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How Strange Donuts Conquered St. Louis

  • 10 min to read

Six days after opening Strange Donuts in October 2013, co-owner Corey Smale was riding high.

In less than a year, he had leveraged a successful Kickstarter campaign into one of St. Louis’ most anticipated launches. After months of hosting and participating in events, developing the shop’s build-out, overcoming building and permit setbacks, and generating significant media attention, Strange Donuts was in business.

“[That] weekend when we opened, we got crushed,” Smale would later recall. “We had a number in our heads that we thought, ‘If we do this, we’ll be good.’ We did four times that.

“I want to get behind being this hype donut shop. You’ve got to come with a super quality product to stand up to the hype. That’s what we’re trying to live up to right now. Day six, we’ll see.”

Strange Donuts was not Smale’s first business, although it’s easily his most successful to date. Before setting Strange in motion, he had never worked in the food industry or taken a baking or pastry class. He didn’t have one dream or goal in mind, but he had creative energy, a knack for smart marketing and the ambition to build something of his own.

Smale’s earliest attempt at entrepreneurship came at age 11, in the form of an eBay account he set up with his parent’s permission (and credit card) and some help from his grandmother.

“From a small age I was a huge pro wrestling fan,” he says. “I was also interested in making money on my own. During the summer one year, maybe ‘96, my grandma would [take me shopping] in the morning, and I would get the most valuable wrestling action figures… and I knew this market, so I started flipping them on eBay. Then in the afternoons she’d take me to the post office to ship them.”

As a teenager growing up in Festus, Missouri, just 30 minutes outside of St. Louis, Smale was in a punk rock band, which served as a creative outlet for more than music. “I was building a brand then; I just didn’t know it,” he says. “We were making our own T-shirts, flyers – anything to set what we were doing apart from everybody else.”

After high school, Smale studied communications at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. A few weeks before graduation, he landed an account executive job with Commonground, a Chicago advertising agency.

“They were branching out at the time, and I knew that they were on the verge of some crazy s***,” he says. “I went on the road immediately with Coca-Cola and toured with Lupe Fiasco, with Busta Rhymes for a while. I worked with Sprite… I did a bunch of fun stuff and met some really cool and interesting people. That’s when a spark was lit in me; I saw what was out there.”

In 2010, Smale made the decision to move back to St. Louis and promptly launched a digital agency. “It was really just a room in my apartment with my friend [working] in Chicago, and we bounced ideas back and forth; we pitched ideas [to businesses],” he says.

One of those ideas flourished into a very successful guerilla marketing campaign and landed the agency national recognition, including coverage in Advertising Age. “Where’s the Cap’n?” targeted the Quaker Oats-owned cereal brand Cap’n Crunch, which had no social media presence in 2010. Smale and his partner launched a microsite, social media accounts and a petition, all directed at getting the Cap’n online. The public pitch didn’t earn the agency any money – but not long after, Quaker created an official Twitter account for Cap’n Crunch.

Smale’s next endeavor was a pet food company co-owned with his wife, Stephanie. The pair made pet food at home, which Smale branded and marketed, and then sold in local stores and online. Though the idea was strong, the business proved unsustainable with just two people behind it. “It was a cool concept, but I didn’t know what I was doing because I didn’t have enough people invested in the idea with me,” Smale says. “I learned a huge lesson with that.”

In 2012, Smale went back to what he knew and joined the creative team at St. Louis-based advertising agency Hoffman-Lewis (now H&L Partners). During the day he wrote copy for television ads and billboards for national clients, and in his free time he began developing Strange Donuts.

Inspired by fun, innovative donut shops in Chicago, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, Smale saw an opportunity to bring a different kind of donut to St. Louis. His wife thought of the name: “We knew we were going to do wild donuts, and I wanted you to hear it and be thinking about what that meant.”

In January 2013, Smale launched Strange Donuts. There were no donuts yet, just a logo and several highly active social media accounts.

From the beginning, the brand was extremely aggressive on social media and quickly built a large following, drawing the attention of local and national press. Much of the buzz had to do with the brand’s culture and community – Strange Donuts has personality, and people wanted to be a part of that.

“People ask us how we [did] this, and I say that we’re only doing so much of it,” Smale says. “Like the hashtag #StrangeDonuts on Instagram – I’ve never used it, but there are over 2,000 posts with it, and none of those are mine. We created a vibe and a culture – and that’s what I’m most interested in seeing, is where people take it.”

