creation of dozens of handcrafted dough shops over the next 20 years. At the same time, Randy's Donuts (among others) took over the Los Angeles dough scene and became a frequent location for TV shows and movies such as Entourage and Iron Man 2.

After Velvet Creme closed, Krispy Kreme became Miami's go-to store. But it's part of a huge chain that produces up to 3 million doughnuts a day, hardly artisanal. Broward had the Dandee Donut Factory, which opened in the mid-'90s in Pompano Beach. Soon there was a second location, in Hollywood, and they were producing more than 60 hand-dipped doughnut varieties, costing just less than $2 apiece.

In 2013, Shawn Neifeld, a former strip-club DJ, and his wife Shelly opened Mojo Donuts in a Hollywood strip mall. Neifeld describes himself as an old-fashioned entrepreneur, putting in hard work to produce thousands of doughnuts in more than 30 varieties. Inspired by Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland, Oregon, Neifeld wanted to deliver an imaginative product like the ones in New York and Seattle.

Business was slow at first, but within a few months, Food Network named Mojo one of the nation's best doughnut shops. Customers were attracted to the store's flavors, including the "baklacropolis," a cross between Greek baklava and a doughnut/croissant; and the "420," a pot-referencing mashup glazed with chocolate and layered with Snickers and potato sticks.

"People drive down from Orlando and up from the Keys just for our doughnuts," says Jimmy Piedrahita, a partner at Mojo. "Then they wait in a 30- or 40-minute line. We don't take this lightly."

Rhino Doughnuts opened in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea in 2014 with inexpensive craft doughnuts. They sold for less than $2 each. Additional locations in Boca and Sunrise quickly followed, but all abruptly closed earlier this year. Opening in Sunrise around the same time was YoNutz, blending doughnuts with gelato and soft-serve ice cream.

In Miami, Chez Bon Bon, a pastry shop inside the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, makes doughnuts fresh daily without preservatives. Bunnie Cakes, a popular vegan bakery in Edgewater, crafts health-conscious iterations. And Ella, chef Michael Schwartz's intimate café in the Design District, offers rotating daily flavors such as pomegranate/lemon and salted caramel/chocolate/cocoa.

Some restaurants feature them on menus too. There are the Driftwood Room's passionfruit variety, Beaker & Gray's mini carrot-cake holes, and NaiYaRa's Thai doughnuts.

Rodriguez and his partners saw an opening for artisan, handcrafted doughnuts before they had become a national passion. "Why is Miami always last to get cool things?" says Rodriguez, who's Cuban-American and grew up in Little Havana one block from SW Eighth Street. "And when we do, it's not always executed the best. It's not OK that I have to go to other places to get a great doughnut."

On a chilly weekend in February 2016, the partners had parked a small white-and-blue food truck stamped with "The Salty Donut" in an overgrown courtyard across the street from a building under renovation. The rush of customers that had snaked around the corner of NW 24th Street was gone.

Pizarro, a short, bright-skinned, and unconventional 24-year-old wearing striking red lipstick, wandered around. Rodriguez, a 29-year-old with floppy jet-black hair and a pearly-white smile, leaned over the truck's shiny countertop and let out a "phew."

The two looked at each other and smiled, practically high-fiving with their eyes. They had finished another hectic day running the Salty Donut pop-up, personally selling more than 1,000 doughnuts in less than five hours. Closing was scheduled for 6 p.m., but they had sold out before 3.

With the exception of a few helping hands, Pizarro and Rodriguez were the Salty Donut's main front-of-the-house staff. "We had about a four-person staff until three months in," Pizarro says. "That's when it really started to grow. But even today, Andy and I are still manning the register."

They bonded over a love of doughnuts. Four months later, they said, "We should open our own shop."

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Pizarro, a former undergraduate marketing student at the University of Miami, met Rodriguez, an automotive entrepreneur, in September 2013 on Match.com. After two dates, they were "Facebook official," he says. About a year later, they swore their love for each other and got engaged. That was Christmas Eve 2014. A wedding is planned for February 2017 in Cartagena, Colombia.

