THE DONUT WHOLE
Donut Shop / Coffeehouse
Live Music Venue / Art Gallery
1720 E Douglas Ave, Wichita, KS
With an eclectic mix of donuts and decor, The Donut Whole has not only become a local favorite, but one of the most suggested stops for out of towners. Since opening in 2009, they have sourced ingredients from local vendors to produce their donuts from scratch. However, their emphasis on local reaches far past their kitchen, offering communal space that encourages all ages music and local art.
Please introduce yourself.
Hi, my name is Michael Carmody, co-founder and owner of The Donut Whole.
What was your previous profession before The Donut Whole?
My most immediate previous position was at WSU Alumni Association, where I worked as writer, editor and factotum on the Shocker magazine under the great Connie White. But over the years I have been a publisher, editor, writer, musician, graphic/commercial designer, signmaker, cab driver, bartender, adult bookstore clerk, cemetery groundskeeper, dishwasher and lots more. I've had a checkered career.
Can you recall the first time you made a donut?
I remember making "donuts" out of canned biscuits at my grandmother's house when I was young, pressing out their centers with the cap from a two-liter soda bottle and dropping them into her Fry Baby deep fryer, then shaking them in a paper bag with cinnamon and sugar. But I didn't make a donut in the style of what we now sell at the shop until much later.
How soon after making a donut did you consider the idea of opening a donut shop?
This ties in with your last question. I didn't start making donuts and then get the idea to sell them; the idea came first, and then I learned how. The genesis of the Donut Whole came from much farther back. When I was about four or five years old — the age my son Nash is now — I lived in Ark City, and was taken to a doctor every Friday morning for allergy shots. If I was brave and didn't squirm or fuss about the injection, my mother would then take me to Jerry's (Daylight) Donuts for six donut holes as a reward. So I always had a really positive association with donuts, as they gave me something to look forward to when I knew I was going to be hurt, and they made me feel better afterward.
So for years when people would joke about "running away to join the circus," my response was that I was going to run away and open a donut shop. Mind you, this was just meant in jest. And then one day about ten years ago, I saw that a Daylight Donuts shop here in Wichita was for sale. My wheels started spinning and I called about it. They were asking a lot of money for a room full of furniture and equipment in a leased space way out northwest, and I started thinking, "Maybe getting into a franchise isn't the only way to do it."
"...I was young, pressing out their centers with the cap from a two-liter soda bottle and dropping them into her Fry Baby deep fryer..."
Before opening you would make donuts in your home and invite friends over to taste and sample them. How did your friends feedback improve your donuts? Did this help fix problems with production before opening?
I bought an instructional DVD/book set on the art and science of donut baking from an internet donut sensei named Ed Chastain and started practicing at home. I quickly abandoned raised (yeast-based) donuts and focused instead on the cake-batter style, which has always been less popular around here, primarily because nobody makes them well. Using an enameled turkey roasting pan set across two burners of my gas stove, I dropped my test batters into shortening using an old 1950s aluminum donut depositor sourced from eBay (new in box!).
By late 2006 or early 2007, I had left Alumni and had cashed out my "retirement" there, which was a meager sum. I started baking test batches at home, each of which produced roughly six dozen finished donuts, and sending out a text message to the people on my "donut list." This was in the days before smartphones, when texting was a total pain in the ass, and it sometimes took 30 minutes to send out messages to everybody on the list; by the end, there were 170 people on it!
This alpha-testing process was useful in two ways. First, it led me to my first proper study of the chemistry and physics of baking; I have been cooking and baking since childhood, but never understood much about the processes involved. All baking is a lab project, and it pays to know the science behind the specific experiment you are running at any given time. This helps immensely when it comes to troubleshooting, too.
Second, the feedback I received from the Original Donuteers was very useful to me when it came to flavors, texture, etc. It was good to get a broad range of opinions, to help mitigate whatever prejudices I might personally have had about what a donut "should" be.
What was your mindset when opening The Donut Whole? Do you remember your excitement and/or reservations?
All the time I was making test batches at home, my good friend Jill Miller (Creative Solutions/Finishing School for Modern Women) was helping me draft a bulletproof business plan. I talked to a couple potential investors, but got no traction at first. And this is where my late partner Angie Mallory comes into the picture — everything before this is essentially just backstory.
Angie had been bartending at and managing high-volume bars downtown for many years and was ready to start her own business. Her family had agreed to lend her some money toward this end, but she hadn't decided specifically what it would look like. I know she talked to some folks from an ice cream chain, but didn't like what they were offering. A mutual friend of ours knew that both of us were looking for what the other had and put us together; Angie and I were only barely acquainted at the time. Together we started pitching loan officers at banks, dressing up and taking them the business plan and a fresh batch of donuts. Finally, the eighth lender — Emprise Bank, acting on a recommendation from Fisch Haus' amazing Elizabeth Stevenson — agreed to loan us the rest of the money we needed. Emprise has been so good to us; I can't stress enough the value of a family-owned bank that invests so deeply in its local culture.
