It’s a sticky-hot morning, but that doesn’t prevent a throng of cultish pastry thrill seekers from crowding into the tiny, 200-square-foot, industrial-chic storefront of Doughnut Plant, a festive presence replete with multicolored doughnut-shaped tiles, and as-colorful doughnuts, on an otherwise monochromatic block of Grand Street.
A sidewalk chalkboard announces the day’s flavors—lavender, blueberry, plus raspberry lemonade—in vivid hand-drawn colors, but no one stumbles in by accident: This is a destination.
As though he were the mayor of Doughnutville, people from all over want to try owner Mark Isreal’s confectionary creations—and shake his hand.
“Can I take a picture with you?” inquires a young woman with a blowout and a Pucci-print dress. “I bought these for my birthday,” she chirps, clutching a white box tied with a string. Her boyfriend snaps a photo of her with Isreal while she gushes about her sugar-seeking sojourn from Jersey City. “I saw you on the Throwdown [with Bobby Flay] where you won, and I’ve been dreaming about your doughnuts ever since.”
Another hip couple is tooling around out front with a camera. He, in a samurai ponytail, red Keds and tank top, perches on the bakery bench and freezes as he bites into a Black Out cake doughnut. His girlfriend, who captures the moment, deems the dark-chocolate confection, covered in cake crumbs and filled with chocolate pudding, “pornographic.”
A tour converges in front of the shop. “His father made these,” proselytizes a uniformed guide, pointing to the rows of ceramic doughnuts created by Isreal’s artist dad, Marvin. “Sometimes they get things wrong,” Isreal later laughs about the tour guides. “I’ll be down in my office and I can hear them; some of the guys are just making things up. It’s really funny.”
Cynics attribute such pilgrimages to the Food Network-fueled rise of the celebrity chef. That’s certainly part of it. But the core reason why the Doughnut Plant is a circus is the doughnuts: They are singular.
Take the lavender-glazed cake doughnut: Its tender, fine-crumbed pastry holds the shape of my bite like Homer Simpson’s doughnut might. The butter-yellow, yeast-swelled body is remarkably greaseless and utterly buoyant, its golden crust enrobed in a faintly purple glaze whose haunting aroma comes courtesy of fresh lavender buds.
The explanations for these doughnuts’ superiority are many; most fall under the headings of experience, technique, commitment and quality. Isreal is notoriously secretive about his process, but the details he’ll divulge paint a perfectionist’s portrait: Isreal fine-tuned his cake doughnut recipe for five years, has all flour milled to exacting specifications, simmers his own preserves for the jelly-filleds, and roasts and grinds peanuts for the PB&Js. He changes the fry oil daily, and twice a week hits the Greenmarket for glaze ingredients like strawberries, white peaches and apricots. The coconut-custard-filled number is born of fresh coconuts; even ho-hum-sounding flavors showcase Valrhona chocolate and real vanilla bean. All this trouble for doughnuts? “If you saw what the ingredients cost,” confides the master, “you’d know we’re charging way too little.”
Though Isreal’s been supplying New York for 14 years—5 of them toiling in the solitude of his downtown basement, then biking the wholesale bounty to purveyors—he says the city wasn’t always ready for what he had to give. “I had a hard time getting people to accept a different idea of a doughnut,” he recalls. “No one was doing doughnuts in restaurants. Nobody.”
Back in his doughnut dawn, he was a one-man operation. “I mixed the dough, rolled out the dough, cut the dough, fried and glazed the doughnuts, delivered it on the bike, came back, cleaned up, bought ingredients, and started again the next day.” These days, Doughnut Plant crafts 2,000 edible inner tubes a day and sells them to more than 40 outlets in the city.
But the rest of the world has come calling and Doughnut Plant has gone global: Isreal collaborated abroad to open 10 shops in Tokyo since 2004, six in Seoul last year, and has plans for DC, New Orleans and Toronto outposts. Despite the multinational expansion, he insists his small-batch values translate—ingredients are shipped from Grand Street, and Isreal visits the Asian stores two to three times a year for quality control and hosts overseas staff at his tiny world headquarters.
Multinational doughnut domination hasn’t interfered with Isreal’s daily rituals—he still bikes to Union Square for ingredients. On a recent Saturday, he joked his way through D’Attolico’s farm stand, his favorite lettuce stop (for daily family meal, not doughnuts), picked out tiny pink potatoes from Cheerful Cherry and, despite the stifling heat, beamed through every interaction. “My love for the farmers’ market comes from my mother,” he explains. “She used to get up at 5 am and bring me.” Raised in North Carolina by artists and artisans (grandfather Herman, responsible for Isreal’s original recipe, owned a bakery for 30 years), Isreal’s operation seems like an homage.
So when is Manhattan getting a second Doughnut Plant? “I’m still trying to find a location,” says Isreal, visibly frustrated by his quest. “Landlords love chain stores, and banks. They don’t have much vision as far as what’s good for New York.”
Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell