Destination Doughnuts hopes to raise expectations around the common Canadian pastry
Thanks to a certain Canadian-based multinational corporation, we have more doughnut shops per capita than any other country. With nearly 4,000 of them coast to coast (including more than 125 in Edmonton alone), the iconic chain has made doughnuts the bestselling pastry item in Canada.
By doing so, “They really destroyed the doughnut,” says Arlyn Sturwold (Baking ’72, Steamfitter/Pipefitter ’09). Mass production, he argues, has lowered people’s expectations of how doughnuts should look and taste.
With his daughter Jill Sturwold (Lab and X-ray Technology Combined ’97) as his business partner, Arlyn hopes to change that at Destination Doughnuts. Now open on Edmonton’s 124 Street, a hip commercial district, the shop’s mission is to create “unapologetic, delicious gourmet doughnuts,” with flavours as diverse and innovative as French Toast and the chocolate dipped, potato chip-encrusted Triple Threat.
The good thing about the doughnut-industrial complex, though, is that it may have created a reactionary artisanal doughnut boom. Fancy specimens are capturing attention on social media, tours are being built around them in some cities, and doughnut walls are popping up at events. At the same time, however, Destination Doughnuts has arrived at a time when the Edmonton market already hosts several fancy, Big Doughnut alternatives.
But Arlyn isn’t worried. For one thing, almost everybody loves doughnuts. For another, the man knows his dough.
Full circle – a doughnut maker’s journey
Arlyn knew he wanted to be a baker since he was a kid, and opened his first bakery in 1975 in Spruce Grove when he was 25. But ending up in the profession at 67 years old involved several stops, and detours, along the way.
He sold that first venture, got into supply sales, got out, and started over with a shop on Whyte Avenue in the ’90s. Then he left the business again, this time coaxed into pipefitting by his then-son-in-law. In 2009, at the age of 59, he became the oldest newly ticketed pipefitter journeyman in the province. After the company he was working for relocated, he decided to give baking another shot – with some encouragement from Jill.
In February 2017, he got a surprise call from his daughter. She was sitting in a park in Toronto while visiting for work (she’s still involved in occupational health and safety and based in Edmonton), eating what she said was their new venture.
“I was like, ‘This is the absolute best doughnut I've ever had in my life,’” Jill recalls. “I had so much excitement and I wanted to describe the dough, even. It was just so light and airy – perfection, really. That was the start of it: Could we make a business out of this?”
"Could we make a business out of this?”
They agreed that they could. Arlyn would focus mainly on the bakery and operations, while Jill would put most of her time into administration and marketing.
With all of Arlyn’s experience with bakeries, the business plan came easily. Finding the right location didn’t. He wanted a space with bright, east-facing windows, so customers could soak up the warm morning sun while enjoying a treat picked from a glass display case. He finally found that place just west of downtown Edmonton.
In the last days of November 2017, Arlyn opened the doors of his third, and perhaps most bold, baking business.
Highly specialized, highly inventive
At about $36 for a dozen, Destination doughnuts are definitely more expensive than a box of mass-produced treats from the big guys. The price has raised eyebrows on review sites as well. But there’s a reason for it, says Arlyn.
Each batch follows a strict fermentation regimen. While it can be tempting to rush this process – especially when demand outstrips supply, as it did after a morning television feature on National Doughnut Day this past June – Arlyn emphasizes that patience is critical to the development of the dough’s flavour and structure.
After that, they’re carefully fried and hand-decorated. In addition to all that time and effort, top quality ingredients used at every step aren’t cheap either.
Despite the challenge of convincing people to pay more, Arlyn isn’t worried. He sees being specialized as an advantage already proven out in Edmonton. He points to Zwick's Pretzels and Northern Fried Chicken just down the street as examples of businesses that have picked one product and done it well, and thereby established a devoted customer base.
Even if businesses devote themselves to one thing, Max Frank, director of NAIT’s Mawji Centre for New Venture and Student Entrepreneurship says their success lies in their capacity for reinvention. This is particularly true in the highly competitive hospitality industry, and even more so in its niches, which can quickly become crowded. Businesses need to stay a couple steps ahead of their target audience if they want to stay relevant, says Frank.
Luckily for the Sturwalds, doughnuts are highly adaptable, and Arlyn and Jill have been steadily brainstorming: seasonal flavours, mini-doughnut packs, waffle doughnuts, doughnut breakfast sandwiches.
That may be enough to hold the interest of customers, but will it be enough to hold Arlyn’s?
The Sturwolds have a five-year lease on their space, with the option of renewal. That reflects Arlyn’s attitude to the venture, and the role it’s playing in his life. With Destination Doughnuts, he’s arrived at place where he seems content to stay a while.
“I run into a lot of people my age but we're all still young yet, because if we can live our passion, it keeps anyone young,” he says. “So that's where I'm at now. I'm really happy. It's not very hard physically on me and it's enjoyable because people come in here and they love the product.”