Doughnuts, Bagels, and Marketing
Brand building lessons from craving something sweet
Several months ago, I really wanted a doughnut.
After walking around downtown Princeton with my husband and poking our heads into bakeries and coffee shops, nothing fit the bill. I very rarely eat doughnuts, so my standards were high.
I went home doughnut-less but not defeated. Then, I pulled out my phone and searched for “best doughnuts in Princeton.” A few clicks brought me to the story of Curiosity Doughnuts.
Curiosity Doughnuts had its humble beginnings back in 2015 when husband and wife food bloggers, chefs, consultants, and cookbook authors Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa opened a stand at a weekend farmer’s market in New Jersey. As the story goes, they went through 15 versions of their doughnut recipe before settling on the best possible one. Oh, and they were living in New Hampshire at the time — seven hours away.
In 2018, with a home in Pennsylvania and a loyal following at the market, they opened up a stand inside a nearby(ish) Whole Foods. And then, in July 2019, they opened up a second Whole Foods stand — a 10-minute drive from my front door. It’s only open on Saturdays and Sundays, so I made a plan to go the following Saturday.
The employees working at the stand seemed as excited to be working there as I was to be standing at the counter. They carefully went over all the flavor options with me and shared their personal favorites. I went with two flavors: milk and cookies and blackberry glazed with crumbs on top. They even let me purchase the few other groceries I was buying right at the doughnut counter so I wouldn’t have to stand in a second line.
Oh, and the doughnuts? They were incredible. Easily the best I’ve ever eaten.
Here are five things that can quickly turn me into a loyal fan of something:
- A great story.
- Creative food that tastes as good as it looks (remove the creativity and it still has to be amazing).
- Convenience (I’m not the biggest fan of driving…yes, even when doughnuts are involved).
- Great customer service.
- Getting to tell people when I find all of these things in one place.
Flash forward to a few days ago. My mother-in-law announced that a new bagel place just opened a three-minute drive (or 15-minute walk) from our front door — on National Bagel Day to be exact. There are other great bagel places in the area, but the convenience factor couldn’t be beat here.
I immediately looked them up on Instagram. The first photo was of a concoction called “fruity pebble donut overload.” The second was a rainbow bagel with sprinkles called “sugar cookie overload.” There was “cookie monster overload” with blue cream cheese, chocolate chip cookies, and Oreos. For those who prefer something savory, there was the “Flaming Hot Cheetos overload” featuring ghost pepper cream cheese and Cheetos stuffed inside.
Creativity: check. You have my interest, new bagel place that doesn’t even require getting into the car. I’m not sure about the founder’s story, except that he wanted to open a bagel place as a teenager and achieved that goal at 24. But the creativity was undeniable.
The shop’s original location is in a New Jersey town half an hour away. Actually, said town is smack in the middle of where I grew up and where I live now. Still, I’d never heard of it.
Now it was here in Princeton. So my husband took 15 minutes out of his Saturday morning to procure us some bagels. I requested something creative but specified nothing more. He returned with a cinnamon toast crunch bagel paired with maple bacon cream cheese for me and an everything bagel with whitefish spread for himself. He likes to see how a food place performs with the simplest things on their menu before branching out. I dive head-first into the “this-sounds-weird-but-it-might-be-amazing” options. Actually, this is a pretty good representation of our personalities.
We took a few bits each and performed our analysis:
- His bagel was missing the hot sauce he asked for.
- Mine was very salty despite both the spread and bagel itself being described as sweet.
- Both bagels looked a little flat and burnt from toasting; they didn’t have the fluffy inside and glazed outside we love about New Jersey and New York bagels.
But then again, the convenience couldn’t be beat. It was only their third day open in this location, and the last time I passed the shop, it looked like construction wouldn’t be done for at least another month. Maybe they rushed the opening in time for National Bagel Day. They’re probably working things out with hiring and training still. The receptionist at our dentist (a couple of doors down from the bagel shop) went on opening day and said it was great. Better than the place we usually go to. It’s always possible the one person he ordered from was having an off day.
We quickly decided to give the shop a couple of weeks to get into the groove of things and then try again.
But as someone who works in marketing, it made me think, would other people have the same response? Let’s say this was a startup’s product launch instead of a bagel shop launch. In both cases, a team of people put serious time and money into building something they believed would succeed. How many factors would they need to get right to overshadow the things they got wrong?
I’m sure the answer to that question would be different depending on who you ask. But I’m also sure neither can afford to skimp on any of the five things that made me love Curiosity Doughnuts.
- A great story: The founders of Curiosity Doughnuts started with a lot of passion, a small stand at a weekend market, and the quest for doughnut perfection. They did their research and they took their time. If their reasons for doing what they do resonate with you, you probably want to see them be wildly successful. I know I do.
- Creativity that goes beyond the surface: Those doughnuts look great on Instagram. Their toppings are full of flavor and taste like they’re made with real ingredients. But I also found myself commenting as much on the doughnut itself as anything on top of it. If your foundation isn’t good underneath all that creativity, people will notice.
- Convenience: This one depends on your audience. Imagine you’re finishing up your weekend grocery run and come upon a stand full of beautiful doughnuts. Then you find out they’re made with quality ingredients and there are even some vegan options. Would you buy one? In the bagel example, the new shop isn’t right in the middle of the Princeton University campus. In fact, it’s a 25-minute walk away and I’ve been told that no student ventures that far. Yet students seem like a great market for these bagels.
- Great customer service: Whether you sell me a baked good or help me with product issues, I’m going to remember if you were kind and committed to having me walk away happy. If you were grumpy or judgmental, I’m going to remember it, too. I once went to a famous bagel place in New York and ordered a salt bagel with chocolate chip cream cheese. The person behind the counter scoffed and asked me multiple times if I was sure I wanted that. This was several years ago. While the bagel tasted delicious, the interaction left a bad taste in my mouth.
- Getting to tell people when you can find all of these things in one place: Something special that makes people want to say, “LOOK what I discovered!” Whether they say it online, say it in person, say it only once, or tell everyone they know.
Doesn’t matter if you sell doughnuts, bagels, makeup, clothes, or software. Doesn’t matter if you sell to people in your neighborhood at a local market, a global audience through your online store, or directly to other businesses. These. Things. Matter.