Long before the resurgence of Brooklyn and the birth of the Cronut, there was a West Coast revolution in sugar, flour, and yeast. These basic components behind the humblest of all pastries were elevated by two Portland entrepreneurs into a deep-fried mecca called Voodoo Doughnut. Despite being open 24 hours a day, long lines are standard, filled with crowds eager to buy everything from 95-cent old-fashioneds to the business’s chocolate-covered namesake, a voodoo doll that’s been pretzel-pierced through the heart. It bleeds goat’s blood (which, as luck would have it, tastes a lot like raspberry sauce).
For years, I’d thought it a tourist trap, and surely it is. But as I walked through the doors to be met with two spinning pie cases full of every glistening hyperbole of a doughnut imaginable–I found myself too tongue-tied to order. Did I want the doughnut covered in Crunchberries or Cocoa Puffs? What about bubblegum or bacon? Should I be good and get just one flavor? Should I be a glutton and order a dozen? How many is a dozen? What’s a doughnut? And as I stammered together a few loose sentences and made my way out of the shop, I, like Ralphie from A Christmas Story, had forgotten my most important request: the voodoo doll itself.
I may have failed at Voodoo Doughnut, but the store had succeeded. Despite the line and the persistent wafting of grease, I left enraptured with sheer childhood delight. Voodoo is a rare combination of superb product design and superb experience design, eye candy and mouth candy in one.
“People come and drop to their knees. They say, ‘I’ve driven here eight hours without going to the bathroom to get an apple fritter!” laughs Voodoo’s co-founder Tres Shannon. “It’s like, God guys. I mean it’s wonderful but it’s just fried doughnut! We haven’t really invented anything.”
Here’s what the best in the doughnut business taught me about redesigning the status quo.
It’s true. Fundamentally, Voodoo isn’t making donuts any differently than your average corner shop, except in one key way: Through a seemingly limitless supply of punch-drunk imagination, they’ve expanded the very definition of fried dough.
“We always went into the business trying to figure out how to make crazy donuts, but lots of those decisions were probably just based on being tired,” Shannon admits. “We were so exhausted after working 16 hours, and we’d still have to shop for the next day. So we’d walk through the grocery aisles and say, ‘Why not put cereal on a donut? A donut is a breakfast. Cereal is breakfast. And cereal looks great on a donut.”
Most of Voodoo’s 100+ list of dazzling doughnuts was improvised just this quickly between Shannon and his business partner Cat Daddy. Did an idea sound good? Would it look good? Sold. The epitome of this idea might be the Voodoo Bubble. It’s a pink vanilla donut with a piece of wrapped bubble gum on top.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t even know if I’ve had a Bubble. The experience of eating one is hard to imagine partaking in,” Shannon confesses. “It’s definitely for the masses, for the crowds. With us, a lot of it is just, it has to be appealing to the eye. The Bubble doughnut looks great on TV and in magazines.”
Indeed, the goal of every doughnut seems first and foremost to be sensory overload. But not every doughnut is designed solely for the eyes. An early hit happened when Cat Daddy spontaneously brought a pack of bacon into work one morning–a possible missing link to a sweet and savory doughnut they’d wanted to make for some time. They fried it up and had the idea to stack a crispy slice on a traditional maple bar. Voodoo’s most successful creation was born, an absolutely delicious but somewhat unappealing pile of tan, the Maple Bacon Doughnut.
“We’ve been sort of apologizing for it at this point,” Shannon says. “Everyone is putting bacon on everything now.”
Of course, when punch-drunk ideas become products, some missteps are bound to happen. Some of the team’s most notorious include a Pepto Bismol doughnut–a chalky pink donut that was actually dipped in Pepto and sprinkled with Tums. It was conceived as a digestif for Voodoo’s late-night drunks (and a few actually bought them). Another over-the-counter creation was the NyQuil doughnut–laced with the real green stuff–that led to trouble with the FDA.
“It’s not like you were getting buzzed off the NyQuil; you would have had to eat 50 donuts to get high off it,” Shannon says. “But we got a lot of notoriety for it. That was one of our first big press successes.”
In a sense, these failures were actually a type of triumph, garnering the notoriety that leads customers to still request a Nyquil-laced doughnut today. Yet neither questionable idea holds a candle to the horrific failure of the oyster doughnut.
“There is a famous oyster restaurant across the street. So we’d run over and get a fresh shucked oyster. And we’d run back and put the oyster on the doughnut lovingly, and that didn’t really fly,” Shannon laughs.
If there’s one fundamental alchemy that’s so tough to pin down at Voodoo, it’s not the sweet and colorful, cereal aisle appeal of their product. It’s that Voodoo sells such an array, from the most conservative 95-cent glazed doughnut to a $5.25 chocolate-coated “Cock-N-Balls,” all in the interest of appealing to grandma, mom, and her kids (and maybe their eventual bachelorette party) in one.
“That’s part of the whole idea, we appeal to everybody–from the loon to the toon,” Shannon says. “I never thought I’d say ‘Cock-N-Balls’ 50 times a day.”
That might sound like a mere phallic joke, but doughnuts like the Cock-N-Balls are also pretty serious business. Not only do they give Voodoo’s brand a late-night edge, Voodoo’s more ambitious creations also open the door to expansive pricing on an otherwise low-return product. Through penises, cereals, and over-the-counter medicines, Voodoo has essentially added a design-driven ROI to the doughnut industry.
“We are charging $5 for our Cock-N-Balls, which isn’t really more than two doughnuts, crafted in a way that’s shaped funny,” Shannon explains. “The work and time isn’t much beyond making two glazed donuts. There are ways we’ve snuck around that and still given people a value–made people think we were giving them a value.”
With a decade of doughnut-making under their belts and a triple-digit doughnut menu, you’d think Cat Daddy and Tres Shannon may be slowing down with new ideas. (Just imagine if a company like Apple had more than 100 products!). But in fact, they’re set on continuing the insanity, upping their own antes of delight and sheer shock value. The team is opening a new store in Denver, Colorado, in the coming months, and with it will come a whole new wave of joojoo in the Voodoo.
“With Colorado legalizing marijuana, that could be interesting,” Shannon teases. “There’s a dispensary right across the street from where we’re opening.”
Just don’t forget the Crunchberries.