Angie and I quickly fell into a yin/yang working relationship, one of us always either pep-talking or calming down the other. Our skill sets interlocked remarkably well, actually. She was vastly better than me as an office manager, but I had the marketing and kitchen skills; she was incredibly cautious and diligent, and I was (am) more of a "close your eyes and jump" kind of guy. Through most of my youth I lived in an unpredictable and insecure environment — there was violence, privation, neglect and often little or no food. A by-product of having had nothing to lose for so long, for better or worse, is that I have never been afraid to take chances. Angie, on the other hand, had the spirit for it, but was just a lot more discerning about how she went forth. I don't know if she ever played chess, but if she had taken it up, I believe she would have been excellent at it. She was always computing the moves way ahead of the game.
"Together we started pitching loan officers at banks, dressing up and taking them the business plan and a fresh batch of donuts."
Michael Carmody holds a painting of his late partner Angie Mallory.
The Donut Whole has gone above and beyond to use local ingredients and make donuts from scratch. Describe the importance of this and the suppliers you support and rely on.
Once I had decided not to affiliate with a chain, it became a matter of, "What ingredients make the best donut by this method?" Any idiot can open a bag of cheap donut premix and put cereal on top. If we're going to do this, let's do it for real. The basic recipes were developed using the wonderful Hudson Cream flour milled less than 100 miles from here. We reformulated our chocolate cake recipe a year ago, switching from Hershey's Dutch cocoa to this amazing deep dark cocoa powder from Guittard; the old recipe was good, but the new version is much, much better. Around the same time we started using buttermilk and other products from Hildebrand Family Farms Dairy in Junction City. Every donut we make, except the vegan varieties, is probably 75% Kansas product by weight.
We use a lot of "specialty" food items and rely on smaller vendors to fill in the gaps in our more major suppliers' catalogs. Cake Stuff out on West Central is great. All our coffee has come from Spice Merchant since day one, and we have a lovely working relationship with Bob and his crew down there. Nifty Nut House for nuts, candy and other toppings; Thai Binh Supermarket for boba; McClelland Sound takes care of our drive-up ordering system; we get some of our cold drinks and the amazing Nitro Joe's from House of Schwan. Hell, we even used to buy the little replacement ink rolls for our cash register around the corner at Wichita Cash Register Company, but they finally went out of business. And I know Sysco is like the Death Star of commercial food purveyors — I think they are literally the biggest on Earth — but even they have been making an effort to include more regional/local offerings in their product lines. So I think the public consciousness has come around to at least some degree.
You're known for adventurous toppings and creative donuts. Can you treat us to a donut or two that was too wild or complex to offer at The Donut Whole?
Some of the kids in the kitchen got a little crazy one night and put out a Sriracha donut. Angie got in that morning and was like, "NO." I had to agree. We made some with energy drink glaze, too, but were afraid somebody might have a heart attack if they ate more than one. I ate a half of one and thought the top of my head was going to come off. Oh, and several times I have tried to make donuts with candy or other small food bits baked inside them. It just ends up in heartbreak, with a fryer full of burned bits. The same goes for the cornbread donuts. I have tried thrice. No dice.
You make a wide variety of donuts, including vegan and even gluten-free. What is the weekly schedule for these special releases?
We originally made vegan donuts daily, but could not consistently sell enough of them to keep that up. So now they are offered every Wednesday. Many non-vegans actually prefer them to our regular buttermilk variety!
After literally years of people asking about gluten-free donuts, my fifth attempt at a recipe finally came out delicious, so in July we started selling those every Tuesday. Predictably we have received some backlash on the gluten-free variety, as our shop has only one mixer and one fryer; we have clearly posted the standard disclaimer about the possibility of cross-contamination, but a couple of customers have stated they don't believe that goes far enough, so we will soon have our gluten-free donuts lab-tested to see if they meet FDA standards for labeling as such.
What are three of your personal favorite Donut Whole donuts?
The donut I most often choose is the Half-Nutty Maple. Reminds me of those old-fashioned Maple Nut Goodies candies. All the spice cake donuts, like Pumpkin Spice, Applesauce, etc., are favorites. And I love the Louie, our tribute to the organ-playing clown from Joyland. It has both cream cheese and buttercream icing, plus a gumball!
"We made some with energy drink glaze, too, but were afraid somebody might have a heart attack if they ate more than one."
The Donut Whole has helped transform a section of Douglas Ave. What was that area like before you opened The Donut Whole and why did that location originally appeal to you?
When Angie and I were first looking for a spot, we knew it had to be on Douglas. To be honest, we thought we would be in Delano, but we couldn't find an available building that would accommodate a drive-up window. We were extremely fortunate to meet up with our landlord Leon Moeder and his partners right at the time they were taking active steps toward transforming the area around Douglas & Hydraulic. They are lifetime Wichita boosters and our community interests overlap hugely.
