A conversation with Mark Isreal of Doughnut Plant.
For Mark Isreal baking doughnuts isn’t a gimmick, its history. As owner of the Doughnut Plant in Lower East Side Manhattan, Isreal has been running his widely successful business for nearly 20 years. The formula to his longevity? A constant strive for perfection while staying true to tradition.
From the beginning of his doughnut career, Isreal promoted his product for its high quality. Unlike other doughnuts in NYC in the early 90s – a time in which the market was dominated by fast food chains – Isreal sourced fresh local ingredients for his treats. Supple peaches for a glaze, sweet carrots for a cake style doughnut and even roasting and grinding his own peanuts for peanut butter. With the original recipe developed by his grandfather and his clean and flavour-focused approach to an unhealthy treat, Isreal had the recipe for success.
Even though today Doughnut Plant is pumping out doughnuts to the masses, it still holds true to its original formula in which quantity never outshines quality. During the 19 years of being open, doughnut and fad cupcake shops have come and gone but Doughnut Plant never diminished. Isreal never needed to enhance his doughnuts with a rhyming slogan or fancy packaging: his driving force is and always has been taste and the meticulous strive to make that perfect.
Carrot Cake, with cream cheese filling
Peanut Butter & Blackberry Jelly
Peaches & Cream Doughseed
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I read that your grandfather was a baker at the beginning of the 19th century. Do you mind talking a bit about him?
My grandfather had a bakery, a full bakery with cookies, pies, cakes, everything. And doughnuts was what he made at the end of the day. He was trained to make all these things in the army. As a teenager he worked in a bakery; and when he enlisted in the army I guess that was his special skill. He was stationed in the army and went to France, Paris I guess it was. He made all of the baguettes, the French stuff, you know.
Did he fall into baking because he wanted to bake or because it was a means of money?
Well his family members were cowboys, and they used to love wild horses. Then I guess after that kind of went away, they had to find a way to make money. That’s the only thing I know.
How did your father fall upon it?
My grandfather was the one that was a baker and my father just grew up with it in the family. My grandfather worked so hard that my father didn’t want to work in the baking business. So he didn’t do it.
Ok, so it skipped a generation?
My grandfather would have my father work in the bakery after school. I think that’s why he hated it—all of his friends got to play and he had to work. The last two things my grandfather would make in the bakery were the doughnuts and the doughnut glaze in the afternoon. My father would glaze the doughnut.
How close is the recipe that you’re using now to the original recipe?
Oh it is totally his recipe, exactly his recipe. I’ve made the doughnuts exactly with that recipe at my father’s house. This was way before the Doughnut Plant; it was just stuck in my head.
Were you a baker at the time?
Well I had always worked restaurants and bakeries and stuff like that. I was pursuing other things, but those other things didn’t really happen. The stuff I was doing along the way became my life, and I was cooking and baking for my friends – one of them being Jeff [an old friend who has been working with Mark from the very start and is now the Chief Experience Officer at Doughnut Plant]. They were always like, “Well why don’t you do this? This is good, blah blah blah.” But I didn’t ever plan to do it really. It just kind of happened and took on a life of its own.
So when you were first making doughnuts, where were you selling them to?
When I was first making the doughnuts no one was making them from-scratch. No one. You had the chain stores, but that’s it, and this was 18 years ago. I was into health food and very health conscious, so I just took my grandfather’s recipe, and used organic and high quality ingredients, some all natural. I put that onto my grandfather’s recipe, and doing that was the first idea. Then the second idea I came up with was mixing glazes with all fresh fruit and fresh roasted nuts for colour and flavour. As the Doughnut Plant grew it just kind of channeled my own creative energy into the doughnut. So it is based on my grandfather’s recipe, but even my father says it’s gone to another place.
So much more creative…
Well, my grandfather was creative too. You can tell he made it up, and he made a lot of recipes. Also, my father said that he made a cake mix before Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker, but it never took off.
But cake mix probably didn’t become popular until the 50s.
Exactly, because up until then everything was made from scratch.
You were telling me that you get ingredients from the market and it’s very important for you to use and source local products.
