About this Episode
Leslie Polizzotto 0:00
It’s like we started over. It’s really weird. And I’ve been so happy because I have more control over it. And I’m actually participating in making the doughnuts and selling the doughnuts again, and not just coming in and checking in on things and collecting money and stuff like that, you know, it’s just very refreshing to actually be hands on again.
Angela Giovine 0:24
Pop culture has become obsessed with entrepreneurship stories from Silicon Valley, and big startup. But the backbone of our economy is made of small local businesses. Every day, millions of small business owners deliver quality products and services, support the local economy, employ their neighbors and follow their passion. We think their stories are worth telling. I’m Angela Giovine. Welcome to the extra ordinary small business podcast. Today on the show, a treat for the eyes, and the taste buds. How did Leslie Polizzotto transform her career in insurance law into The Doughnut Project? We sat down with Leslie to discuss the journey.
Angela Giovine 1:14
This episode is brought to you by WP Engine.
Angela Giovine 1:22
New York City’s West Village, home to dozens of celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Hugh Jackman, Ben Stiller and Amy Poehler has remained a more quiet and quaint respite within an unrelenting Manhattan bustle. Eateries range from informal bakeries and cafes, to legendary establishments with powerhouse chefs. This is the backdrop to the story of The Doughnut Project, conceived and launched by business partners Leslie Polizzotto and Troy Neil. It was a chance meeting at a bar that helped these two partners discover their mutual love for the almighty doughnut. And the rest, as they say is history. Leslie a reformed attorney handles the business end of things, from marketing and sales to strategy, human resources and social media. Neil, the self proclaimed director of chaos, tends to spend more of his time on the creative end of the business. Though The Doughnut Project is a relatively young company opened just about five years ago, this company has been able to quickly establish themselves in a crowded market, collecting awards for their product, notoriety in the media and collaborations with much larger companies. How did a doughnut masquerading as a bagel? Put The Doughnut Project on the proverbial map? We sat down with Leslie to hear all about it.
Leslie Polizzotto 2:57
Hi, my name is Leslie Polizzotto. I am the co founder of The Doughnut Project, we are a gourmet handcrafted doughnut shop in the West Village of New York City. And we take inspiration from food and cocktails for our flavors. And we kind of found that niche really resonated with foodies and adults who wanted to have treats but not necessarily sugar bombs. So we like to balance the flavor profiles.
Angela Giovine 3:23
Now, obviously, doughnuts are not a new product, and it’s certainly there’s no shortage of doughnut companies out there. What made you say, there’s something that I can do different. Tell us how you got started?
Leslie Polizzotto 3:37
Well, I was actually a lawyer practicing law and living in California, Los Angeles, and I was going back and forth with my husband to New York on business trips. He has clients were here and I would come and work out of our New York office at my law firm. And we when we go out to dinner, we’d like to sit at the bar and so you can just talk and have a conversation and I befriended a guy, who was a bartender at Easley, and his name was Troy and he was super fun and charismatic and one of the trips we were visiting and we’ve stopped by to say hi, and we’re having a drink and eating. He mentioned he wanted to open a doughnut shop and I pulled out my phone, and I showed him all these pictures of doughnuts on my phone and I said, “I love doughnuts”. They make me so happy. Anytime someone brings in a box of doughnuts to the law firm, I’m just like can’t wait to pick out which one I want. And I wan’t look at it on my desk for hours, anticipations, eat it. And so he said, “Well, I you know, if you want to help me out, you know, I would love to have the help you know” and I think he thought I could maybe help him legally or financially as an investor. But I told him, I said, “Look, I’m moving to New York soon, and let’s reconnect and you know, see where things are going”. So probably six months, nine months later, my husband and I do move to New York and we reconnect with with Troy. And I said “I want to help you do this doughnut shop” and it was kind of a really strange move for sometimes from people’s eyes, but I was really encouraged by my husband who owns his own business. And he thought I’d be really good at being a small business owner. So I decided to take the leap into something I love and enjoy. And I really liked my future business partner and trusted him. And we wrote a business plan and spent a long time doing that and raised friends and family capital. And the whole process took like three years before we opened. So it was a long journey.
Angela Giovine 5:29
And what year did you meet him? And what year did you open?
Leslie Polizzotto 5:32
I met him at probably at the end of 2011, and we opened 2015.
Angela Giovine 5:38
So as a lawyer, I imagine most lawyers I know are trained to see the risk in everything and to hedge that risk. How did you overcome that tendency as a lawyer and also, you know, build that rapport with someone who you just met so quickly?
Leslie Polizzotto 5:57
Well, you know, I was very naive. I was a foodie and I wanted to get into the food industry somehow. I was like obsessed with food shows and going out to dinner, and I always say I’m a professional luncher, it’s my favorite thing to do is to go out to lunch. And, you know, I really wanted to dip my toe into the food industry. And quite frankly, you know, I was just fortunate enough that I had my husband that was supportive and said, “Hey, give it a shot”. You know, I mean, I gave up a six figure income with being a lawyer to not take a salary for a year. And not everybody’s in that position. And so some people may have to work another job where they’re trying to get something off the ground. But I was fortunate enough that I could dive into this, writing the business plan, meeting with potential investors, so we kind of came my job to make it happen. And it was it was fun, and I liked it.
Angela Giovine 6:48
So did you leave your career once the store opened or did you leave your law career and then start writing the business plan?
