Biting into a piece of fried potato dough drizzled with glaze can be a religious experience in Portland, Maine. A visit to a funky new dive called The Holy Donut has become a weekly, or sometimes daily, ritual for customers craving a fix of flavors ranging from sweet potato ginger to roasted pistachio.
“I’m trying to convince myself it’s not a sin to eat donuts,” says regular Nathan Hagelin as he takes the first bite of the shop’s seasonal apple cider flavor.
“Everybody wants it. They think they can’t have it, but we tell them they can,” says owner Leigh Kellis. Traditionally the poster child of unhealthy treats, donuts here are made with all natural colors and flavors, local Maine ingredients and no preservatives.
Kellis says she can be neurotic about food, so when she came up with the idea to start her own donut business about a year and a half ago, she decided she would only use ingredients that she’d be willing to feed her 8-year-old daughter.
“Better ingredients make you feel better, and junk makes you feel awful,” she says.
Nearly finished with her education to become a Spanish teacher, Kellis decided to pursue a different dream. She was looking to fill a void in Portland’s food scene – and to satisfy her own craving for homemade, gourmet donuts.
Far from a pastry chef, she started experimenting with different donut concoctions in her own kitchen.
“I got a bucket of oil on my stove-top and I was like, ‘I hope I don’t blow my house up,’” she says.
Maine is one of the top potato producers in the country, so when Kellis stumbled upon a recipe for potato donuts, she just knew she had a hit on her hands.
She started supplying one coffee shop with a dozen donuts a day and was soon baking 100 dozen a week for local businesses and grocery stores. She opened the shop in March with a little help from her dad, who built her counter and display.
Now, six employees do everything by hand, down to rolling out the dough and hand-cutting more than 1,000 donuts a day. They rotate between 12-14 flavors daily, and Kellis is always experimenting with something new. Corn and green tea were recent flops, but apple cider and bacon-cheddar have quickly become favorites.
Insurance agent Karen Vachon, who often meets clients at “The Holy Donut,” says Portland has seen the cupcake trend come and wane, and believes Kellis in onto the next big thing.
“I think that she is leading a trend on the rebirth or resurgence of the donut,” says Vachon.
The atmosphere in the store is laid back and welcoming. To Kellis, a donut shop is a glimpse back into the old world.
“Nostalga, comfort, the smell – it’s like your grandmother’s kitchen,” she said.
But, this is your grandmother’s kitchen taken up a notch.
“What I try to offer here is good music, good colors and incredibly friendly people. Really tasty fresh products, the best coffee in town and a general sense of feeling good. It’s not just about the food it’s about the whole experience,” she said.
It’s all about the taste for Scott Stafford, who stops by about twice a week.
“The flavors just pop in your mouth. If it says lemon, it’s lemon – it’s not like a hint of lemon, it’s lemon. It’s fresh flavor, right in your mouth,” he says.
Maintenance worker Anthony Leighton is in just about every morning. He appreciates that Kellis uses local and natural ingredients, and says the donuts are so unique, they’re worth traveling for.
“They’re lighter, they’re fluffy, they’re chewy and they taste a lot like they’re homemade – or something that you would get at a fair and only get once a year,” he says. “So, the fact that you can get that seven days a week now is pretty awesome.”
For other entrepreneurs starting out with a similar business idea, Kellis says you need a mix of timing and luck, but above all, a product you believe in.
“I love doing this,” she says. “I could just get on my knees and thank the universe that I get to do what I enjoy. I hope people can taste the passion.”