Our block was not so glamorous when we first looked at it in 2008. The building itself was, to be charitable, a dump, and practically nothing within a two-block radius had been developed in a long, long time. The one bright spot was the old Project art gallery and its residents, Ann Resnick and Kevin Mullins. When Angie and I told people we were signing a lease, we were often greeted with astonished responses about why we would open a shop "down there." The street lights on Douglas had been out for months and nobody had even bothered to let Westar know.
But after we opened in January 2009, the local landscape started to change. In 2012 the Dallas-based Better Block Project chose our stretch of Douglas as their Wichita demonstration of how a commercial avenue can be transformed into a comfortable, welcoming environment for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as automobile drivers. The Ruffins remodeled the old empty building across the street and Tanya's Soup Kitchen was reborn; that building is now also occupied by several other local businesses, including Shine Salon and the regional chain Jimmy's Egg. Randy Regier's ever-changing window of art brought wonder and mystery to the block. Hopping Gnome Brewery is killing it, bringing food trucks in on a regular basis, and Robert McMullin's Piatto Neapolitan Pizzeria is going in right now where the old key shop was. Not to mention the gorgeous new Devlin Hot Rods building catercorner from us, or the amazing work BCS has done on the historic Luling Laundry building next door.
We can't claim that this burst of development is directly because of us, but it's hard not to feel like we played a role in it.
The Donut Whole is one of the very few all ages venues in town. You host live music, art performances, and the occasional movie showing. Was this planned from the beginning?
Oh, yes. Actually, Angie and I always used to say that we told the bank we wanted money to open a donut shop, but we were really opening a community center. I had previously started a coffeehouse called Juggernaut, back in '92-93, and that place had a massive back room we used for rock and jazz shows. It also featured a gallery. The first time I met Marc Bosworth was when he came to hang some of his work at Juggernaut. I wish I had bought some of his stuff then.
Providing a place where young people can play music in front of an audience, or even merely go see and hear live musicians play, is one of the most rewarding parts of operating the donut shop. And since the Eagles Lodge isn't available anymore, we have increasingly become a venue of choice for both traveling indie-band package shows and local showcases. We are super proud to work with Dan Davis, Matthew Clagg and others in this capacity. Same goes for young visual artists — our gallery features a different local every month, from one Final Friday to the next. For many of these artists, it is the first time their work has been shown in public.
Another point of pride is our ongoing jazz program, featuring live local performances most every Monday night — sometimes on Tuesday when the Science Cafe lecture happens to fall on that week's Monday. Right now Craig Owens, Kurt Aiken and Kendall Wohaska are playing every week. In the past Matt Grenier ran the program and did a wonderful job with it.
Having a shop that is a communal space can often bring surprises. In the past you've dealt with theft and vandalism by your customers. Can you speak about these frustrations?
Any time you expose yourself to the public — in any way, really — you render yourself vulnerable to injury, thievery, ridicule and all manner of incivility. The vast majority of people will treat you kindly (or at least fairly), some will be indifferent, and a very small minority will work actively against you. In the end, to avoid letting yourself become completely demoralized, you have to learn to parcel out your emotional response proportionately. Don't let that very small minority's negativity tie up the majority of your mental/spiritual processing power.
"Providing a place where young people can play music in front of an audience, or even merely go see and hear live musicians play, is one of the most rewarding parts of operating the donut shop."
You've most likely considered opening more Donut Whole locations. What has kept your priority and focus on your current business and location.
Running a 24/7 business creates a lot of stress. Running two 24/7 businesses is not in the cards for me. Actually, the thing I'd really like to do now is to reopen Jack's North High Carryout. I drive by it literally every day and want it bad. In the long run, I'd love to get the donut shop steady enough so I could turn its management over full-time and start a motorcycle shop. Outside of the precious time I spend with my son, the only time my mind ever really clears entirely is when I am riding a motorcycle. I'd also like to open a kick-ass tiki bar, but I don't know that I will ever have the resources for any of those things. A man can dream.
Where do you see the Wichita community currently? What are your hopes for the future of local business in Wichita?
When I moved here from Ark City in 1988, Wichita was in a serious state of decline. And yet to me it seemed like the Magic City. I saw all around me the opportunity to make something, to help shape the culture. I fell in with the After Midnight people — Teri Mott, Jake Euker, Tony Haynes, Racine Zackula, Jill Miller, Kevin Smith, Sabina Fowler and of course Kent Downing — and their enthusiasm and support was so empowering to me, I felt like anything was possible — but the prevailing attitude among the young townies was essentially, "I can't wait to get out of this dump."
Fast-forward 28 years and look where we are. All these young entrepreneurs and craftspeople and artisans inhabiting the old abandoned spaces, choosing to make a scene in their own image rather than move somewhere else where somebody else has already done it for them. I am so proud every time I see a Wichita flag, or a Keeper of the Plains tattoo. Every day on my way to work I feel more like I live in a major city and I just love it. Let's hope it lasts.
As an experienced entrepreneur what are the most important pieces of advice you can pass along?
Security is an illusion. Figure out what you want to do, study really hard on how to do it, then close your eyes and jump. You won't die.