Leslie Polizzotto 6:56
I left my law career way before the store opened. I was licensed In California.
Angela Giovine 7:01
Oh, so then you’re moving.
Leslie Polizzotto 7:02
Well, I moved to New York and I took the bar and I passed it. And my law firm didn’t have quite enough work to bring me on right then. So I kind of was forced into the position to reevaluate what you’re doing and find some other things to get involved into, take some time to, you know, not just be sitting at home by yourself all day. And I was on this path and my law firm actually reached back out to me and said, “Okay, we have work for you” because I had passed the bar and everything was legally can practice. And I said, “You know what, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing”. So it was like a decision that was made for me once I was already down the path. We weren’t open. But I had all the confidence that we could, we can make it successful. Like I said, totally naive, probably insane,
Angela Giovine 7:47
Leslie Polizzotto 7:47
New York City has the highest failure rate, especially with food businesses. Neither one of us had run our own business, I had always worked for someone else in an office environment, checking the boxes, and he was a bartender. So It was like, we had everything against us. But we didn’t realize it and just kind of overcame it.
Angela Giovine 8:07
Not only does New York City have some of the failure rates you’re talking about, but it also has some of the highest expenses.
Leslie Polizzotto 8:12
Angela Giovine 8:13
Were you nervous about that? Like, were you thinking maybe we should just try this in New Jersey or it was New York?
Leslie Polizzotto 8:20
It was New York, and like I said, we were both very naive. The rent is super expensive. Labor is super expensive. But we also like thought we were going to make a million dollars our first year, like we had written this plan where “Oh, we’re going to sell this amount of doughnuts, this amount of it’s going to be coffee revenue”, like we had planned it all out, but it really it wasn’t feasible or realistic. And we just didn’t know it. And
Angela Giovine 8:43
Leslie Polizzotto 8:44
you know, no one we didn’t seek advice from anybody on like, “Hey, is this like, does this make sense?” We just kind of pulled numbers out of the air, which weren’t true or realistic. So that was a challenge.
Angela Giovine 8:56
But it helps you be optimistic enough to get you to open the door.
Leslie Polizzotto 8:59
Correct, correct. And you know, we both put in money for the starting capital. And then we raised money from friends and family, people who believed in us, And so you know, supported us and some outside people who weren’t a friend or family. We had a couple investors that, you know, after they met with us, believed in us and our concept and I’ve heard it over and over again, and you probably talked about this before on your podcast, but people invest in people. So if you present well and you’re likable and you have somewhat of a good plan, you know, you’re more likely to get someone to invest in you if you had a wonderful plan, but you’re not the best with talking with people or explaining your, your concept or your vision or it just kind of we are a good team sales team, quite frankly.
Angela Giovine 9:46
Yeah. People bet on the jockey not the horse.
Leslie Polizzotto 9:49
Right, exactly. 100% and my business partner is like super charismatic. Everyone immediately loves him. He’s more extroverted, I’m more introverted. But we’ve kind of rubbed off on each other so that we’re little more you know, well rounded team. He he now appreciates my calendaring and checklists and those types of things. And I appreciate all that I’ve learned from him in hospitality. You know, you don’t know what it is about hospitality until you’re actually on the other side. If you always frequent restaurants, but you’ve never worked in one, you have no idea what hospitality truly is. And so I’ve learned a lot from him in that respect.
Angela Giovine 10:26
Now you touched on this earlier but your doughnuts are different. They have a different tastes, they have a more balanced nature to them, I’ve seen some of them are savory in nature. Is that a product that evolved or was that your idea from inception?
Leslie Polizzotto 10:40
It actually, it was an idea for inception and that kind of was our niche but we took it way farther than what we had anticipated. We I like to say we we like to push the envelope on what a doughnut can be. We, you know, started out with a core, you know flavor menu that was pretty unique. We had an olive oil black pepper doughnut We had a bacon maple doughnut, and a beat in ricotta doughnut. And no one had ever seen that before. We started to then branch out more into the alcohol, a lot of alcohol brands would reach out to us and want us to create a doughnut using their alcohol. And they would promote it, we would promote it. And we just kind of started getting all these brands that wanted to work with us, food brands, alcohol brands. And so we just started doing all these collaborations or projects as we like to call them doughnut projects. And that’s kind of how we built our reputation, was doing collaborations and just coming up with creative doughnuts.
Angela Giovine 11:35
So that’s not something easy for a small business to do, right. Get liquor brands to reach out to them and food brands. How does that happen?
Leslie Polizzotto 11:44
We it’s so funny. When we were three months old, we were invited to participate in a doughnut festival in Brooklyn, and we took our beat and ricotta doughnut, and we won, we won the competition. And that didn’t sound like a lot but it was it would came with this cool trophy, it got a lot of kind of foodie press, but also a $3,000 prize and like we were underwater, we were three months old and we had no money and we were just realizing how cold December can be, in New York City when nobody knows who you are. But this happened in January and then February of 2016, our lives were changed overnight when we put a doughnut on our menu called The Everything Doughnut. It changed our life. Well it literally broke the internet. If you google The Everything Doughnut, the first like 15 pages of Google, all the articles are about that doughnut. Like I can’t say it enough it completely changed our life.
Angela Giovine 12:43
How was it discovered? I mean, sure you put it up, you put it on your Instagram but someone notable had people had to pick it up, did you put a press release out? How did people find out about The Everything Doughnut?
