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. Lots of ideas can come to a person when they are sitting at the bar, chatting with a bartender. Not all of them are as life-altering as this one.
She’d talk with Troy Neal, a bartender at Eataly who had dreams of starting his own food venture. One evening, “he told me he wanted to open a doughnut shop,” Polizzotto says. “I pulled out my phone and showed him all the pictures of doughnuts I had.”
Eventually, the lawyer and bartender decided 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. Polizzotto and Neal have been dominating the New York City doughnut scene, often selling out of their goods by the end of lunch.
The growth of their doughnut business went fast! They invited social media influencers to try the everything doughnut — and one posted a photo on Instagram. The New York blog Gothamist spotted it, tried it, and waxed poetic. (From the February 2016 review: “When you bite into an Everything Donut, its toppings fall to the ground like the memories of so many lesser donuts.”) “Our phone started ringing off the hook ABC, Wall Street Journal — all the daytime talk shows,” Polizzotto says.
Today, The Doughnut Project has two locations, 24 employees and over $500,000 in annual revenue. “We are just now profitable this year,” Polizzotto says, who adds that the stress level of her current job is comparable to her last one. “Our expenses are so outrageous,” she says “Every single day is a challenge.” But she enjoys that. “It definitely fuels me,” she says. “If I’m not challenged or trying to reach a goal — I get very bored or depressed.”
What inspired you to start The Doughnut Project? What was going through your mind that day?
The decision to start 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. Most of the pictures I showed Troy were cake doughnuts with frosting and sprinkles. Troy immediately said he “didn’t want to do sprinkles.” I told him that was cool and that we didn’t have to do sprinkles but that I loved doughnuts and wanted to be involved somehow. I think he thought I just wanted to be an investor, but little did he know I was going to be moving to New York and would change my entire life to make The Doughnut Project a reality.
Troy told me that he was going to be switching restaurants and that he would be working uptown at a new restaurant opening soon. I gave him my email address and told him I wanted to stay in touch so that we could talk about how we could work together. Troy says I wrote my email address too sloppy and when he tried to reach out the email address always bounced back as incorrect.
My husband and I went to the new restaurant to try to find Troy because he had never reached out to me, or so I thought. We had lunch and asked the waiter if knew of a guy named Troy that was working there as a bartender. He had never heard of Troy. I thought that I had lost contact with Troy forever. One day my husband and I were walking by that same restaurant and happened to see Troy inside working at the downstairs bar. I ran in and gave him a hug (which I rarely do) and asked him “What’s up with the doughnuts?” Troy had not made much headway in opening a shop but was still practicing making doughnuts in his apartment. We decided to start meeting to discuss how to make The Doughnut Project a reality. Over the next year and a half, we wrote a business plan and in addition to our own capital, raised additional capital from friends and family investors.
Was everyone supportive of your idea?
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 ten 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!
When did you know you wanted to quit your job as an attorney?
I never really wanted to quit my job as an attorney. I had begun to temporarily practice law after I moved to New York while waiting for my firm to need an associate in their New York office. It was more of an opportunity was presented to me in a field I was very interested in (Food!) and I had the support of my husband to make the change. I was very fortunate to be able to give up a six-figure salary to not get paid for over year. Most people do not have that opportunity. Interestingly, when we were deep into creating our business plan and meeting with possible investors, my law firm reached out to tell me they had an open position for me, and I declined. I guess once I was on the journey to make The Doughnut Project a reality, the idea of going back to researching and writing memos and briefs in an office by myself for 10 hours a day did not seem like the right choice!
What challenges did you face early on?
We faced many challenges early on! We were undercapitalized when we opened, so it was very stressful in the beginning to make rent, payroll, pay accounts payable, etc. We did not take salaries for a long time and then I continued to not take a salary for over a year. It was also a challenge to deal with the City of New York and its many departments that find ways to make running a food service establishment expensive and difficult. We also had a bad experience with the renovations to our shop which was originally a doctor’s office. The design and construction of our space looks good but does not function efficiently. Let’s just say we have learned a lot of what NOT to do!
Where do you find your recipe inspirations?
We take inspiration from food and cocktails for our flavors. We like to balance the flavor profiles of our doughnuts much like a dish you would have at a restaurant. We use real ingredients such as beets, cheeses, olive oil, spices, seeds, bacon, etc. to create sweet and savory or salty combinations. We have what I call our “Brain Trust” which is comprised of me, my partner Troy and our Pastry Chef Maddie Chunka. We meet to discuss food, flavors and new doughnut ideas. We also make decisions on what seasonal flavors we will add to our menu and determine what our Weekend Specials or collaboration doughnuts will be. Even though I do not make the doughnuts, I enjoy the creative aspects of helping to develop our unique menu.
What is your favorite part of being an entrepreneur?
My favorite part of being an entrepreneur is seeing the execution of an idea have a positive impact on the business. For example, we generate additional revenue through brand collaborations. This was a new concept that we applied to our doughnut business to create a new market sector for our business. I have always been a hard worker, so it is rewarding to work hard and make a difference in your own business. In addition, I have never been a quitter but being an entrepreneur has made me much more confident in myself because I know that I have the strength to literally do whatever it takes to get the job done.
How do you keep a work/life balance?
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. I technically take weekends off to spend it with my husband, but I also find time to manage social media, answer emails and process business payments before heading to a work-out class. I firmly believe my fitness is key to my success. As an entrepreneur you depend on 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 prefer doing things for myself.
Working out refills my need for control and accomplishment. I always feel ready to tackle anything after I work out. My weekdays start around 6am. I work for 2 hours at my home office then catch a work-out class before heading to each shop. I find that integrating my business and personal life keeps me caught up, on top of things and less stressed.
In your own words, what do you do?
I always joke that “I DO EVERYTHING!” I handle all of the business side of The Doughnut Project. I am responsible for human resources, payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable, brand collaboration coordination and execution, social media content creation and posting, public relations, catering coordination, custom orders coordination, special projects, email inquiries to the brand, marketing, business development, licensing opportunities, television and video opportunities, accounting and tax coordination, compliance with state and federal laws, insurance compliance and most importantly – growth of the brand.
What skill has helped you most throughout your career?
Having the confidence to speak in front of others has always been helpful in all of my careers. It is a skill needed to lead others in groups or meetings, to make presentations, to speak in front of a judge, or to speak in front of camera. We have food tours and customers from all over the world visit our shops and we like to entertain them and give them an experience to remember. We usually tell the guests the story of who we are, how we got started and what we are all about. We also do a lot of filming at the shop for network and digital platforms. It is extremely important to be comfortable and outgoing when representing our brand in front of camera.
What advice do you want to give women who are starting out?
I have three tips that have been crucial to my success as an entrepreneur. First, if someone wants to become an entrepreneur you have to love the concept, idea, product, etc. that your business is about. Starting a business is an everyday endeavor 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 had 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, 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.