For most of us, it started with warm cinnamon doughnuts after school, or Homer Simpson’s preferred take, with hot-pink icing from Donut King. As far as American-style doughnuts go, these versions were what Australia understood doughnuts to be through the ’80 and ’90s.
That was then. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a proliferation of vendors who make those school-day snacks seem quaint in the extreme. A 2016-style doughnut is either a saccharine, over-the-top treat piled high with chocolates, lollies and pretzels, or a simpler – but no less creative – version with gourmet, seasonal glazes. Whether it’s a vegan pumpkin-maple doughnut, a sour-grape-and-cream glazed that’s topped with popping candy or a crème brulee flavour, there is an Australian doughnut shop that caters to your desires.
According to the Smithsonian (the world’s largest museum and research complex), what we now know as doughnuts came to America in the mid-19th century thanks to European immigrants. By World War One they had become so popular that female volunteers were delivering them to US soldiers (who came to be known as “doughboys”) in the trenches in France, to “give them a taste of home”. During the 1934 World Fair in Chicago, doughnuts made by machine were named "the food hit of the Century of Progress". In the two decades that followed, the likes of Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts made the dessert snack a part of daily life.
“They were big in the ’80s and ’90s [in Australia] and they kind of faded out. Now they’ve come back hugely,” says Tim Salmon, co-owner of Adelaide vegan bakery Cherry Darlings. Since opening in June 2014, Cherry Darlings now makes 500–700 doughnuts a week to meet demand. According to Salmon, doughnuts have taken the place of the cupcakes Australians were crazy for five years ago. Similar to that fad, Australia’s current doughnut scene borrows heavily from the US. Anthony Ivey from Shortstop Doughnuts and Coffee in Melbourne and Sydney; Damian Griffiths of Doughnut Time; and Paul Aron of Mary Street Bakery in Perth all ventured Stateside for inspiration before launching. None of them anticipated the response.
“We planned to sell 300–350 doughnuts a day, but in the first week we quickly found out that wasn’t enough,” says Shortstop’s Ivey. That stepped up to 1000 a day, “and it’s remained that way”, Ivey says.
Most of these doughnut shops started out small, with a single-product focus. All have expanded – their range of flavours, their customer base, the number of stores … and they’re still growing. Most notable is Doughnut Time, which has opened 22 kiosks in 15 months and plans to open more, potentially moving overseas to Japan.
Needless to say, aesthetics are integral to the doughnut success story – they have to photograph well.
“They’re decadent,” says Griffiths, of his Doughnut Time doughnuts. “We don’t compromise on that. We stick to the style; we change the flavours; and every week we release two new ones.”
Shortstop does the opposite. For Ivey, it’s all about balance: “overboard” doughnuts aren’t his prerogative. “We’re not trying to shock people,” he says.
Kate Williams of Brisbane’s vegan doughnut store, Nodo, believes that, for her doughnuts, design intention and flavour go hand-in-hand. Nodo’s flavours include a blueberry-ricotta version with lemon cheesecake and pistachio. Despite such delicious-sounding combinations, she understands as well as anyone that it is the visual which propels social media.
The next stage in the evolution of doughnuts in Australia appears to be health-conscious, animal-product-free and intolerance-friendly options. Nodo (pronounced “no dough”) has sold gluten-free doughnuts from its November 2015 get-go.
“People are now learning that [being vegan] doesn’t actually affect the flavour or taste,” says Salmon. “From a marketing point of view, it’s perfect, because it gets the vegans on board but doesn’t scare off non-vegans, which has always been the hard part.”
And how do they plan to stay relevant after the hype slows down?
“It’s something that doesn’t cost the world, that makes people feel nice. That’s what will be left,” says Aron. “I don’t think Australians will be as obsessed with doughnuts as Americans are. But you never know.”