Voodoo Doughnut: Get a Bacon Maple Bar... or Get Married
With quirky creations like the Voodoo Doll and the Marshall Mathers, two longtime friends turned a downtown Portland, Ore., doughnut shop into an institution -- that even performs weddings.
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Richard "Tres" Shannon and Kenneth "Cat Daddy" Pogson found both infamy and adoration the day they opened Voodoo Doughnut, a most unusual doughnut shop located in an unkempt corner of downtown Portland, Ore. The store celebrates the wacky side of doughnuts, with varieties such as the Bacon Maple Bar, the Marshall Mathers (a plain cake doughnut topped with miniature M&Ms, a reference to rapper Eminem's real name) and even a few R-rated doughnuts, with shapes perfect for bachelor and bachelorette parties (use your imagination). The store's offbeat offerings and décor have landed Shannon and Pogson countless media appearances -- from The Amazing Race to Today to The Simpsons.
Now with three locations, Voodoo Doughnut remains a destination for locals and visitors alike, and even turns a tidy profit performing weddings. For Shannon, success is all about combining a great idea with a great friendship -- and never taking yourself too seriously.
How did you and Cat Daddy decide to go into the doughnut business?
Cat Daddy and I have been friends for 15 years now and we had talked about going into business together. Then, one fateful day, we were tubing down the Sandy River and drank about 800 beers and came up with the idea of a doughnut shop. In Portland, there were only about four or five doughnut shops at that time and, as far as we can tell, there's never been a doughnut shop in downtown Portland, ever.
How did you decide on the location for your first shop?
Before this, Cat Daddy worked in hospitality and restaurants in fancy hotels in town and I used to book a big rock club nearby called Berbati's Pan. I also owned a business from '90 to '94 called the X-Ray Café, which was right around the corner. So I've been down on this block for about 20 years and Cat Daddy has been here about 15 years.
We knew from the beginning it was gonna be great. There are about -- I don't know how many bars, I'd say 50. We knew if we were open late and sold something to soak up all the booze, we would be successful. We would park out in front of the place and look at it and just think, "It's gonna be like taking candy from a baby."
How did you learn to make doughnuts?
Our doughnut equipment supplier said you can go to the master kitchen in California. So we went down there, and that's where the doughnut masters are -- these three guys who had about 100 years of doughnut-making experience between them. We did a three-day doughnut camp in Pico Rivera, Calif.
Did you finance the business yourselves?
It took us a long time to get it going. We had to beg, borrow, cheat and steal to kind of get the thing going.
Were you successful from day one?
We sold out on our first night. We had a line, and part of the reason we had a line is we were still pretty green. And Kenneth and I worked 18 to 20 hours a day and we were open from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. -- that got a lot of press.
Did you know people would become fanatics for your product?
I did underestimate people's total fanaticism for doughnuts. There are people who just go crazy for these things. As a kid, I wasn't even allowed to have them. Cat Daddy would get them every Sunday. People just love doughnuts. It's a real comfort food. It's cheap.
I knew we would be in a great location, but we've got people standing in line for an hour and a half in the rain in front of garbage cans and a porno theater to get an apple fritter.
I can't emphasize enough that store number one is 750 square feet -- 500 of it is kitchen, 200 square feet of it is lobby and 50 square feet of it is the coolest bathroom in town. That place is like a crazy I Love Lucy episode.
We just can't make enough doughnuts to keep it running, so we opened up a second location right across town on 15th and Davis. We're actually feeding the store downtown with doughnuts with that one. We decorate them downtown, but [the second store makes] the shell. On top of that, we still make doughnuts downtown, of course.
Do you advertise the business?
We've done all our marketing. One of our things we're pretty adamant about is we don't pay for advertising. We pay for yearbooks and weird little high school things and old punk rock magazines. I bet we've spent less than $5,000 in advertising since we've opened. People have told us we've had $10 million to $20 million worth of advertising [through media appearances]. That would be a really interesting thesis for somebody.
Did you start out with the unusual flavors and shapes?
We put kind of funny toppings on them from the beginning -- cereal and things like that. But the bacon [took a little while]. We used to put NyQuil and Pepto Bismol on our doughnuts in the first couple of months, but the FDA shut us down after a front-page "Living section" article in the Oregonian that said "Night of the NyQuil Doughnut."
That's really a great indicator of people who come in and they think they know what's going on at Voodoo Doughnut. They say "Gimme a NyQuil doughnut." And it's like, "Dude, we haven't made those for seven years."
What is most challenging about your business?
Everything is challenging about a doughnut. People who make them by hand -- you just can't squeeze those things out of your armpits. It's sort of an old-timey business, and the way that we do them for sure, it's chemistry. There's a lot of weighing out. It's time. It's temperature. There are a lot of timers going off. It's hot. It's a hard, hard, hard business.
What is your most popular doughnut?
The bacon maple bar, of course. Anthony Bourdain [host of the Travel Channel's No Reservations] talked that up big time. The Voodoo Doughnut looks like a voodoo doll; it's got a pretzel stabbed in it and filled with blood. And then the Portland Cream is the "official" doughnut of Portland, which blows my mind every time I say it out loud. It's basically a Bavarian cream-filled doughnut with chocolate on top and it has two eyeballs that give it "vision," because Portland has vision, unlike that town Boston.
People come in and order a Boston cream and we just scoff at them and send them on their way. They can have the pie -- we want the doughnut.
And you conduct weddings at Voodoo Doughnut?
Weddings are a good part of our business these days. Both Cat Daddy and I were Universal Life Ministers before we started and Cat Daddy thought it would be a great idea. And sure, why not?
I don't know why more businesses don't do weddings. They should do them at 7-Elevens, do them everywhere. It's a $300 value and we make a big centerpiece and fill it out with other doughnuts. The people that work for us now are just amazing as far as their decorating skills -- we've made doughnuts that look like Kiss and the Harlem Globetrotters.
We do [weddings] about once a week, sometimes two to three in a day, and people always have a real good time. It's slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am, but Cat Daddy is the best at marrying people, because, man, I've seen him make the mom cry, the bride cry and the groom cry. I haven't been able to make any of the grooms cry, but Cat Daddy has. It's amazing.
We just opened Voodoo Tres in Eugene, Ore., right next to Ken Kesey Square. It's a crazy looking shop. Color-wise, it's like walking into a psychedelic sherbet experience. It's just nuts. It's our first shop that we haven't begged, borrowed, cheated and stolen to open as much. We actually have professional equipment for the first time. And that's kind of exciting.
What are you most proud of?
That Cat Daddy and I are still just great friends. We run this successful business. This is amazing. And it's all about doughnuts -- and it's not a lowly doughnut anymore.
People send us pictures every day on e-mail and call us to tell us there are just imitators all over the nation. We don't sit around and pat ourselves on the back about that, but we really did hit on something. We did truly capture lightning in a bottle.
Names: Richard "Tres" Shannon and Kenneth "Cat Daddy" Pogson
Company: Voodoo Doughnut
Ages: 43 and 42
Ages: 43 and 42
Location: Portland, Ore.
Employees: Approximately 70
Revenue: Undisclosed -- but they go through 800 pounds of grease each week