Leslie Polizzotto 12:54
All through Instagram. And it’s funny because this when we started it was bright, but when Instagram and the food culture were colliding, and you know, mashup food mashups were becoming a big thing, and you know, influencers were starting to pop up in regards to food. And we had became really close friends with Mike Chau, who is the father of Food Baby NY, which is now is a huge brand and he came in to , got The Everything Doughnut and took it home, and took a picture of it with his son’s face- he only had one child at the time, with his son’s face in the middle of the doughnut and posted it on his insta Instagram feed. And it’s amazing how, you didn’t know this at the time but traditional forms of media were actually watching what was happening on social media, because there’s an online lifestyle food website called Gothamist that had saw that post, and called us at the shop and they were like, “We just saw this post on Food Baby’s account about The Everything Doughnut, can you tell us a little bit about it?” And so we did like a five minute interview and then within like an hour she now Casey, the food editor at the time had posted a story about it on their website, and we didn’t think anything about it. The next day, our phone started ringing off the hook. It was ABC News, NBC News, The Wall Street Journal, paper newspapers in London, like everybody in the world found out about the doughnut. From that one post on Instagram that got a food website to write about it.
Angela Giovine 14:25
So did all of that press, tell me how all of that press became dollars? Did had did it equate did it grow the business or was it it just now I’ve noticed you guys have an amazing Instagram following you’re at like over 100,000 followers on Instagram or something-
Leslie Polizzotto 14:42
We have 130,000
Angela Giovine 14:44
Right. Now at this point in time, when The Everything Doughnut comes out, where are you at on Instagram?
Leslie Polizzotto 14:49
We’re probably like around 4000? Probably/.
Angela Giovine 14:52
Leslie Polizzotto 14:53
Angela Giovine 14:53
And you’ve been in business like a year?
Leslie Polizzotto 14:55
It was, no we had been in business for almost five months, four months.
Angela Giovine 14:59
Four. Oh, wow, okay. And the original food baby, he was already big on Instagram or sort of-
Leslie Polizzotto 15:05
He was pretty big. probably not even 100,000 at that time, he was probably like 60,000 or something like that. But it was just unbelievable that people were watching what was happening on on Instagram and you know, more traditional forms of media like a professional website or a news channel or a daytime TV show, like Kelly and Michael, Eva Chui, like Rachael Ray, like the doughnut was on every single show. It was unbelievable. And it equated to dollars because we people all of a sudden knew who we were. We were selling out of doughnuts by nine o’clock in the morning. We couldn’t make them quick enough. It was like four of us there, not knowing how to even make enough doughnuts .
Angela Giovine 15:26
Leslie Polizzotto 15:31
It was crazy. So yeah, it put us on the map, for sure. And then the whole collaboration started when Angry Orchard reached out to us for National Doughnut Day, which is a real holiday in June.
Angela Giovine 15:59
Leslie Polizzotto 15:59
It’s created by the Red Cross to that get started by welcoming immigrants through Ellis Island, the first thing they got was a doughnut and a blanket. So it’s a real holiday. And they reached out to us to do a collaboration with them using their apple cider on National Doughnut Day. And we did. And they had a huge PR press team behind them. And they did a press release, and they had all the, you know, sending doughnuts to influencers, and they had all the money to do that. And so we kind of just rode the coattails of all these brands that had PR teams because I was doing everything, I don’t I’m not a PR person, but I had to do everything on the our side.
Angela Giovine 16:38
But you had a tasty product that people were excited and was visually compelling and you’re willing to work with them.
Leslie Polizzotto 16:45
Angela Giovine 16:46
So in your mind, the contest led to the collaboration with food baby, led to the major media, lead to that first collaboration. One doesn’t happen without the other.
Leslie Polizzotto 16:58
Right. I mean like, I think they all kind of a lot of foodies that love doughnuts, were at that competition in Brooklyn that January 23rd, when we won, and we had people coming into our shop, we saw we met you at the competition- you know, so it kind of grew our business then. And then I do think Mike Chau was probably at that event, I can’t remember 100% but you know, I just was naive, I just started inviting influencers “Hey, if you want to come try our doughnuts, I’d love to give them to you”. And people would come and take our doughnuts and take pictures of them and post them and we just started growing our following very organically and innocently and next thing you know we have 130,000 followers.
Angela Giovine 17:39
Do you think, that if you had chosen a basic chocolate doughnut to bring to that contest, would you have won or it was because you not only thought out of the box, but it was delicious, that really made people stand up and see something different?
Leslie Polizzotto 17:56
No, we would have never won. There was actually a doughnut shop that is could be considered a competitor of ours who has been around a lot longer than us that did bring a chocolate doughnut to that and they did not win, we won. I think people A the dough is wonderful, super fresh and light and airy and not greasy. And the flavor profiles of beet glaze with ricotta whip inside. So it’s not just like cheese stuffed in, we whip it to almost like a whipped cream
Angela Giovine 18:26
Leslie Polizzotto 18:26
and it’s just the most elegant. Yeah, it’s so elegant and just delicious. And we won. I mean, because it tasted so good. So you you can have all the hype in the world, all the flashy Instagram things, but if your product’s not good, you’re never gonna make it. You have to back it up with a good product. And we’ve always done that.
Angela Giovine 18:35
Yep, yep, you can get them in the door but then you have to deliver.
