Glazed, powdered and jelly-filled donuts are timeless, but the industry’s come a long way from offering just the classics. Today, artisanal bakeries are attracting massive crowds with innovative flavor profiles (like brown butter hazelnut), unexpected add-ons (think Cinnamon Toast Crunch™) and hybrid creations (Cronut®, we’re looking at you). But when—and how—did the bakery donut become so cool?
“The donut has always been an affordable indulgence for Americans, but over the past 10 years, it’s become much more premiumized into higher-quality and more inventive offerings,” says Darren Tristano, president of the restaurant industry research firm Technomic. “You could say the donut has become a canvas for innovation. We’re really seeing a donut renaissance.”
And the sky may be the limit to this trend. “I don’t think the donut craze is going to stop,” says Matt Fein, executive chef at Philadelphia’s Federal Donuts. The shop’s changing donut menu—which has included flavors like blueberry mascarpone, lemon meringue and grapefruit brulee—regularly draws long lines. Take a look at the flavors and creations fueling the unstoppable—and profitable—gourmet donut craze.
In 2013, New York Pastry Chef Dominique Ansel introduced a donut-shaped confection made from croissantlike dough and fried to perfection. Days later, long lines formed outside his bakery for the pastry. And when the eatery hosted a limited-time flash sale, offering to ship Cronuts®across the U.S., the event’s webpage received 1 million views. Four years later, lines still run hundreds deep, and the once exclusive indulgence has made it through the entire product life cycle: An imitation is now available at Dunkin’ Donuts, as well as artisanal bakeries around the country.
Donuts satisfy more than a sweet tooth, and more bakers use savory ingredients and fillings for their creations. In 2016, New York’s Doughnut Plantadopted the trend with doughpods, yeast donuts filled with ingredients like avocado and potato.
More than half of consumers are interested in nostalgic desserts, according to Datassential. And nostalgia is the name of the game for this donut, featuring childhood breakfast favorites like Cap’n Crunch™, as seen in Portland, Oregon’s, Voodoo Doughnut creation, Captain My Captain, and Fruity PEBBLES™—on the menu at Doughnutteryin New York.
Datassentialresearch shows bacon mentions on dessert menus soared 137 percent over the past four years. And, bacon and donuts are a hot couple. The maple bacon donut is a bestseller at Union Square Donuts in Somerville, Massachusetts. “It’s like the best pancake breakfast that you’ve ever had—except you don’t need to use a fork and knife,” says Co-founder Josh Danoff.
Mintel dubbed ice cream sandwiches 2016’s hottest trend in indulgence, and new takes—like donut ice cream sandwiches—are feeding its growth. But innovative bakeries are going beyond ice cream and turning their donut sandwiches from sweet desserts to savory mains. In Chicago, Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken cooks up fried chicken donut sandwiches; Kane’s Donuts in Boston stuffs brioche donut bread with lobster.
With more high-quality ingredients going into artisanal donuts, protecting your margins may seem hard. But consumers are willing to pay more for trendy treats. “You’re seeing these price points elevating more toward where cupcakes are today: that $3 to $5 range,” says Darren Tristano, president of Technomic. “So operators are able to increase the quality of the ingredients because the premiumized price point is going to justify that.” Matt Fein, executive chef at Federal Donuts in Philadelphia, says his “fancy” donuts are often more profitable than basic varieties. Offer the flavors and textures dessert lovers want in innovative donuts that feature high-end ingredients, and they’re happy to pay more for them.
Ready to upgrade to that small-batch maple syrup or Valrhona chocolate? Be sure to spotlight that ingredient on the menu, says Tristano. And don’t hesitate to tier pricing, so that donuts with greater labor or ingredient costs can command those higher prices.