On March 12, Smale launched a Kickstarter campaign focused on raising funds for the shop’s kitchen equipment. By April 11, the project had exceeded its initial funding goal of $10,000 by more than 20 percent. But even after the project was fully funded, challenges remained. Smale was an entrepreneur with a dream and experience in launching and marketing brands, but he had very little experience in business management. Fortunately, he knew someone who did.

While in college, Smale befriended Jason Bockman, who was studying international business. After earning his undergraduate degree, Bockman launched a St. Louis-based furniture company called BT Furnishings, which supplies universities with furniture and mattresses. In July 2013, Smale approached Bockman about coming on board to help organize and manage the business end of Strange Donuts.

“I needed him; I needed someone desperately, and I knew I was going to lose this business if I didn’t invest in people,” Smale says. “So I brought him in, and within six weeks the shop opened. And all of a sudden, I didn’t have to worry about things that I wasn’t best at, and I let him do that.”

At the time, Bockman was pursuing a business degree at Washington University in St. Louis, and after reviewing Strange’s business plan and finances, he was confident that he could help steer the company in the right direction.

“It was energizing to me,” Bockman says. “I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted [Smale] to do well – I wanted to help him do well. I saw some basic things to improve upon and the potential of what this could become.”

This October – on the heels of Smale’s 30th birthday – the flagship shop celebrated its first anniversary, and a second location opened in nearby Kirkwood, Missouri. A few weeks later, Smale and Bockman launched Strange Trap Kitchen – a concept kitchen housed inside of Brennan’s bar in the Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis. In late 2014, Smale and Bockman signed the lease on a space in Columbia, Missouri. The location will be a joint partnership with St. Louis’ Seoul Taco.

“There are still nights that I go in and make the donuts because if I don’t, no one else will, and I love that,” Bockman says. “I love that if I fail, it’s totally on me. If we succeed, I kind of look at that as a gift.”

From the beginning, Smale and Bockman were clear that the donuts at Strange – or #dones as they’re known on social media – would fall into three categories: Original Classics, like raspberry jelly-filled, cinnamon sugar and traditional glazed; New Creations, or nontraditional donut flavors such as gooey butter cake, s’mores and blueberry cheesecake; and Late Night Strangers, each a collaboration with a different local restaurant or food producer. Past St. Louis Strangers have included chicken-and-waffle donuts with Porter’s Fried Chicken, pho donuts made with Mai Lee Restaurant, pizza donuts made with Pi Pizzeria and barbecue-rib donuts made with Bogart’s Smokehouse. Strangers are only offered on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 9pm until they’re sold out, and flavors and collaborations change each week.

Before Strange Donuts opened, there were plenty of donut shops in St. Louis selling what resemble the shop’s Classics, but no other local businesses were turning out anything like its Strangers. The specialty donuts proved particularly crucial, as they could be sold at higher price points and connected Strange with restaurants and their audiences. A few weeks before the first shop opened, Strange Donuts participated in Slow Food St. Louis’ annual Art of Food benefit, where Smale and Bockman had a platform to share Strange with influential St. Louis chefs and business owners, and establish relationships for future collaborations.

“We hadn’t done anything like that,” Smale says. “I think we got invited based on hype, for real, because we hadn’t done any Strangers yet – we weren’t even open. I met [Kevin] Nashan that night; I met Josh [Ferguson] from Kaldi’s [Coffee Roasting Co.]. It was a huge opportunity for us to meet a bunch of people.”

Nine months after opening, with the Kirkwood store already announced and expansion plans in the works, Strange made its next big investments by hiring Samantha Coates as its brand manager and Mary Boehne as its corporate chef.

Coates first met Smale and Bockman while studying business management and entrepreneurship at the University of Missouri. At the time she was searching for a business to profile for an entrepreneurship class, and when she came across newly opened Strange Donuts, she reached out. Later that year, Smale and Bockman approached Coates with an opportunity.

“[Jason] said they were expanding and growing, and needed some help,” she says. “I said I’d be down to do anything. The day after I graduated, Corey texted me, ‘It’s time.’”

Today, Coates manages events for Strange (sometimes as many as five or six a week) as well as special orders and sponsorships (for birthday parties, corporate events, weddings) and coordinates with Boehne and the baking team to keep everyone on the same page.

In July 2014, Boehne left her position as the pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis to oversee culinary operations as Strange Donuts’ corporate chef. Boehne describes the culture at Strange as hugely supportive, with endless freedom to experiment and create.

“We’re working really well together,” Boehne says. “They push me in a way that I’ve never been pushed before, too. It’s not any less work than the Four Seasons; I’ll tell you that.”