It didn't take long for friends and family to refer to them as "Amandy."

"It was weird how on-the-same-page we were," Pizarro says. "We're not the type of people who jump into relationships, but somehow it just happened."

They bonded over a love of doughnuts, and about four months into their relationship, they said, "We should open our own shop," Rodriguez remembers with a grin. "It was sort of a joke, but sort of not."

He describes himself as "business-savvy" and Pizarro as a "marketing guru." They both love to eat, but neither had a culinary background. "We knew we were soulmates, but now we were trying to become business soulmates too," Rodriguez says.

Before opening the Salty Donut, they traveled from New York to Chicago to Atlanta to Portland, visiting shops such as Voodoo, Side Car, Doughnut Project, and Dough. "We wanted to see a doughnut shop add an edgy, chef-driven concept," Rodriguez says. "They're one of the few foods that can be supercreative and expressive."

Santiago signed on with the Salty Donut in October 2015 and immediately began recipe development. The shop's temporary weekend pop-up opened two months later with six flavors, including maple bacon, brown butter, guava and cheese, and sea salt.

The first weekend, they made hundreds of doughnuts, selling out in less than five hours. For about six months, the Salty Donut regularly sold out hours before its scheduled closing time. The commercial kitchen, which they shared with other bakers and chefs, couldn't meet the demand.

"If you go to any other state, people wait in line for things like this," Pizarro says. "We can only make so much... like how can you make an unlimited amount of almond butter or dough? It's also a guessing game too. We can't plan for someone coming in and asking for 50 doughnuts in one order."

In May 2016, Rodriguez, Pizarro, and Santiago moved into their own kitchen in Little Haiti. It allowed the team to double production. Everything, from the dough to the garnishes, was made from scratch. "I've walked into other shops, and everything is out of a jar," Santiago says. "That's not us."

The maple bacon variety, which is the shop's best-seller, requires nearly 100 pounds of bacon from specialty meat shop Miami Smokers to produce about 1,000 doughnuts each weekend. They bake several dozen sheets of bacon and place six crisp slices atop each doughnut. A dark porter-style beer reduction from the Wynwood-based J. Wakefield Brewing is showered on top of it, adding a smoky taste to pair with the bacon's flavor.

Every maple bacon doughnut, like every creation at the Salty Donut, must be exactly the same as the others, Santiago says. If it's not, it gets tossed to the side. Nothing short of perfection leaves the kitchen, he says.

"I always think how it would be if I was the customer," he says. "Would I be happy receiving it? If I don't put the same amount of bacon on one over the other, how would I feel? It would probably piss me off."

That hunger for perfection makes the Salty Donut its own worst enemy. "We can only compare ourselves to what we've tried and done," Rodriguez says. "Having a line is awesome, but if for one second our product quality doesn't exceed all expectations, people are going to stop coming back."

Even when things are at their best, Santiago, Rodriguez, and Pizarro are focused on enhancements. "I'm more of the perfectionist of the bunch," Pizarro says. "It's always down to the last taste bud for me. I don't want to be good by Miami standards; I want to be good by national standards."

This past July, the scorching summer heat pushed the Salty Donut team from the vacant lot into a vacant room at the Wynwood Arcade. The lines were just as long, winding through an air-conditioned space covered with emerald-green AstroTurf. The walls were stark and the decor minimal, but the warm, fresh scent of sugary doughnuts filled the room.

Their soon-to-be permanent storefront in Wynwood, located at 50 NW 24th St., was expected to be ready this summer but now won't be done until the end of 2016. That hasn't hindered the Salty Donut's success. In less than a year, sales are in the six figures. (They now sell four days per week from a temporary location in the same building.)

"The building is brand-new," Pizarro says. "Because the space didn't even exist, there were a lot of holdups."

