“If I were to sell a really beautiful homemade, yeast-raised, cream-filled doughnut off a truck, would you buy one?” It was 2010, and Hannah Hoffman was conducting some non-scientific demographic research while peering out from the window of the popular fivetenburger truck parked in Emeryville near Pixar. The guy being questioned hemmed and hawed “Well, I’m not really a doughnut guy...’cause most doughnuts suck....” “Would you just try one?,” she asked, “If you don’t like it, just spit it out.” So he bit into the doughnut and, “Oh my God, these are just like the doughnuts l used to have as a kid on the Jersey Shore! There was an Italian bakery and they used to make these, like, Bombolino....” She shot back, “Would you pay three dollars for this doughnut?” Unequivocally, he responded, “Yes.”
When it comes to running her business, Hannah is, as she says, “...totally my own woman.” In the beginning she had a partner, and the original concept was for a dessert-oriented food truck. After some fits and starts, she ended up flying solo doing high-end catering under the name “Cibo per Strada,” Italian for ‘food on the street.’ The transformation to a focus on doughnuts happened totally by accident. When exploring the food truck concept, she aimed to find a dessert that wasn’t conventional like a cookie, which had a nostalgic quality, and where there was a craft involved in the making that created an opportunity for exceptional execution. She considered pies and even little bread puddings that could be handed out of a truck, then she thought, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never made a doughnut!” She picked a recipe from the Joy of Cooking, and it was good, mostly she thinks, because it was handmade. She started filling these first generation doughnuts with homemade jam and sometimes putting them on sticks - people loved them and she realized that she had hit upon something special.
Hannah has an insatiable curiosity, an educated interest in epistemology, and a graduate degree in food anthropology that informs her deep fascination with food as a cultural artifact and expression. Her mother was a pastry chef at Chez Panisse, and Hannah herself started working in the food industry as a teenager. Despite this rich background and experience, she has a child-like enthusiasm and delight that is completely unaffected. Every single time she sells a doughnut she is thrilled, “I’m selling donuts and people are paying for them. I never doubted that I was making something wonderful and delicious, but I am so overwhelmed by the memories of repast that come up around this product.” She believes that the best part of what she does is getting to listen to people share memories of their childhoods, families and tastes experienced in travels. She can’t imagine making beautiful food with the sole focus of consumption, and this viewpoint isn’t about haughty food snobbery, as Hannah says, “ I think my doughnut is very democratic - it goes the whole way and it has something for everyone who has enjoyed a fried treat in their life.”
Around the time Hannah started exploring other doughnut recipes, one of her mom’s old restaurant colleagues told her about an amazing doughnut she ate on a recent trip to Great Britain - it was described as light, yeasty, and chewy. This description triggered Hannah’s memory of the Doughnut Plant on the Lower East Side when she was a grad student at NYU. The Doughnut Plant was started in a basement and the doughnuts were delicious: chewy, yeasty, old-world style and not-too-sweet. Inspired, she experimented with a mixture of recipes and came up with what she calls the “Naughty Doughnut.” The ‘naughty’ part is a decadent crème fraîche filling called “Naughty Cream” which was developed by Heather Ho,* a pastry chef at Boulevard. Overnight, Hannah became the “Naughty Doughnut Lady,” and she likes the association since people often refer to treats they give themselves as “naughty;” a kind of childish term for doing something mischievous. For those who can appreciate oral fixations, there is also an erotic innuendo.
Hannah shares with me that she doesn’t collect souvenirs—she collects memories. While many people's histories are defined by events like births and deaths, her timelines are defined by experiences. She will remember a wonderful dinner at a restaurant, or particular meals like those on her 30th birthday, where the entire day was defined by what was eaten, and the meaning of that repast. When she sells food directly to people, it is valuable to her because it is a truly intimate experience and a memory in the making.
“People have chosen to eat my doughnuts. You know, one could say, chill out lady, they’re f---ing doughnuts.” She squints with intensity, and the pupils of her bright green eyes dilate to tiny black dots, “But I made them, and it is a sixteen-hour process (between proofing and risings and other activities) to make a doughnut from scratch." It is a labor of love—these aren’t the overly sweet confections created from the same big orange bag of mix that is delivered to doughnut shops around the country—Hannah’s are carefully tended, patted at times, and individually cut and weighed. She’s made over 2,000 doughnuts in the past year between experiments, parties and catering, and the process is both different and satisfying every time.
The most recent transformation of Hannah’s business into Doughnut Dolly is set to open in April 2012, just look for her store front in "Alley 49" on 482 49th Street in Oakland. Hannah chose this name to honor the women, “Doughnut Dollies,” who served doughnuts and coffee to troops from Red Cross Clubmobile trucks throughout two World Wars. Until Doughnut Dolly opens, you can find her Naughty Doughnut pop-ups by checking out the Cibo per Strada and Doughnut Dolly Facebook announcements. She has a pretty regular pop-up presence at Cosecha on Friday evenings.
Fast-forward to a year after Hannah’s initial informal market research from the fivetenburger truck. She was selling Naughty Doughnuts at a First Friday event in Oakland when the original “doughnut doubter” walked up to her, and exclaimed that he finally found her. It took a moment for her to realize that he was the guy from the burger truck—in the past year he had grown a beard. He told her that he had been thinking about her doughnuts for that entire year, and was disappointed that she never returned to sell the doughnuts on the truck. She actually had returned to the truck one time, and while it was fun, it had been too difficult to organize for the long-term. He invited her to sell Naughty Donuts at an event he was organizing at the West Oakland train station, and now they talk all the time. “I couldn’t believe it, he was so thrilled!, Hannah shared, "Experiences like that really touch my heart, my brain and my being as authentic, and very important.”
*(The history of Heather Ho, the originator of “Naughty Cream” ended on a tragic note. She left Boulevard to become pastry chef for Windows of the World in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and died on September 11, 2001.)