An unlikely doughnut entrepreneur

IMG_9266“I’m still not convinced that I’m a very good entrepreneur,” said Greg Menna. We were sitting on stools in District Doughnut, Menna’s new shop in Washington, DC. Motioning to the line of customers awaiting gourmet doughnuts on a brisk Saturday morning, I simply replied, “This begs to differ.”

A philosophy major in college, Greg Menna never even considered starting a business. “I didn’t know what revenue meant, I didn’t know anything that would go into creating a product-based business,” said Menna. But when an old friend, Juan Pablo Segura, came to him with the idea of starting a gourmet doughnut shop, he was intrigued. Seeking advice from friends, family, and mentors, Menna was told over and over again, “Do it! You will never have another opportunity like this again.”

So he did. “It was the best decision I’ve ever made,” he said.

The first year (from the fall of 2012 until the fall of 2013) consisted mostly of looking for a store. At the time, District Doughnut’s chef, Christine Schaefer, was making the doughnuts from her home kitchen, an impressive but burdensome task and a clearly unsustainable business model.

Then Greg found a doughnut fryer on Craigslist (which he picked up in his Ford Focus) and District Doughnut started renting a kitchen in Virginia. But it was far from ideal. “Doughnuts are a much more irritating thing to pursue in terms of business,” said Menna. Doughnut-making requires a very specific ventilation and grease-disposal system, and the kitchen they were operating out of did not have anything close to what they needed.

The team – led by Greg, Juan Pablo, and Christine – still brought doughnuts to cooking expos and other markets as well as fulfilling special orders and catering events. But when people asked where their store was, they had to say, “We don’t have one yet.”

Producing enough donuts was time-consuming, but the team kept working hard. “We would have to produce the same level of volume as anyone else at those events, but with a joke of an infrastructure,” said Menna.

They finally found the perfect location for the store in an area of DC called Barracks Row – named for the oldest active Marine post founded in 1801. The bright green storefront stands out among the other small shops on this often-crowded street.

Unfortunately, the store is not near a Metro station, which means it isn’t exactly the best location for catching commuters. That means the doughnuts have to be good enough for people to intentionally seek out District Doughnut.

And they are. The Dulce de Leche doughnut I had was, hands-down, the best doughnut I have ever had, with the delicious combination of thick dulce de leche filling and salted frosting. District Doughnut has a number of gourmet doughnut flavors that fluctuate daily, everything from pumpkin spice to peanut butter & jelly. Each day, you can view the menu online.

“Every person has to think it was the best doughnut they’ve ever had. If they don’t, we didn’t do it right,” said Menna.

Making so many of these delicious doughnuts is no easy task. Christine, the chef, arrives at 9:30pm and works through the night  to have about 1,000 doughnuts ready for the store’s open at 7am. According to Menna, she has the perfect combination of creativity and consistency. Christine thinks up new, exciting combinations for doughnuts while making sure that the existing flavors are made in the same detailed, reliable way.

“You can’t expect consistency from a customer if you can’t provide it as a proprietor,” said Menna. “Christine is the most consistent and reliable creative person that I have ever seen.”

One of the challenges in the doughnut business is all of the obscure rules and restrictions you have to make sure to follow. As a result, politicians often say they “support small business” without actually understanding what that means. “If you haven’t done it, then you can’t know,” said Menna.

Because of the long preparation hours, the store is open Wednesday – Sunday, from 7am-4pm each weekday and 8am-4pm on weekends. “The coolest part of this whole venture,” said Menna, “has been seeing this store come to life.”

There have certainly been challenges, but Greg Menna has found the process extremely rewarding. “You can’t sacrifice and cut a lot of the corners that a bigger company could,” he said. He stressed how important it is to work hard and focus on the little details for every doughnut, every day. “For the younger generations, we all think things happen fast. But when you own a small business, you realize that’s not how it works.”

Published on Opportunity Lives