Most weekends, Pizarro and Rodriguez are behind their small checkout bar, taking hundreds of orders a day. The cannoli doughnut, the shop's newest temporary flavor, sold out first every day it was offered. Filled with ricotta cheese and tomato jam, dipped in white chocolate, and topped with pistachios, it's Santiago's favorite to date — simply because it "tastes so freaking good," he says.

"There's a lot of love and time that goes into a doughnut, especially this one," Santiago says. "We use a ruler to slice the dough... it's a lot more time consuming."

"I concentrate half my time on doughnuts and half on catching bad guys."

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The cannoli recipe was created this past summer for the Cooking Channel's Sugar Showdown. On national television, Santiago competed with two other bakers for the title of best doughnut. Salty's win was broadcast September 14.

That victory was the product of planning. Once a month, Santiago, Rodriguez, and Pizarro meet in the Salty Donut's kitchen. They decide on four new flavors, which they release one per week for the month. Older flavors are cut.

"We try to keep it as creative as possible but also realistic," Santiago says. "Rodriguez and Pizarro... push me out of my comfort zone."

Santiago has more than 10,000 flavor combinations saved in MasterCook, a recipe database. Once Rodriguez and Pizarro "plant a seed," Santiago transforms it into a concoction covered in glaze; dressed with fruits, chocolates, or crumbles; or stuffed with creams or marmalades. "Our system makes it feel like we're always coming up with new flavors," he says. "But we're not. Everything is decided there."

That, along with consistency, is how the Salty Donut has been able to maintain its multihour-long lines and early sell-out times. According to Dr. Richard Larson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the nation's leading experts on queues, the Salty Donut produces a "carnival-like atmosphere... In a sense, you're in a queue with people just as crazy as you to wait. Bragging rights contribute to it. It makes someone cool."

Waiting in a line increases a doughnut's value too, according to Dr. Ziv Carmon, a professor of marketing at the INSEAD graduate business school. "Rather than simply wolfing down the doughnut, they are more likely to cherish the experience and try to enjoy every bite," he says. "This, in turn, can boost the pleasure you can derive from the item."

Soon similar lines might appear across the region. Honeybee Doughnuts, a small bright-yellow shop in South Miami, quietly opened in May; James Beard Award-winning chef and Philadelphia restaurateur Michael Solomonov announced the opening of his Federal Donuts in Wynwood sometime in 2017; Fireman Derek, known for his sweet and savory pies, also plans to open a doughnut shop in the coming year; and Mojo Donuts is expanding to Westchester with a fried-chicken-and-doughnut concept similar to Solomonov's.

And Velvet Creme, Miami's first homegrown doughnut shop, will be back, though exactly when is unclear. Since Gary Hadler handed over the task of reviving the brand on his deathbed in 2008, Robert Taylor has trademarked the brand, created a website, restarted production, and searched for a new storefront.

"I saw it as a big challenge," says the 63-year-old former Miami Beach Police detective, who now runs a nonprofit that combats organized crime. "I concentrate half my time on doughnuts and half on catching bad guys."

Taylor is partnering with Jorge Rios, a Cuban-born businessman, and his daughter Krista, an immigration attorney who is now Velvet Creme's in-house counsel. "Jorge and Krista... have the same vision, drive, and emotions about the brand as me," Taylor says.

Velvet Creme recently signed a lease at 1555 SW Eighth St. in Little Havana and is slated to open next year.

"You know that meme of Michael Phelps destroying another swimmer in the Olympics?" the Salty Donut's Rodriguez says. "We're Michael Phelps. We're not concerned with anyone else."

Pizarro warns that task won't be simple. "People think it's so easy, but it's really not," she says. "Miami is such a tough crowd to please. It's all about the flavor and the quality... We've created that in Miami. We're getting people to love a real doughnut, not a franchise doughnut."

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Clarissa Buch Zilberman is a writer and editor, with her work appearing in print and digital titles worldwide.
Contact: Clarissa Buch