Editor’s Note: This is one of seven women entrepreneurs named to our Fearless #Over50 list.
Lots of ideas can come to a person when they are sitting at the bar, chatting with a bartender. Not all of them are as life-altering as this one.
A few years back, Leslie Polizzotto was a Los Angeles attorney practicing insurance coverage litigation — “It sounds boring, but it was actually pretty exciting,” she says — when she started accompanying her husband, a real estate developer, on business trips to New York. They’d eat at the bar at Eataly, a gourmet Italian marketplace in New York’s Flatiron district.
She’d talk with Troy Neal, a bartender at Eataly who had dreams of starting his own food venture. One evening, “he told me he wanted to open a doughnut shop,” Polizzotto says. “I pulled out my phone and showed him all the pictures of doughnuts I had.”
Long story short, insurance coverage litigation went out the window.
A short time later, Polizzotto and her husband moved to New York City — and she contacted Neal. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to open my own practice and sit in a WeWork office,”” she recalls. “Why don’t I do that doughnut thing with Troy and see how it goes?” The two wrote up a business plan, raised $300,000 in startup financing from friends and family (as well as their own bank accounts), and opened The Doughnut Project in New York City’s West Village in 2015.
[Related: Listen to our podcast about a woman starting a snack bar company]
Discovered Via Instagram
Polizzotto, now 51, says her life has completely changed. “I had a whole closet full of suits that I had to get rid of — now I wear jeans and shirts with the store name,” she says. In the beginning, when the store’s first customers trickled in, she worked the front counter. “I never thought I’d be pulling shots and making lattés,” says the former litigator. But, “I love it, and I would never go back to working for someone else and sitting in an office 10 hours a day.”
What makes The Doughnut Project successful, Polizzotto says, is its artisanal take on the traditional fried dough recipe. The store is decidedly not Dunkin’ Donuts or Krispy Kreme. “We take inspiration from food and cocktails,” she says. “We use sesame seeds and ricotta cheese and beets — real food ingredients.”
In fact, four months after the shop opened, the duo came up with the “everything doughnut” –a doughnut topped with a light cream cheese glaze, roasted poppy seeds, black and white sesame seeds, pepitas and a hint of garlic and sea salt. “It literally changed our lives overnight,” she says.
They invited social media influencers to try the everything doughnut — and one posted a photo on Instagram. The New York blog Gothamist spotted it, tried it, and waxed poetic. (From the February 2016 review: “When you bite into an Everything Donut, its toppings fall to the ground like the memories of so many lesser donuts.”) “Our phone started ringing off the hook ABC, Wall Street Journal — all the daytime talk shows,” Polizzotto says.
[Related: 16 Popular Small Business Ideas for Women Entrepreneurs]
Creating the ‘Weekend Special’
Today, The Doughnut Project has two locations, 24 employees and over $500,000 in annual revenue. “We are just now profitable this year,” Polizzotto says, who adds that the stress level of her current job is comparable to her last one. “Our expenses are so outrageous,” she says “Every single day is a challenge.” But she enjoys that. “It definitely fuels me,” she says. “If I’m not challenged or trying to reach a goal — I get very bored or depressed.”
Polizzotto also loves the creative environment of the doughnut shop, which itself is an artsy, funky space with chandeliers and graffiti on the walls. And every weekend, she and Neal come up with a “weekend special” doughnut, sometimes partnering with local chefs. For instance, they recently teamed up with James Beard Award winner Missy Robbins to concoct a doughnut with honey, olive oil and fennel pollen. Other creations have featured bone marrow and shallots.
“It pushes the boundaries,” she says. “It really drives business.” She and Neal are currently working on a pilot about the weekend special, which she hopes will be picked up by a television network.
She advises aspiring food entrepreneurs — especially those who are contemplating entrepreneurship later in life — to make sure they have the support of family before making the leap, because starting up “will take up 24/7” of your time. Find a partner who has complementary skills — and plan on working hard. “We will literally do whatever it takes to get the job done,” she says. “We’re both working our tails off for it.”