Leslie Polizotto is the founder of The Doughnut Project, a brand that knows all about the benefits of going viral when they had some major coverage that elevated them overnight.
Leslie is a former attorney focused on the business side of The Doughnut Project. She handles marketing, sales, strategy, human resources, and social media. She also handles growth, collaborations and licensing opportunities. Nonetheless, she can still be found having fun pulling shots and serving doughnuts most days in the shop and her positive attitude keeps her team upbeat and excited about working for her brand.
What began as mad science meets culinary venture is now known as The Doughnut Project. In a world that is stuffed to the gills with sweet shops and fad foods they wanted to go beyond sprinkles and cream cheese frosting. They like to amp things up with fresh, seasonal ingredients and a menu that beckons you to ask, “And all that’s on a doughnut?!” To which they reply, yes, it certainly IS all on a doughnut.
We fell in love with this brand during a late night Instagram binge when we fell down the rabbit hole and drooled over their feed. Here, we spent time with Leslie to find out more…
Tell us about the journey that lead you to launching The Doughnut Project…
The decision to launch The Doughnut Project was actually a situation where the stars aligned. I was practicing law in Los Angeles my husband Gino and I were traveling back-and-forth between LA and New York a lot. When in NYC, we would love to go to Eataly and sit at the bar at the restaurant called Manzo. It is there where I met my future business partner Troy Neal. He was a bartender and was super charismatic and lots of fun. We instantly hit it off. He told me that he wanted to open a doughnut shop. I pulled out my phone and showed him all the pictures that I had taken of doughnuts when they would be brought into the law firm I was working and how happy they would make me feel. I told him that I was going to be moving to NYC and I wanted to be involved somehow. I think he thought I just wanted to be an investor, but little did he know I was going change my entire life to make The Doughnut Project a reality.
After moving to NYC, I took and passed the NY Bar Exam and was going down the path to continue practicing law. The law firm I worked for in LA did not have enough work to bring me on as an associate in their NY Office. In late 2013, I started meeting with Troy to write a business plan for the doughnut shop concept. During that process, my old law firm reached out with a position, but I turned it down. Over the next year and a half, we finalised the plan and in addition to our own capital, raised capital from friends and family investors. After a 6-month renovation to the space we leased, we finally opened The Doughnut Project on October 15, 2015.
You left a career as an attorney to launch this business, we love that pivot. Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
I truly believe if we would have known how difficult launching a food brand in NYC, we probably would not have done it. Being naïve was definitely an advantage. Nonetheless, I would like to have implemented more knowledge of the procedures and processes from my corporate life from the start. We were so overwhelmed just running the business day-to-day that I wasn’t as quick utilise the skills and knowledge from my previous careers.
What is your mission with the brand?
We are passionate about creating amazing custom doughnuts using fresh, unique, and seasonal ingredients. We take inspiration from food and cocktails to create our flavours and always strive to push the envelope on what a doughnut can be. My mission for our brand is to continue leading in creativity and originality and grow our brand to other locations throughout the United States and abroad.
How do you want people to feel when they eat your doughnuts…
Happy! We want our shop to be an experience that will give you a smile on your face when you you leave. When I worked as an attorney, a lot of my day was focused on lawsuits which is a negative thing. I used to get so much joy when someone would bring doughnuts into the office. That is one of the reasons I got involved to start this business. When doughnuts are brought to work, it changes the whole dynamic. People gather to look and choose which doughnut they will eat. Conversations start and the mood lightens. I used to experience this firsthand and just want our doughnuts to make people happy like they made me happy.
What support did you have when taking the plunge to launch the company?
My husband was extremely supportive of the idea. He was the person who actually encouraged me to take the risk and leave practicing law to become an entrepreneur. He has owned his own business for over twelve years and thought I would be good at running my own business. I am sure other people, such as legal colleagues, thought I had gone insane!
What are your plans for the brand in 2020?
We are continuing to work on amazing projects with international brands to create custom doughnuts for special events and launches. We are participating in the Hankyu New York Fair in Osaka, Japan in mid-May. This is the 10th anniversary of the fair in which the Hankyu Department Store hosts many New York City food brands and artists for a week-long fair.
We have been working with a consultant who is helping us grow domestically to other states. We are getting close in a city in the southeast and have our eye on 2-3 other cities. We license our intellectual property (name, logo, recipes, technique and “know-how,” etc.) and already have a licensee location in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. We are also working on a licensing agreement for another geographical region for multiple “The Doughnut Project” locations to open later this year.
Who’s your dream customer?
We love every customer, but my dream customer is the “corporate client.” We have been fortunate enough to work with many top brands such as Disney, Estée Lauder, Marvel, Valspar Paint, Freeform, and many food and alcohol brands where we create a custom doughnut for a product launch, movie release or special event. I will work with a PR team from these brands for months beforehand to determine the custom doughnut, custom boxes, media drops, etc. In the future, I would love to work on projects with brands such as Nike, Netflix, Adidas, Supreme and Kith.
When you moved into the world of entrepreneurship, how did this change you?