Leslie Polizzotto 18:49
Correct and and we’re like it’s not only just the doughnut when you come in, we want it to be an experience. We’re we’re a brand, we sell merchandise, with our logo and cool pop culture references on t-shirts, you’re greeted when you come in, we engage in conversation. It’s all about hospitality, It’s not like here’s your doughnut, get out of the way. It’s very much a, an experience that you remember. We want people to leave with a smile on their face and tell everyone about The Doughnut Project.
Angela Giovine 19:18
So who makes the doughnuts? Who decides the recipes? How did how did that happen?
Leslie Polizzotto 19:24
Well, originally my business partner was making doughnuts in his apartment, testing out recipes. And he says they weren’t very good. I liked them when he made me doughnuts and when I was deciding whether I wanted to do this with him, I love them. But the recipe has definitely evolved. He is, my partner Troy is definitely the master of the doughnut recipe. When we first started, we you know it was him making the dough, I was working the front of the house and we had one person glazing doughnuts. We grew our shop to two locations and 20 plus employees before before the pandemic. Ironically, we’re back to the one location and me, my business partner and one employee again. And I love it.
Angela Giovine 20:10
And we should say we’re speaking right now in the middle of the pandemic.
Leslie Polizzotto 20:14
Angela Giovine 20:14
So has that all changed during the pandemic?
Leslie Polizzotto 20:18
Yes, we had two locations, we were driving- we were making everything in our West Village location, a van, driving them up two or three times a day. We had employees up there, we had employees-
Angela Giovine 20:27
Where was the second location?
Leslie Polizzotto 20:28
Up nears Natural Park, Carnegie Hall area, and I was miserable. I I was not happy. It was so weird because our plan was always to grow and expand to more locations, and when we did that, I actually it was so stressful and so just not fun. It became not fun.
Angela Giovine 20:50
What made it not fun?
Leslie Polizzotto 20:53
Because you have to depend on lots of people to A make the doughnut, B care about what they’re doing, show up, not call out, you know, no one’s going to care as much as you do. And when you have 20 people that don’t care as much as you do, and you’re a type A personality like me, it it almost ruins you. You just you stress, all you do is you know, worry about things, and I right before the pandemic, I swear I was, I was happy our business was growing, but it was growing in a way that I it was just too stressful. I felt like we weren’t managing it appropriately. I felt like people were kind of, I don’t know, I just felt like it kind of get got away from us a little bit- not the product, but just the management of the business. And when the pandemic hit, we took a look around and said, “We can’t have all these people, obviously, we’re gonna have to lay everybody off”. We kept our one pastry chef Maddy Chunka, who is a professional pastry chef and is responsible for making our doughnuts beautiful. And she, she’s trained. It’s us three and we hustle five days a week and we’re doing it. And we’re it’s like we started over. It’s it’s really weird. And I’ve been so happy because I have more control over it. And I’m actually participating in making the doughnuts and selling the doughnuts again, and not just coming in and checking in on things and collecting money and stuff like that, you know, it’s just very refreshing to actually be hands on again.
Angela Giovine 22:19
Do you think that this will change your future in terms of your interest in growing in the long term? Or do you think it’s just a moment to pause and think about the way you want to grow
Leslie Polizzotto 22:32
It’s definitely a moment to pause and think about what the way we want to grow. We actually had a huge growth plan. We’ve been working with consultants to expand to other states, we license our brand, we actually have a licensee location in Saudi Arabia as we speak.
Angela Giovine 22:48
Leslie Polizzotto 22:48
And we, have been very close and we’re working with another licensee and another international scenario and they’re still interested so we’re still going to grow and grow domestically, with own stores or license stores when it makes sense. But as far as the business in New York, New York is a very, very, very small place. You think it’s big, but Manhattan is very tiny, and we will definitely take production off the islands when our lease is up in five years. There’s no reason to pay
Angela Giovine 23:21
West Village rent.
Leslie Polizzotto 23:22
$10,000 a month to make doughnuts. You can pay 2000, if you just go across the water, so we’re going to definitely make changes in the future. But also, we’ve learned a lot about how many people it actually takes to make a certain amount of doughnuts. We’re making the same amount of money with three people doing it. We were making with 15 people doing it.
Angela Giovine 23:43
You’re able to perfect that formula.
Leslie Polizzotto 23:46
Correct. So we’ve modified production, we actually are closed two days a week now. We used to be open seven days a week. Now we close Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesday is is a good day. Thursday’s a great day. But Friday through Sunday is spectacular. And we have a line out the door, and we make all our money in three days. And it’s like just changing the model of how you’re upgrading-
Angela Giovine 24:12
A whole 8020 rule, sure
Leslie Polizzotto 24:14
1,000% instead of being open seven days a week, paying people to do stuff that you’re not really, you know, you’re not breaking even on those days. So why do you open on those days, and then hustle on the other days? So we’re just we’re reorganizing our business model?
Angela Giovine 24:27
Leslie Polizzotto 24:27
And then the growth will come once the world comes out of this pandemic.
Angela Giovine 24:32
Sure. So these constraints have really challenged you to grow and really think through every single part of your process to be as optimized as possible.
Leslie Polizzotto 24:42
Definitely, definitely. Timing, hours of operation, our delivery platform, we use Postmates exclusively because we had other ones and they’re just were horrible. So a third of our business is through a third party delivery system through Postmates. A third of our business is on online pre orders. People order them and so they can just pick them up when they drive up. The other third, is the walk in take out traffic, that was the majority of our business before the pandemic.