On Mondays, Smale, Bockman, Coates and Boehne meet to discuss everything from daily staffing and scheduling issues, to weekly concerns like Strangers and events, to larger, ongoing plans for growth. About an hour later, all 23 employees gather for a team meeting.

“The bakers’ meeting used to happen on Wednesday, which was [not enough time],” Boehne says. “Now we meet on Mondays, to give us a few days, and we usually talk about the next few weeks, too. But when it’s go-time, it’s go-time, and we just grind.”

On Tue., Nov. 18, Strange Trap Kitchen opened inside of Brennan’s, serving a selection of donuts not available at its other two locations in flavors like brûléed bananas foster and cranberry-white chocolate mousse with walnut brittle. Smale and Bockman’s ultimate goal for Trap Kitchen is to create a space where they can test new ideas and grow. In the short-term, that means branching into other types of desserts and pastries.

They initially hired a classically trained chef from France to run Trap Kitchen, but the chef experienced some health issues, which stalled the plan. In the meantime, an interim chef has stepped up to keep the shop running.

The Trap Kitchen also keeps different hours than Strange’s other shops – it’s open from 7 to 11am Tuesday through Friday, though Brennan’s doesn’t open for business during the week until 3pm. In the four-hour daytime window that neither business operates, Smale and Bockman see potential. According to Bockman, the hope is to open the space up to chefs or food producers to host pop-ups during the neighborhood’s lunch rush.

“I think donuts will always be popular, and honestly, you could have this business for a lifetime,” Bockman says. “Not to get unfocused – but looking toward the future – that’s why the Trap Kitchen makes so much sense; we’re morphing into some other foods. It’s not going to be just donuts; it’s going to be donuts and pastries.

“And on the weekends, when Trap Kitchen is closed, my hope is that people will come in and say, ‘Why aren’t you open? Why can’t I come here and get a Mimosa and eggs and bacon?’ I think we’re able to spread [our concept] a little bit.”

In November 2014, Strange returned as a participating business at the Art of Food benefit. The team partnered with Such and Such Farm in DeSoto, Missouri, to serve a buttercup squash-filled donut made with farm-fresh eggs topped with persimmon glaze and caramel crumble.

The benefit was one of several big events that Strange participated in over the course of four days. A day before Art of Food, the Maplewood shop hosted an event and merchandise release with New York City-based streetwear company Mishka and St. Louis-based streetwear shop SwedLife – an example of collaboration based on culture and community, as opposed to one focused on food.

“[Mishka] has stores in Tokyo, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Brooklyn, and they’re coming to a donut shop in St. Louis,” Bockman says. “That’s huge.”

In advance of the chaotic week, Smale and Bockman organized their weekly staff meeting at an indoor go-kart track in south St. Louis county.

A series of tables just off the go-kart track are pushed together, and everyone sits down and huddles into a circle. Bockman goes over scheduling before explaining the week’s roster of events, which leads into a brainstorming session for the week’s Stranger. Due to the volume of events slated that week, coupled with the work being put into opening Trap Kitchen later that month, the team decides to make the Stranger an in-house collaboration, as opposed to one with a local business.

Tom Davis (find him on Twitter @TedParty), who works at the Maplewood shop, throws out the idea of a shrimp po’boy donut.

“The shrimp makes me nervous – it will be hard to keep warm,” Boehne says. “Maybe if we were teaming up with someone…”

“What if they’re fried?” Bockman says. “[Then] they don’t have to be [kept as] warm.”

After pausing for a moment, Boehne suggests: “What about a crab-rangoon donut with sweet-and-sour glaze or duck-sauce glaze?”

Bockman’s eyes light up. “Let’s do a shrimp po’boy with [someone in the future], and let’s do crab rangoon ourselves this weekend,” he says. “That’ll be fire. We’ll serve them in boats. They’d be dope in a boat. Sauce on the side.”

Smale pitches in here and there, but stays mostly quiet until the meeting ends. In just a year, he and Bockman have taken an idea and built it way beyond even their own expectations, and now they’re watching a talented group of people help them move it forward. As the meeting draws to a close and go-karts whip loudly around the nearby track, Smale stands up and announces the team’s next adventure.

“Let’s race some cars,” he says. “And the winner gets a medal.”

Strange Donuts, 2709 Sutton Blvd., Maplewood, Missouri, and 107½ E. Argonne Drive, Kirkwood, Missouri; Strange Trap Kitchen, 4659 Maryland Ave. (inside Brennan’s), Central West End, St. Louis, Missouri; 314.932.5851, strangedonuts.com

Liz Miller is the senior editor of Feast Magazine.

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