So, a lawyer and her husband walk into a bar and start talking to the bartender. They start bonding over their love of food and booze. Eventually, the lawyer and bartender decide to open up a doughnut shop in the West Village.
The lawyer and bartender are Leslie Polizzotto and Troy Neal, co-owners of The Doughnut Project—or, as we call it in the What Should We Do?! offices, Artisanal Sweet Treat Heaven—in the West Village. Since they’ve opened up shop two years ago, Polizzotto and Neal have been dominating the New York City doughnut scene, often selling out of their goods by the end of lunch.
WSWD?! chatted with them about The Doughnut Project’s current cocktail-inspired series, going viral, Instagram, and their favorite spots in New York City.
What Should We Do?!: Where did the inspiration for The Doughnut Project come from?
Troy Neal: Food. A love of food and booze, probably.
Leslie Polizzotto: Yes.
Neal: I was bartending at Eataly on 23rd Street, and Leslie and her husband, Gino, were regulars at the restaurant bar. So we started talking about food and doughnuts, and I said I wanted to open up a shop—this was five years ago, at least—and she busted out her phone and had all of these doughnut pictures on there. Then we tested out some recipes—they weren’t that good. They were on the right track, though, and we had maybe 80 different versions of a business plan that were not at all close to what The Doughnut Project is today.
Polizzotto: We spent so much time writing a business plan, but we had to have it look legit. We had the plan, but we were just guessing. We had no idea because neither one of us had ever been in business for ourselves before. He was a bartender, I was a lawyer. Neither one of us had ever owned a shop. So slowly but surely, through friends and family, we raised enough money to open.
WSWD: We want to know about your cocktail series.
Polizzotto: Well, we actually just finished a restaurant series where we had doughnuts inspired by restaurant dishes, and that was a huge success. When we first started talking about doing that, Troy immediately said he wanted to follow it with a cocktail series (since he was a bartender). It was just natural given his background—he has so much experience.
Neal: We have a few other little pieces that we use alcohol or specific liqueurs in, but this was, like, let’s go talk to these bars and restaurants; let’s use their cocktail and let’s try to mash it all up into a doughnut.
WSWD: Last week it was a doughnut inspired by a Death and Co. cocktail.
Polizzotto: Yes, and that one was probably the most stand-alone doughnut. It’s got a coffee and chocolate component to it. Most of the other ones we did are much more citrusy and pineapple-y. So it’s kind of the more unique one.
Neal: I think so. It has rum in it, too.
WSWD: So these doughnuts are actually infused with alcohol?
Polizzotto: Oh, yeah!
Neal: There is really alcohol in there.
Polizzotto: We use the ingredients that you would pour to make the cocktail to make either the glaze or the topping or the garnish or the filling. I mean, we have bottles of booze in the kitchen.
Neal: We try to make the doughnut look like the cocktail, too. The last one, which was from the Bennett, is served in a Collins glass with crushed ice coming out at the top with pineapple…we did pineapple meringue on the top with the pineapple, so it kind of had this look to it that, hopefully, emulated the cocktail.
Polizzotto: They’re also very beautiful doughnuts. We had a video done this morning, so we made all of the [cocktail series] doughnuts and placed them on a tray…they looked phenomenal.
WSWD: Even your space is beautiful. How did you guys decide on the design?
Polizzotto: Well, it all goes back to our name—we stay true to the word “project” because it is all about the doughnut, but it’s also more: It’s about the street art, it’s the cool music, it’s the fun movies we play, it’s the hospitality…it’s the whole experience. We’re always looking to do collaborations or things like these series. It’s not like you come in and it’s the same doughnut every day. We’re always scheming to do something new. It’s fun, it’s creative.
WSWD: You guys make innovative doughnuts, like the Maple Bacon Bar.
Neal: That one was a no-brainer. The maple bar is definitely a West Coast item that we didn’t see when we moved out here—I moved here about eight years ago. Since we’ve opened up [shop], we’ve had people from Philadelphia to Buffalo to Canada come in to thank us because they can’t find maple bars anywhere. The shape of the doughnut also makes it nostalgic, and then we throw bits of bacon on top.
Polizzotto: That really makes it special because you have the sweet maple glaze with the crispy, salty bacon bits on top…it’s the perfect combo.
WSWD: What’s your favorite doughnut creation?
Polizzotto: Oh, I know what mine is! Mine was a collaboration that we did with Stagg Jam and Marmalade and it was called Elvis Has Left the Building. She [owner Candice Ross] is an artisanal jam-maker based in Brooklyn—she provided banana jam, and we made a peanut butter glaze with spicy peanut butter and put chopped nuts on top. It was so good; it was mind-blowing. Anything with peanut butter is great, but I loved that one the most.
Neal: My daily go-to is the Olive Oil and Black Pepper. It’s simple. It has a little peppery bite to it…I like pepper.