Angela Giovine 25:09
Leslie Polizzotto 25:10
So it’s just interesting how the business is changing due to the world right now.
Angela Giovine 25:21
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Angela Giovine 27:50
Now we touched on this a little bit about being type A and trying to delegate things and what do you think you’ve learned as a result of that second Midtown location that you will be able to take with you the next time you go to grow? How do you take what you have as a culture of The Doughnut Project and and delegate that to your team?
Leslie Polizzotto 28:15
Well, I mean, it’s so funny because we always have tried to, you know, in 2019, my business partner and I said, we’re going to work on the business, not in the business. So I was no longer working behind the counter, he was no longer making doughnuts in the kitchen. And, you know, we thought that’s what we needed to do in order to focus on growing. To a degree, I think that’s, that’s true, but I feel like I removed myself too far from the day to day, and I feel like that the workers, especially at the second location, just they needed to be managed more. And we’ve tried to, you know hire a store manager. They never work out. You know, it’s crazy like nobody, we can’t use- hard to find good people. It really is. Especially in the food industry, it’s not, it’s not like you’re a waiter in some five star restaurant where you’re going to make, you know, $1,000 in tips a week, it’s you know.
Angela Giovine 29:12
Well, that’s what’s always fascinated me about like Starbucks because you go into a Starbucks, and they’re always happy and you’re like, is it the caffeine? I’m not sure. Is it the caffeine? Is it the benefits package? But like, to I’m always fascinated, because yes, you’re right. It’s a part time job. There’s not you’re not necessarily married to that career path. But how do you take that core corporate culture and distill it into people to help them believe what you believe?
Leslie Polizzotto 29:40
I mean, it’s its starts with myself and my business partner Troy. I mean, our concept we we like to have fun, it’s all about, you know, pop culture and food and cocktails and having fun and seeing us and how much we love what we do. We want to inspire our employees that that this is a fun place to work, you could be working at Party City and it would suck. You know, you’re at The Doughnut Project where food tours come in. And people from all over the world visit our shop. We filmed us TV shows in there, we filmed videos about our us, you can maybe and be on TV. Like we have a cool place to work. Come work for us, and you know, we’ve gotten some good people. But then you get the people who call out all the time, or and that just throws a monkey wrench in everything because it’s not like you have, we’re not Starbucks where we have, you know, thousands of employees on call that if somebody calls out somebody could step in, we had to keep it as a tight a shift as possible. I mean New York, the minimum wage was is now $15 an hour. So I know that’s not a lot of money, but it’s a lot of money when you’re paying more than that because we do pay more than that to 20 people, a week. My payroll, you know, is running like $40,000 a month.
Angela Giovine 30:59
Right. And that’s a lot of doughnuts.
Leslie Polizzotto 31:00
A lot of doughnuts, especially when you got rent and lights and the ingredients and paper products-
Angela Giovine 31:06
Insurance and God knows what of.
Leslie Polizzotto 31:07
Yeah, it’s so hard. It’s so hard to make money. But we’re fine tuning things. I mean, this pandemic really was like the restart button on our business and I feel like we are going to come out a brand on the other side A that survived it, and B is stronger and smarter.
Angela Giovine 31:26
Yeah. Now you mentioned that you did shut down one location. Were you thinking about shutting it down prior to the pandemic already?
Leslie Polizzotto 31:32
Nope. And we probably wouldn’t and we would have just kept dealing with
Angela Giovine 31:36
It would have been the dead weight.
Leslie Polizzotto 31:38
You know, it was starting to do really well and actually it was making more money than our original location.
Angela Giovine 31:44
Leslie Polizzotto 31:44
but but the clientele was completely different. It was office workers picking up doughnuts for offices in Midtown, and tourists. Tourists is not destination tourists that follow us on Instagram and came in from Scotland and they come to our shop. It was just normal people walking around-
Angela Giovine 32:01
They happen to be near Carnegie Hall.
Leslie Polizzotto 32:02
Yeah. And said, “Oh, what’s this? Let’s just get a doughnut”. So that was our main clientele. Okay, nobody’s coming to New York now to visit, there’s no tourists. And the offices are closed here, and there’s no idea when they’re going to open. I mean, a lot of companies are considering not having their employees come back.
Angela Giovine 32:20
I know, at all, right.
Leslie Polizzotto 32:21
It’s very long time.
Angela Giovine 32:21
Leslie Polizzotto 32:23
You take your main market out of the shop, and it’s like, we can’t have this place. Like it’s, we gotta we gotta, it’s done. It’s over.
Angela Giovine 32:34
But you bring up a really interesting juxtaposition there because I don’t know had you not had those two locations, you might not have been able to see how different the West Village consumer was from your Midtown consumer. And now you have that information. So as move forward, you can kind of look for places that are similar that attract those similar West Village consumers. Is that something that you’re focusing on?
Leslie Polizzotto 33:04
Well, the Uptown location had thousands of people walking by it every day. So you would get who what’s this? Let’s go in here. It’s cool. Looks cool inside.
Angela Giovine 33:13
Cast the wide net check.
Leslie Polizzotto 33:14
Yeah, on our street in the West Village, nobody walks on it unless they’re coming to us. We’re like quiet real street
Angela Giovine 33:14
Leslie Polizzotto 33:21
either live there, or they’re coming to see us, so we’re a destination and we’re a destination because of our social media following, because we’ve been on TV shows in Japan and and France and we have people come in and they’re like we saw you on TV in France. I mean, it’s unbelievable that the press we got, which A didn’t pay for any of it. It was all came to us.
