Last Updated on December 15, 2020
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About Leslie Polizzotto
I am the co-founder and owner of The Doughnut Project, a hand-crafted doughnut shop in New York City. I am a former litigation attorney who took the leap from practicing law to become a business owner. I manage the daily operations and also the business side for The Doughnut Project. www.thedoughnutproject.com
About The Doughnut Project
The Doughnut Project is a small-batch, hand-crafted doughnut shop in the West Village of Manhattan. Our team creates unique doughnut flavors inspired by food and cocktails. The doughnuts have glazes, fillings, and toppings that include out-of- the-box ingredients such as bacon, beets, bourbon, olive oil, ricotta cheese, sesame seeds, black pepper and sea salt. We do many collaborations with local and national brands to create a new Weekend Special every week. We also get approached by many brands to create custom doughnuts for events and product launches.
The first step we took was to write a business plan in order to approach investors. That process took a long time because we were having to research and figure out what the retail space and build-out expenses would be, the cost of goods expenses and estimate sales numbers. The plan was very extensive. Once we had the business plan complete, we started to raise friends and family capital. We also put in our own money, but definitely needed to raise a lot more to open the shop. In addition to courting investors and looking for a retail space, I had to figure out what the city of New York required to open a food service establishment, and what permits and licenses we would need. There was definitely a long checklist leading up to opening the shop. The time from starting the business plan to opening the shop in October 2015 was almost 2 years.
I was actually reluctant to start my own business. I had always worked in a structured office environment and understood what was expected of me and what I needed to accomplish each day. The decision to launch The Doughnut Project was actually a situation where the stars aligned. I was practicing law in Los Angeles and my husband Gino and I were traveling back-and-forth between LA and New York a lot. When in NYC, we would love to go to Eataly and sit at the bar at the restaurant called Manzo. It is there where I met my former business partner Troy Neal. He was a bartender and was super charismatic and lots of fun. We instantly hit it off. He told me that he wanted to open a doughnut shop. I pulled out my phone and showed him all the pictures that I had taken of doughnuts when they would be brought into the law firm I was working and how happy they would make me feel. I told him that I was going to be moving to NYC and I wanted to be involved somehow. I think he thought I just wanted to be an investor, but little did he know I was going change my entire life to make The Doughnut Project a reality. Although I was nervous about giving up my law career to start a doughnut brand, I made the leap with the encouragement of my husband who also owns his own business.
My business partner Troy recently moved back to Seattle and is no longer involved in the business. I have 3 female employees that are very committed to the brand. The four of us hustle to make and sell out of doughnuts each day!
How Did You Get Your First Several Customers Or Users? How Many Users Or Customers Do You Have Now?
We simply opened our door on the first day and waited for people to come in. Needless to say, it was very quiet. It wasn’t until we competed and won a doughnut competition 3 months later that things to start to pick up. The real turning point was when we introduced “The Everything Doughnut” and our lives changed overnight! We had an influencer visit our shop to taste this new doughnut we were releasing, and the influencer posted a picture of it on his Instagram feed FoodbabyNY. Later that day a reporter from Gothamist called our shop and we did a 15-minute interview on the phone discussing “The Everything Doughnut.” The reporter had seen the post and wanted to get the details on the new doughnut flavor. Within an hour she had written a story and posted it on their website Gothamist.com. https://gothamist.com/food/goodbye-everything-bagel-hello-everything-doughnut
We were so excited and couldn’t believe that we were actually getting our name out in the press. The next day we were at the shop contemplating whether “The Everything Doughnut” was too “out there” for people to want and the phone started ringing off the hook. It was ABC News, NBC News, the Wall Street Journal…everyone wanted to know the details about “The Everything Doughnut.” For the next month, that doughnut appeared on every day-time television show and had hundreds of articles from all over the world written about the doughnut. (just Google The Everything Doughnut!!!) Since then, we have been fortunate enough to have received a lot of press and to be featured on many other television shows and videos which brought us additional national and international followers.
On Saturdays and Sundays (our busiest days), we service around 150 – 200 customers each day.
How Does Your Company Grow And Acquire New Customers?
We grow our company and our customer base through collaborations and unique Weekend Specials that we promote on Instagram. Every weekend, we attract 40-50% new customers who come from as far as Connecticut, New Jersey, and Long Island to get the limited-edition doughnut.
Social media is extremely important to our business. We would not likely still be in business if it wasn’t for Instagram. We communicate daily to our customers through Instagram, including what new seasonal flavors are being released, information about our collaborations and what the Weekend Special will be. I generate the content and personally handle social media for our brand. We currently have 139k organic followers.
What Actionable Tips And Tricks Do You Have For New Founders Who Are Looking To Get Their First Thousand Users Or Dollars?
Speaking specifically to a new founder of a food business, you have to create a product and is unique and is great. If we sold chocolate doughnuts with sprinkles, we would not still be in business. If our doughnuts were not that good, all the press and Instagram followers in the world would not keep us in business. Hospitality is crucial to a food business. If you do not engage with and treat customers well, you will not survive. When customers visit our shop, they are greeted and engaged in fun conversations about doughnuts. We want it to be an experience and for customers to leave with a smile on their face and to tell others about our brand.
Food products are very well suited for Instagram and that is a great way for bring awareness to your brand. Work with influencers to promote your product. Although I have never paid an influencer, some do require a fee for posts and stories.
What Is Something You’ve Learned That Would Not Be Obvious To Somebody Who Hasn’t Worked In Your Space Before?
When it comes to owning a doughnut shop, every day you start with nothing to sell. We do not have inventory sitting there waiting to be purchased. We have to make our product hours before we open our doors. If you make too few doughnuts, you have lost revenue opportunities. If you make too many doughnuts, you have wasted ingredients and incurred unnecessary labor costs. Doughnuts also take a long time to make. If we run out of doughnuts too soon, we cannot just go back in the kitchen and quickly make more. Our yeast-raised doughnuts take 3 hours start to finish.
What’s The Craziest Thing That’s Happened To You (Good Or Bad) On Your Founder Journey?
I got to film a t.v. show with comedians Jim Gaffigan and Tom Papa for Tom’s show Baked on the Food Network. They visited our shop to try our doughnuts and Tom worked in the kitchen with us to make some doughnuts. Needless to say, it was a lot of laughs.
What Are Your Favorite Books?
My favorite books to read are usually memoirs of people I admire, like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Sonya Sotomayor.
Anything You’d Like To Plug?
Follow me and The Doughnut Project on Instagram – @thedoughnutproject @lesliepolizzotto
- Starting A Movement Of Giving With Imran Nuri
- Building the AirBnB for Office Spaces with Shyam Sundar Nagarajan
- Supporting New And Diverse Entrepreneurs With Hala Chibani
Book summaries, notes, interviews, and more!
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