Five minutes before 6 on a Friday morning, while winter breathes heavily on more than 50 people lined up on Ninth Street for the opening of Harold’s Doughnuts, Michael Urban stands at the front counter and pulls his iPhone out of his pocket.
Behind him, the heart of the store pumps with activity. Nine employees, all speckled in varying amounts of flour, bounce around two large wooden tables anchoring a bright kitchen. Some glaze a few remaining doughnuts, others organize the front display, and the rest can’t help but sneak expectant glances at the crowd outside the front window. Beside him, Karli, his wife, wipes off the counter with a paper towel and says, “Four minutes.”
If Urban is exhausted from being on the go since 9:30 the night before — or from the last-minute scramble to pass the fire inspection and the preparation of almost 1,000 doughnuts —it’s hard to tell. He is poised and focused as he turns to Twitter to express how he feels at this moment: “It’s time. #HAROLDSSTORE116. Thank you, Columbia! Craft doughnuts have hit the #COMO & the @the_district!! #LoveYourCraft.”
Passion, gratitude, pride.
Of these emotions, squeezed into 124 characters, none is more deeply embedded in Urban’s dream of starting a small business around one of America’s favorite breakfast treats than the last one. Urban knows there is no substitute for passionate craftsmen and women: people whose hearts beat for what they do, who resist the urge of automation and give thoughtful consideration and skillful attention to the things they make and the people they serve.
Love of craft. It’s the legacy of Urban’s late grandfather, the namesake of the store, and an ingredient as essential to this new endeavor as flour, yeast or sugar. It’s why Urban gives his team so much creative freedom. It’s why the store is arranged so any customers or anyone walking by on Ninth Street can watch each step of the production process. And it’s why he is eager to work with the local community to reimagine what doughnuts in Columbia can taste and even look like.
“When we talk about Harold’s store,” Urban says, “it’s about more than a doughnut and a cup of coffee. I want to show people why and how we love what we do.”
Doughnuts your way
Traditional wisdom suggests a passive approach to starting a small business: pick your location, make your products, and wait for a response. Although Urban would have preferred to move into the store last fall, as originally planned before construction delays, he never intended to depend on a come-and-see approach alone. If anything, there is nothing quite like moving beyond the confines of a storefront to being deeply intertwined with the community where you live and work.
Harold’s opportunity, Urban believes, is one of conversation, especially on social media. Some of his favorite connections have been made through a campaign he calls, “Your Doughnut, #COMO.”
The idea is simple: your doughnut, your way.
Say you’re a local business or nonprofit organization or other group: Harold’s will work with you to create a unique doughnut (or doughnuts) to promote your brand or cause. They’ll even sell them to you for a discount to allow for fundraising.
“Our hope is to dream up a doughnut that reflects who they are,” Urban says.
If it sounds too good to be true, then you haven’t met Harold’s head doughnut magician, Melissa Poelling, the person who breathed life into an old yeast-raised doughnut recipe Urban discovered in a cookbook passed down by his mother and the person responsible for filling Harold’s with improbability and intrigue.
Want a macaroni and cheese-stuffed bismark topped with house ranch and panko? She’s got you covered.
Want a strawberry shortcake doughnut to reflect a cheer that has been used at your high school for almost 100 years? It’s in the works.
Want a gluten-free vegan doughnut with coconut? OK, give her three to four days, and she’ll have a sample for you.
“I can’t” is not a part of her vocabulary.
“I want to create what you want the most,” Poelling says. “If I can make 47 kinds of doughnuts, but it’s not something you want, then I have failed you. So I want to get to know you and what you want and like, then I’m going to tweak that however many times it takes for you to tell me if I’ve hit the mark.”
It helps that Harold’s makes everything, including sprinkles, jams and dough, from scratch. It gives the team freedom in these collaborations to experiment and create new flavors.
“Since we make everything from scratch, it’s hard to think of something that wouldn’t work,” Urban says.