Angela Giovine 33:43
Leslie Polizzotto 33:44
has literally built us a global brand. Our brand is globally known to China, Japan everywhere.
Angela Giovine 33:51
Let’s talk a little bit more about that because so many small businesses aspire to what you have accomplished with your Instagram and you have attributed so much of your success to it. Tell me about how you approach social media.
Leslie Polizzotto 34:06
When I I was telling you when we first started, I would just invite influencers. This was a long time ago when influencers were just starting out, they didn’t get paid. They just wanted product, and that whole market has changed. It’s obviously a completely different thing.
Angela Giovine 34:20
Now they all have agents.
Leslie Polizzotto 34:22
Right, now there’s agents and they want to get paid and-
Angela Giovine 34:25
An entire industry.
Leslie Polizzotto 34:26
Yeah, it’s yeah, it’s a new career path. We’re not paying you. I’m just I refuse. I’m like, I’m not paying anybody. So I just have to put out good content. And I take very good pride and the pictures I take, it’s all on my iPhone, the consistency I do, I just think my our pictures we have a large enough audience that we continue to grow. I’m growing 1000 followers, almost 1000 followers a week. It used to take me a month to get 1000 followers. And I know the pandemic advised at home, looking on their phone, and that probably has a lot to do with it, but I’ve capitalized off of that. And I’ve consistently posted stories and posts, I tag a lot of food
Angela Giovine 34:30
Use a lot of hashtag?
Leslie Polizzotto 34:37
Use a lot of hashtags, and it’s just good content.
Angela Giovine 35:18
Are you or were you tagging influencers or media companies, especially early on in order to get their attention?
Leslie Polizzotto 35:25
Yes, yes, 100%. And you know, food network, they they knew who we were because of our Instagram, like that’s how we we were known. Now before the pandemic, you know, Instagram has completely changed. Not only is the influencer market completely different where people get paid to promote your product. Instagram has algorithms where although, you know, I had 110,000 followers like it seemed like just yesterday. Not all hundred and ten thousand followers saw my post when I picture when I posted it, probably 5% of it so what. So you know, Instagram did everything they could to capitalize and make you pay and do ads and stuff like that. And quite frankly, I was kind of struggling with that before the pandemic, I was like, you know, I guess we need to start boosting posts and doing that because we weren’t growing as quick as I wanted to. I don’t know if they’ve changed the algorithms or if it’s just the pandemic, but like I mentioned, I am growing my my followers very significantly over the ever since the pandemic happened.
Angela Giovine 36:27
Do you find more success in what you put out? Or are you also engaging with people on social media platforms? Are you commenting to other people, liking other people’s posts?
Leslie Polizzotto 36:37
We definitely like when we first started, I didn’t like anybody stuff. Like never like, I was like, “Oh, I guess I should probably, you know, comment on their comment to us”. So I respond to most every single comment, I at least like their comment, or I respond to their comment and a lot of people actually ask you know, good questions like “Oh, are you guys open on this day? Or Will you have this doughnut on this day?”, you know, like it’s a way to communicate with our, with our people that actually come to our shop. So it’s just kind of a useful tool to communicate. Every weekend, we do a weekend special, even now, we do a doughnut for Friday, Saturday and Sunday that’s only available on those three days.
Angela Giovine 37:18
That’s really smart.
Leslie Polizzotto 37:19
And it totally drives business. Everybody wants to have it and they come and get it. That’s another thing that we kind of started, and it’s difficult because the more flavors you have, the more complicated it is and the different types of doughs and just coordinating everything. It’s it’s it’s more challenging, the more new stuff you have all the time, but it’s worth it to us because it’s what we’re known for. And people will come every weekend to get what we what were doing
Angela Giovine 37:46
Limited quantity invites a sense of urgency. So-
Leslie Polizzotto 37:50
Angela Giovine 37:50
even if someone was on defense about whether or not they wanted a doughnut all of a sudden they have to contend in their brain with I may never get to try that flavor, if I don’t go this weekend.
Leslie Polizzotto 38:00
Exactly and we’ve actually tried to, you know, in the pandemic we’ve tried to touch on alot of nostalgic like flavors and and and kind of steered away from more of our challenging flavors. We’ve done some crazy stuff. We’ve done a, you know, a restaurant series where we do doughnuts inspired by dishes from restaurants, we’ve done a cocktail series, we partner with restaurants all the time and create special doughnuts inspired by a dish they do. We’ve we’ve done some crazy stuff, but we’ve kind of taken it back to basics, but also tried to to put in a little bit of fun, nostalgia, cookies and cream or you know, like something a little more simple that we wouldn’t have done before. But people just love it and want it. Like we’re going to do something with like banana pudding this weekend. And it’s just going to hit everybody’s “Oh, my grandma’s banana pudding”. Oh, I gotta have that kind of thing. So that’s another like, it’s we want to eat it too. So that’s why we’re doing it, but it just really strikes a chord with a lot of our customers.
Angela Giovine 39:00
Let’s talk more about your co founder relationship. How has that helped. Being a small business owner, having someone to bounce things off of and go through this, you know, time with, you know, the ups and the downs. Like you said, you’re you’re very much a yin and yang combination. And I actually had a business partner for eight years. She was She is my sister. And we always said that the ups one of if one of us was having a really down day, it really helped us level out. And and I think there’s a lot to be said, for having a co founder talk about that.
