Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.
Like so many food business owners, Johnny Doughnuts founder Craig Blum says that when he first heard about the coronavirus, “I was scared to death. I didn’t know what would come to pass.” But once the immediate fears subsided, he thought: “We’ll find a way to persevere and do what we do best.”
In March, the company launched a fundraiser to supply health care workers and other first responders with doughnuts, raising nearly $35,000 in the first 12 hours.
“Since then we’ve brought more than 9,000 doughnuts and coffee to over 30 hospitals in the Bay Area,” Blum said. “We’re not just surviving, we’re thriving in this moment of challenge. My team is incredible, super nimble and creative, and will do whatever we can to keep this business moving with our core value of being of service. That’s what we’re about.”
Since launching in 2013, Johnny Doughnuts has opened three stores — in Hayes Valley in the city, San Rafael and Larkspur —and five trucks. The trucks make the company a natural to cater events, and it has long had relationships with Bay Area tech companies, including Apple.
“We’ve done events for every company you can imagine, and even during shelter in place, we’ve been thinking about how we can reach out to our client base and support them as they support us,” he said.
Blum is a 30-year veteran of the food business. Raised in Beverly Hills, he never would have predicted his calling was doughnuts. Though they were often a favorite treat when he was young, he recalls there was a certain shame associated with doughnuts in health-conscious L.A. that made people want to hide the box.
Blum began in the food industry when he helped to open the first Hard Rock Café in the U.S., and then opened and ran a restaurant on Maui. When he was ready to return to the mainland, he saw that chains like Starbucks and Jamba Juice were the norm and thought it might not be a good idea to open an independent restaurant. Instead he started making pizza dough under the John Dough label with all organic ingredients, selling to hotels and eventually in supermarkets nationally.
After he sold the company, Blum took a break from food work and became a full-time dad, pondering what was next.
“Through that process of learning about pizza, I became fascinated with food trucks,” he said. “This was before they were sexy, but I could see how they were this opportunity to share what you can do with the entire world, anywhere you want to go. So I became a student of the food truck world.”
Originally Blum was going to do a pizza truck that also sold doughnuts, because he liked the combination of the two. But at some point he realized he was much more excited about the doughnuts than the pizza.
(One of his trucks shows up in the 2018 Denzel Washington film “Roman J. Israel Esq.” Blum even appears in the movie when Washington’s character buys a doughnut from him, gives him a $100 bill and tells him to keep the change.)
I became fascinated with food trucks. This was before they were sexy.
As a Bay Area resident, he knew no ordinary doughnut would do, so he decided he would use only local, organic ingredients and hire pastry chefs to come up with the recipes and make the best doughnuts possible.
Unlike the doughnuts that made him feel bad as a kid, Johnny Doughnuts are as “wholesome as they can be, with no preservatives and a flour that’s not highly produced, so it doesn’t give you that weird feeling. You can walk with pride with that box in your hand.”
In his research, he learned that in the 1920s women would sometimes use leftover mashed potatoes in doughnuts. The book where he found that historical fact included a recipe, which he used as a basis for his doughnuts. He also read elsewhere about using sour cream rather than buttermilk; that went into his recipes, too.
Blum describes himself as more of a “food Jew” than a religious one. Sufganiyot at Hanukkah is a perennial favorite.
“Rodef Sholom hires our truck every Hanukkah and we hand out doughnuts as everyone is leaving services. Between the kids and adults, we hand out around 500 doughnuts in 40 minutes,” he said.
“My favorite part about Judaism is the food, but it’s not just the food, it’s the warmth and the open hearts, it’s the whole experience.” And he’s based the Johnny Doughnuts experience on those very things.
“If we were just selling doughnuts, I don’t think our success would be as strong,” he said. “We’re selling an experience.”