Polizzotto: But what about the restaurant series?
Neal: You know what, probably the Gramercy Tavern with the crispy fried capers and butternut squash…or the Perla one was really good. It was just intimidating because it had lamb belly on it. That one was made with yogurt, mint, and a little bit of cheap deli peppers—sweet and spicy deli peppers—it was like a meal. You would grab it, eat it, and be like, “OK, I’m done.”
Polizzotto: That was what was really fun about the restaurant series: We really made the doughnut almost like a meal. If the dish has bacon on it, then the doughnut had bacon on it; if it [the dish] has lamb belly, we had lamb belly on the doughnut. It was really interesting and people loved it. We took it in a direction that doughnuts have not gone yet.
WSWD: We love how you mix savory with sweet.
Neal: Savory is the new sweet!
Polizzotto: We still have to have plain glazed, chocolate, and lemon, but we like to do the fun, cool stuff that’s out there and pushes the envelope.
Neal: If you see me out on the street, I will probably get a cake chocolate sprinkled doughnut.
Polizzotto: But when I was showing him pictures of doughnuts on my phone at Eataly, they were all cake doughnuts topped with either chocolate icing and nuts or sprinkles. And he was like, “Oh, I don’t want to do sprinkles.”
Neal: It’s something I wouldn’t make, but I’d definitely eat it. We’ve done some things like our birthday cake minis.
Polizzotto: I mean, we do special orders. If you want it, we’ll make it. But he was like, “Oh, we’re not going to do sprinkles,” and I was like, “That’s cool, man, we don’t have to do sprinkles.”
Neal: We had a stretch in between an order gap where we were experimenting with putting toppings on the chocolate, and we put sprinkles on it for a couple days and it was the worst.
Polizzotto: We were embarrassed. We were, like, “No, we can’t have this.”
WSWD: How does it feel knowing that some of your doughnuts, like the Everything Doughnut, have gone viral?
Polizzotto: It’s amazing and it’s really rewarding. In this business, that’s how people learn about us. We don’t have a big marketing or PR team to blast our name out everywhere. It had to happen organically through social media.
Neal: And we’re on a quiet street, so we’re vigilant on social media and we have a visual product, so it’s fun. It seems that the ones we don’t expect are big hits. Like, we’ll work really hard on one and then make another one and say, “That was just a fun one to make,“ and that’s the one that will make it big.
WSWD: So did you not expect it?
Neal: With the Everything Doughnut, our phone just started to ring one night. We were like, something is happening.
Polizzotto: It was literally overnight.
Neal: Overnight. Maybe for two weeks or so, we had a line out front. At the time we had only three people working and were making maybe a couple hundred doughnuts a day. We were trying to keep up. So we hired more people and got better at what we do…but for a while, it was crazy. My cousins called me from Seattle and said, “Dude! You made it!”
Polizzotto: It was literally a change from an Instagram post, to a Gothamist article, to the next day being featured on ABC and NBC news. That proves that old-school forms of media are watching what happens on social media.
WSWD: Does the phrase “make it Instagrammable“ have an influence on your doughnut creations?
Polizzotto: There is definitely a visual component.
Neal: Yeah, sometimes one will look like another doughnut. You have to be able to visually separate them. We kind of play with it like it’s a dish and ask ourselves: Is it going to have garnish? Is it going to be filled? What size is it going to be? We have different cutters for different things. Right now, they’re all yeast-raised doughnuts, but I would love to try an old-fashioned cake doughnut one day.
Polizzotto: It’s definitely a visual product. Our shop is visual with the street art and we have people come in from all over the world: Japan, London, New Zealand…a big Australian crowd comes here. They all follow us on Instagram and that’s how they know about us. Like, when they come and visit New York, we are on their list.
Neal: I mean, we’ve seen our name on someone’s spreadsheet that read “Really cool places to go when you’re in New York City.”
Polizzotto: They plan out food, which is really good for us. Today, eating, drinking, and dining are basically forms of entertainment. Eating has become people’s hobby; they like to document it and post about it, and that’s good for us.
Neal: We started with 700 Instagram followers and now we have about 66K. We scroll back and we laugh about our first posts and doughnuts. Now it’s definitely a little more curated.
WSWD: Do you have any upcoming doughnut projects?
Neal: We do. We’ve got some summertime projects coming up. We’re doing a pop-up at Urban Space in Herald Square at Broadway Bites in a few weeks. So we’re going to adjust for the weather—there will be some seasonal flavors.
Polizzotto: We have a cool collaboration that’s going to hit on National Doughnut Day. Two, actually. That’s on June 2. We have two collaborations dropping on that day—I’m calling it the Atomic Bomb (of Doughnuts).
Neal: I’m ready. I’ll be wearing my hockey mask all day.
Polizzotto: We’re planning it all out, and even though we’re going to be in two different places…we’ll be prepared.