Leslie Polizzotto 39:36
I could not speak more highly of my co founder, Troy Neil than anybody and I’m so fortunate because it could have gone so bad. I was like this blonde attorney from LA and he was like this hipster dude from New York bartender with tattoos all over him. But he’s the nicest guy in the world. We get along great. We have an absolute blast. He brought more of the fun hospitality like kind of freewheeling, easygoing side of things. And I brought the structure, planning, staying focused, making sure everything gets- our bills get paid and because I handle everything, I handle all the bills, all the payroll, I handle everything. And I always say if we were both like him, we would have failed. If we were both like me, we would have failed. I always recommend to people when they ask me advice on, you know, partners or co founders, I say find someone who has skills that you do not, because you need to have a more well rounded team, and you can both bring something to the table. Neither one of us had owned our own business, but I did come from a corporate background. So I knew Oh, you have payroll. Oh, you have to pay taxes. Oh, you have, you know, you have to do correspondence to the people who communicate to you and oh, I need to follow up these people that want to partner with us, you know, structure and he brought the fun, fun to the to the brand. And, you know, we’ve kind of rubbed off on each other, like I mentioned, he’s seems to embrace the structure a little bit more, and I’m learning to have a lot more fun. So I, you know, I could not imagine doing this by myself. I I really think it makes sense. I’m usually the one that’s having the anxiety and the stress and he’s the the voice of reason and kind of fun and makes me laugh. But once in a while, he will get this the stressed out and everything. And I become, you know, like the make light and make things better or offer suggestions to to make him feel better. But yeah, you definitely have to have someone to bounce your stresses and your anxieties, your worries off of.
Angela Giovine 41:47
I, like you came from a corporate background so one thing that really struck me going out of my own was, when you’re in a big corporation, they you do you performance reviews or whatever and they tell you your strength, of ABC and D and they tell you your weaknesses of EFG and then, they ask you to make EF and G, better. They instead of focusing on your strength they ask you to work on your weaknesses. And I think one big pivot when you become a small owner is you say,
“Screw the weaknesses, I’m going to focus on my strength and I’m going to find someone who has that weakness of mine and it is their strength. And like you said, just trying to find that naturally and then it becomes your stronger duo.
Leslie Polizzotto 42:32
Definitely, 100% but it’s funny how you mentioned the the performers review. I I’m deep in a corporate culture my whole life and I thrive on it. I love the performers reviews, and I love being the best and I love getting all the, you know the checks and “Oh, you only need to improve on this” and then improving on that because you know I’m that kind of crazy person.
Angela Giovine 42:55
Leslie Polizzotto 42:55
And when you own your own business, there’s nobody telling you “A you’re doing so good, oh, you get our check mark, oh you get here, you get your raise”.
Angela Giovine 43:03
These are the rules in which we are grading you on.
Leslie Polizzotto 43:05
Yeah. Here are the rules, here’s how you’ve done, here’s your promotion, nothing. No. It’s you got to figure it out. I mean every day I will go in and then be like
“Okay, do this research, write this brief, go to this court appearance, do this do that and I would do it, perfectly. But you went to the doughnut shop, Oh the internet’s broke or oh the Dairyland didn’t bring ricotta for the beaf and ricotta doughnut, now we go to go find it. Like every day there’s some new challenge that you have to figure out. There’s no rules, you just have to everyday you have to just make it through the day.
Angela Giovine 43:43
Right, and you don’t get to put that accomplishment on your list for your performance review either you just sort or pat yourself on the back, go home and say ” Well at least we didn’t fail today”.
Leslie Polizzotto 43:53
I know it’s so funny when I’ve been helping more with like actually making the doughnuts like frying and flipping the doughnuts, and I I glazed doughnuts every day now and I’m always like “Oh look how beautiful this doughnut is, don’t I it’s the most beautiful doughnut, don’t I get a gold star?” Because I used to thrive on recognition and you know someone being, acknowledging your hardwork. No one acknowledges anything you do, when you’re on your own business.
Angela Giovine 44:18
Leslie Polizzotto 44:18
It is it is just get it done-
Angela Giovine 44:21
Unless you do something wrong, then they acknowledge it.
Leslie Polizzotto 44:24
Oh really. So yeah that was a big change for me. Getting that that corporate structure is that’s completely just it that’s not the case in a small business. You just you have to do it all.
Angela Giovine 44:35
So to that end, what is the most gratifying thing about being a small business owner, for you?