Right. I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and I’ve been able to create a relationship with a lot of the farmers. So when spring begins and the strawberry season starts, I already know who I’m going to at the Greenmarket on 14th Street and they already know I’m coming. It goes through the whole year and cycle of the seasons—from strawberries, all the way to pumpkins when we do our pumpkin market. Fruit is bought from the market: raspberries, blueberries, all of that. It would be a lot cheaper for us to buy commercially, but I can actually see the differences in the flavour and taste. And once I know the difference it’s hard for me to go back. It’s not as flavourful or pretty, you know?
So let’s talk big here – how did you open a shop and then get approached about opening a shop in Japan?
We get approached every week to do things all over the United States and the world, and we’re very interested in growth. If people have the same vision as we do, we’re very eager and open to work with them. It’s just a matter of finding the right people.
When you first became published in the New York Times, was it a “Wow my product is actually good” MOMENT, or more of it being just a matter of time?
The week after I started, Florence Fabricant from the New York Times ate a doughnut at one of the retail stores I sold wholesale to. She just called me up and said “I tried your doughnut. I think it was just so different.” I was just like, wow — this was 18 years ago! Nobody was doing this kind of thing; there wasn’t any Food Network or other entrepreneurs. There was really nothing going on, so maybe it stuck out and she was really supportive. I told my friend Jeff I was going to go to Dean and Deluca and he said, ”Come on, they’re gourmet food stores – what are you doing that for?” I just wanted to go in and see what they would say. So I went there, no appointment or anything. I was really naïve; I just walked right in and I asked, ”Would you guys just taste these?” They just bought them upfront. It wasn’t like this big thing, it just happened. One thing led to another and another and another. All along the way I never followed a plan, copied anyone, did any of that. In fact, what I was doing was so different sometimes I would have trouble with people asking me about doughnuts. They have this vision in their mind of these chain stores, and they’re like, ”Ugh doughnuts.” But mine are a reinterpretation – if I could get them to try it, they would always buy it. It was getting them past what they were used to. Even in the first bakery where I was living, my landlord gave me this boiler room in the basement for free. He wasn’t using it and was like, ”Here, go do whatever with it,” so I used this bakery in the boiler room. I didn’t have any money. After a year or something, he charged me $50 a month. And then it was $75 and then $100. I never thought I would get out of there. Jeff thought it was like this dungeon room that was all stone, with a small window with a fan in it that took all the air out. There were no windows, no light, rickety stairs. It was free and everything in that part of my life was very exciting because it was so new. It was only me; Jeff was working somewhere else and he would help me print logos and labels, and other friends would kind of help. But as far as the day-to-day, night to morning making the doughnuts, I would do that myself. I did that myself for five years.
Wow, what was the most that you would make down there in a day?
I don’t know, maybe 300. I couldn’t do that many because I would have to make the dough, roll it out, glaze it, the whole thing. I delivered them in the morning. I’d be mixing dough, cutting doughnuts, frying and glazing them all at the same time. But as the night went on, I could stop mixing, then cutting, the later it got and the further along the process was. At the beginning of the night it was crazy, but then I was 31, 32 years old and had much more energy. I was so relieved to working on my own without other people putting limitations on me. It was just so liberating, like a whole other life opened up to me.
You’re not following a gimmick. You know there are people who think, “I don’t know what to do with myself…. doughnuts are popular… I’ll start a doughnut business!”
They’re probably coming from here, they’ve all been here. I read once that this guy said, “I went to Doughnut Plant and then I opened up my doughnut shop.” And I thought, why does he think he’s being original by copying me? I don’t get it, I just do my own thing. I’ve never copied anyone, why would I do it?
Do you come up with the recipes?
Jeff: Mark is constantly tweaking recipes. There are people who are just stuck, but he’s in there constantly changing the temperature. A new product might come out to make it better. Some of the doughnuts have gone through dozens of minor tweaks that people might not taste, but people can tell. But they’re always evolving.
Interview by Abby Ainsworth
Photography by Jessica Nash
Edited by Heather Catuiza
Transcription by Casey Engelman
Layout by Chuck Ortiz
Lower East Side
379 Grand Street, between Essex and Norfolk
Hours: Every day 6:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.
220 West 23rd Street, btwn 7th & 8th Aves.
Hours: Monday-Friday: 7 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday 8 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Credit cards accepted