But Poelling knows the time she spends outside of the kitchen is as essential to ensuring success as the time she spends inside of it. Before she can make an ingredient list, sketch ideas on paper or tweak flavors, she has to sit down with key players in an organization and do some dreaming.
In the case of the Battle High School doughnut, Jill Villasana, a social studies teacher, was amazed at Poelling’s ability to find the right combination of serendipity and practicality, which resulted in the creation of a long john with a whipped peanut filling, topped in white chocolate icing and blue and gold sprinkles.
“She’s such a fun person to brainstorm with,” Villasana says. “Her enthusiasm working off our ideas was contagious, and it was amazing to watch her wrap her brain around how to make things work.”
Not to be left out of the custom doughnut craze, Jill Varns contacted Harold’s to explore the possibilities of a Hickman High School doughnut. Poelling left Hickman with four ideas to prototype, including a doughnut based on the school’s longstanding strawberry shortcake cheer as well as a Kewpie heart with purple and gold filling in the middle.
“It’s a way to make Kewpie pride tangible,” Varns says.
The only unfortunate thing about all the school spirit being injected into doughnuts is that more people, especially students, can’t enjoy it. There are strict federal rules on selling food during school hours, so a limited number of faculty and staff at both schools have been the primary beneficiaries until more suitable uses for the doughnuts are determined.
This hasn’t stopped the buzz of doughnut potential from spreading through the halls at Hickman. So many people want to come to the taste test that Varns struggles to keep a manageable list. The school newspaper plans to feature the doughnuts on the front page. Even Poelling’s oldest son, a student at Hickman, likens his mom to something of a rock star, saying, “My mom’s the doughnut overlord.”
Doughnuts with friends
Food has always been about the intimate connection between possibility and people for Poelling. She remembers summers on her grandmother’s farm in the heart of Kansas. On Sundays there was one goal: get the preacher to come over after church.
She can still picture a giant table, every inch covered with an assortment of pickles and relish, a plate of bread, fresh spring onions, a mound of fried chicken, a deep bowl of country gravy and, of course, multiple pies and cakes for dessert.
“Those were her Oscars,” Poelling says.
It made her grandmother happy to see others happy, and Poelling, with her playful, genuine and contagious personality, loves to do the same. How serious does the doughnut business need to be after all? Not only is she the kind of person who encourages laughter and even dancing in the kitchen, but she’s also quick to liken the collaborative projects to time spent on the playground.
“It’s playing with friends,” Poelling says. “It’s fun to talk about something I love with people who love what they do and finding ways to put those things together.”
This mentality was not lost on Varns, who appreciated Harold’s willingness to reach out to the community in more intimate ways.
“They don’t have a corporate feel,” Varns says. “It’s about people to people.”
These sorts of connections are why it’s hard for Urban to think of another place that would be as welcoming to a business such as Harold’s. The city has personality, more than he ever expected when he arrived in 2001 to study political science at the University of Missouri, and loves to support homegrown businesses. It’s what gives him confidence that doughnuts will be more than a fad here. It’s why he doesn’t plan to stop working with generous portions of transparency, experimentation and joy.
“When I think about diverse culture here in Columbia, I want to keep saying, ‘Let’s create, let’s innovate, let’s push the envelope,’” Urban says. “Some things will work, and some things won’t work. There will be hits that will benefit both businesses.”
But without a doubt, Urban’s favorite connection will continue to be the one he makes every Tuesday morning at home with his 3-year-old daughter, Elise. They have a family tradition called Doughnut Tuesday, where Urban prepares her favorite selection, a sprinkle doughnut, her way, with orange sprinkles whenever possible.
It’s their chance to share together in the joy of good food and even better company, and it’s a taste of something he is confident will linger in her mind for years to come.
“We’ll see if she grows out of that,” Urban says. “But I don’t think she will. I still haven’t grown out of my love for doughnuts.”