Leslie Polizzotto 44:41
For me, it’s making people happy. I used to do insurance coverage litigation which was sounds horrible but it wasn’t. It was actually a great learning experience. I represented the insurance company, when they would deny a claim. And the policy holder would sue the insurance company to get coverage. So I literally represented the devil. Like AIP, and like all these companies that you hear their names and you’re like “Urrrrr insurance company uh…”
Angela Giovine 45:10
Leslie Polizzotto 45:10
So it was very negative environment you dealt with crappy plaintiff’s attorneys who were mean and confrontational. So it was always like the stress and negativity and you have to be perfect and and when you’re a lawyer, you can’t make mistakes you’ll get sued. You’ll lose your license. So yeah, I mean it’s a alot of pressure. Doughnuts, make people happy. They’re fun. No no one’s been mad at a doughnut. When you bring doughnuts to an office meeting, I’ve been on the other side, the make people happy. You observe, everyone’s mood changes and everybody starts laughing and talking and they kind of congregate around the doughnuts, and they start talking about them, what they look like and all each one of you going to have. And it’s a positive, happy thing. So that’s what I enjoyed most about my business when I particularly chose doughnuts, that it’s it’s a positive happy thing. It’s not something that happens when someone’s depressed or scared or anything. It’s it’s a positive thing. And I like being a positive anything to anyone. I love our customers would come in and say “Oh you have the best doughnuts, we love your doughnuts.” It’s just feel good. When you get the little positive reinforcement, which I thrive on, every little second at like any piece of that I get from a customer it just it makes it all worth it. Even if it kind of crappy day. If someone says something good about your doughnuts, you just feel like “Okay, this was all worth it”.
Angela Giovine 46:31
What are your aspirations both, you know, for your business, and for the future and where do you look for those aspirations are people or businesses that you look up to?
Leslie Polizzotto 46:42
Yeah, I mean I I love the foodie world. I mean we, partner with restaurants and work with very prominent chefs, we’ve worked with like James Beard award winning chefs, and Michelin Star restaurants, to do collaborations with and and that, I just think that’s the greatest thing in the world. That that to me is wonderful. I love being a part of the food industry. And I I love I love food televisions, I love doing televiosion, I really admire people like Christy Gatosi or you know people who have a food business and then they turn it into something more fun too, like podcast or TV shows or something. I like that. We’ve been very close to a TV show twice
Angela Giovine 47:26
Leslie Polizzotto 46:47
about our about our business. And something always like happens like a pandemic. And it just like – everything. And were we have a lot of fun and I think people would like to see the backside of what were like who we are and what we’re doing. I would like to see that’s true. I would like our business to expand internationally as planned and is going to happen hopefully, and continue to happen. And I would love to have more stores in other states. Not every state, just maybe 2 or 3 states that makes sense. We have our eyes on several places that we think we could crush it. Here in New York, we are one of a million choices for that treat, for that and it’s not just doughnuts. There’s cookie dough, there’s waffles, there’s ice cream, there’s everything in the world. And we would love to go to like a town where there’s just not that much there, you know really successful brand, and be that successful brand, and just kill it and be the that the one. So being a big fish in a small pond is something we’re looking to do.
Angela Giovine 48:30
I could talk to you for hours, there so many more questions but I will finish with these last 2 questions. I would not be standing here today, if not for blank.
Leslie Polizzotto 48:41
My husband, 1000%. When he met me, I had never even been to college. I started college much later in life, I went to college, I transferred to UCLA. I graduated in 2004, I then said I want to go to law school. He supported that, I went to law school, I became an attorney, then I said “Oh I might want to do this doughnut thing”. And he’s always always supported anything I wanted to do. And that’s very rare, I know. But he’s the best guy in the world. And I’m so lucky to have him to support anything I wanted, I he encourages me to do these crazy things. Who who goes to law school at 38 years old? Not alot of people.
Angela Giovine 49:27
Yeah, that type of support is amazing to have and it really does help you become successful.
Leslie Polizzotto 49:33
I always had it in me but I was in a prior situation just never allowed to act on my ambitions and my drive. And when you have someone that supports that, and says you can do that, you can do anything, it your whole life changes. And-
Angela Giovine 49:49
Leslie Polizzotto 49:49
definitely he’s number 1 on my list of people to thank for where I am today.
Angela Giovine 49:55
And what’s one piece of advice you would give you 18 year old self?
Leslie Polizzotto 50:00
You will become something more than what you are right now. I mean when I was 18, all I cared about was partying and didn’t even want to go to college. I would tell myself, I wish I had done it sooner rather than later, it took me a long time. I took a unsual path, but I guess I would tell myself that straighten up because you have a lot to accomplish.
Angela Giovine 50:20
That’s awesome. Leslie, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciated learning about The Doughnut Project and where can everybody find you on instagram?
Leslie Polizzotto 50:29
We are The Doughnut Project, and doughnut is spelled out, it’s not the short version. It’s DOUGHNUT, and there’s the pesky the on the front, and we are located on 10 Morton Street, in the West Village. It’s in between Bleecker and Seventh Avenue. We have a very very cool shop, it’s got street art on the walls, chandeliers were super cool and fun, and look at our website, thedoughnutproject.com and definitely follow us on instagram and you can see all the fun stuff were doing.
Angela Giovine 51:00
Yes. It will make you hungry for sure.
Leslie Polizzotto 51:02
Angela Giovine 51:04
Thank you Leslie.
Leslie Polizzotto 51:05
Thank you so much.
Angela Giovine 51:06
And one more time, thank you and shout out to WP Engine, check them out and get your special offer today at extraordinarysmallbusiness.com backslash WP Engine.
Angela Giovine 51:22
Thanks for listening. For more information about our show and our company, head to extraordinarysmallbusiness.com. And don’t forget to follow us on Facebook or Instagram. We would be so grateful, If you could help us reach more listeners. All you have to do, is go to iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts and rate, review and subscribe. It would mean the world to us. Ratings, reviews, and subscribes our how iTunes decides which podcasts are worth sharing. Help us continue to bring these stories of extraordinary small business owners to the world. By rating, reviewing and subscribing, you’re helping our small business. It’s free and it takes just a minute. Thanks