I had always worked in an office environment with checklists and to do lists. I got great satisfaction from checking the boxes and being in control of my own success. As an entrepreneur with a business such as mine, you depend on a lot of people because you alone cannot do everything. I find this difficult at times because I have high expectations and not everyone shares my Type A personality. I have always preferred doing things for myself. We have worked hard to find the right employees who are committed to our brand. I am slowly but surely learning to delegate and to trust others to get the job done.
Now that I am in this new entrepreneurial environment, I would never go back to the office life where you keep an eye on the clock and dread Mondays. My business is fully integrated into my personal life. I am happy to work on my business no matter what day it is. I do this by choice because I love what I do and I am motivated to make the business a success.
Outside of the brand, what do you do for fun?
I am a foodie and my favourite thing to do is to go out to lunch. Not dinner, but lunch complete with wine and the great food that NYC has to offer. It sounds crazy, but I love the dining experience and it is my entertainment.
Our readers love to travel, what destination is at the top of your bucket list?
My husband and I visit England often. We just love going to London and then driving out to the Somerset to be in the country. My bucket list for upcoming travel is visiting Ireland and to someday go on an African Safari.
What does self-care mean to you?
Self-care means taking time for yourself to focus on health and beauty. I work out every single day by doing either HIIT training, Cardio or Barre. Being in shape makes me feel strong and able to tackle anything. I also get routine facials and treatments such as microdermabrasion. Anytime I travel, I always include a spa treatment such as massages or body scrubs to make the trip even more special.
How much does social media play a role in the success of your company?
Social media is extremely important to our business and we would not likely still be in business if it wasn’t for social media, specifically Instagram. Four months after we opened, we had an influencer visit our shop to taste a new doughnut we were releasing; The Everything Doughnut. The influencer posted a picture of it on his Instagram feed FoodbabyNY. Later that day a reporter from Gothamist called our shop and my business partner and I did a 15-minute interview on the phone discussing The Everything Doughnut. The reporter had seen the post from FoodbabyNY and wanted to get the details on the new doughnut flavour. Within an hour she had written a story and posted it on their website Gothamist.com. We were so excited and couldn’t believe that we were actually getting our name out in the press. The next day we were at the shop contemplating whether The Everything Doughnut was too “out there” for people to want and the phone started ringing off the hook. ABC News, NBC news, the Wall Street Journal, everyone wanted to know the details on The Everything Doughnut.
For the next month, that doughnut appeared on every day-time television show and had hundreds of articles from all over the world written about the doughnut. (Just Google The Everything Doughnut!!!) It literally changed our life overnight.
Today, social media is a little more difficult to garner attention, since the platforms want you to pay to get your posts in front of your followers. At the moment, we have 121k followers on Instagram and they comprise of people from all over the world who visit our shops when they visit NYC. We communicate our Weekend Specials, collaborations and special events though social media. It is our way to connect to our customers on a daily basis.
What has been your proudest moment?
I am most proud of our collaborations. We work with many local, national and international brands, creating unique, one-of-a-kind doughnuts for a limited time and limited supply. These creations are extremely popular. People love getting the latest and most unique doughnuts in NYC.
We also create doughnuts for events and product launches. We’ve worked with Valspar, Scribd, Estée Lauder, Cartoon Network, Marvel and Crayola among others. These collaborations provide great revenues to the shops and increase awareness of our brand thanks to the PR Teams working on the events.
Tell us your go to motivational quote…
“It’s never too late.” – I worked for global construction management firm straight out of high school and moved up the ranks for 18 years. I could have easily stayed complacent and not challenged myself to change my life. I graduated from UCLA at the age of 36 and then from Pepperdine University School of Law at the age of 40. I practiced law for 4 years. Becoming an entrepreneur and opening The Doughnut Project is my 3rd career. It is never too late to start a new journey in life.
For any aspiring entrepreneurs wanting to launch in the food industry, what advice would you offer?
The food industry is notoriously difficult to find lasting success. I have three tips that have been crucial to my success as an entrepreneur in this industry.
First, you have to love the concept and product that you are selling. Starting a business is an everyday endeavour which becomes a part of your life. You do not turn off business thoughts and contemplation just because you are at home making dinner, out with friends, or on a vacation. So you REALLY need to like what your business is about. I love doughnuts and what our brand has become. It makes me happy to think about our journey and planning on where we are going.
Second, you need to partner with people who has skills that you do not. That makes for a more well-rounded team who can all bring something to the table. If Troy and I were both like him, our business would have failed. If Troy and I were both like me, our business would have failed.
Third, you need to have the support of your spouse, partner, family member, or significant other because without their positivity and encouragement, it will only add stress and pressure to a situation already overwhelming. My husband is a sounding board and hears not only about our successes, but also my complaints, fears and worries. He offers his advice as a business owner himself. It is good to have that source of “therapy” to release negative feelings so you can move on to more positive solutions.
Where can people find out more…
Check out our website at www.thedoughnutproject.com and follow us on our social platforms:
Instagram – thedoughnutproject
Facebook – thedoughnutproject
Twitter – @TDP_NYC