A Business Made from Scratch
Two IC Grads fill a Hole in the Doughnut Market
By Robin Roger
Dun-Well Doughnuts makes the best doughnuts in New York City.
According to the New York Daily News, that is. But the newspaper almost didn’t consider the doughnuts, made by Dan Dunbar ’06 and Chris Hollowell ’06, because they’re vegan. As customers continued to write to the paper in favor of the duo’s doughnuts, the Daily News sent a reporter to the shop to investigate.
“He said, ‘They look good,’” recalls Dunbar. “Then he had one, and he was blown away. He said, ‘I would not have guessed these were vegan.’ We gave him a dozen to bring back to the office, and we saw writers tweeting about how great they were.”
While the website for Dun-Well Doughnuts touts their vegan credentials, the fact that the doughnuts do not contain eggs or milk isn’t something Dunbar and Hollowell actively promote.
“You don’t see the word ‘vegan’ posted anywhere in the shop,” Dunbar said. “’ It’s more of a revelation.”
Hollowell first came up with the idea after watching the 20th anniversary episode of The Simpsons.
“There was a whole part about doughnuts, and I was hungry,” he said. But as a vegan, he had few choices, even in New York City. So he called up Dunbar, in Chicago at the time, and Dunbar started experimenting without a recipe or any doughnut-making experience.
The first batch was a miserable failure. When he dropped that first ball of dough into a deep fryer, Dunbar said it sank to the bottom and didn’t come up for 40 minutes.
“The first ones were so bad, we could have created a business out of people paying us not to eat them,” he said. “I didn’t even know doughnuts should have sugar in them. I had friends try them, and they said, ‘They’re good if you put enough chocolate syrup on them.’ They were very patient.”
Now that Dunbar and Hollowell have perfected the standard doughnut, they’ve experimented with innovative flavors like Earl Grey tea, peanut butter and jelly, and rose with dark lavender. They made a sweet potato pie doughnut for Easter, and they said they planned to make savory doughnuts, like a curry-infused doughnut with mango chutney filling.
“It’s an artistic process,” said Dunbar, who was an art major at IC. “When you create some limitations for yourself, it creates opportunities to push the boundaries. Instead of following old patterns, and repeating what you’ve done before, it will be different.”
Hollowell became a vegan the summer before his senior year at Ithaca, while Dunbar went vegan his freshman year. Dunbar said he lost 80 pounds.
“My own grandmother didn’t recognize me,” he said.
Right after graduating from IC, the two trekked cross country as part of Bike and Build, an organization that raises funds for affordable housing projects. The next year, they led a group of 30 people on the same type of trip.
“It’s no small feat leading 30 people across the country on bicycles, but we did that,” Hollowell said. “Nobody got hurt; everybody was happy. If we can say the same about our business, I think it’s a success.”
Hollowell admitted that he and Dunbar had no business experience when they decided to launch Dun-Well Doughnuts.
“We made up the doughnut from scratch, and we’re learning how to run a business from scratch,” he said.
The business was completely self-funded with Dunbar and Hollowell’s life savings, except for a recent campaign on the online fund-raising platform Indiegogo that netted $15,000 in donations to help them open the shop in Brooklyn.“In this city there’s a motto: fake it till you make it. I used to really dislike that motto—now I understand where it comes from,” Hollowell said.
Hollowell used his acting experience to help negotiate the lease on the shop.
“We had a meeting with this Manhattan real estate mogul,” Hollowell said. “I had talked the night before with a friend of mine who was in real estate, and I got my talking points—or my script if you will. I was talking a mile a minute—I was pretending to be a business man. After that meeting, Dan just looked at me and said,‘That was awesome.’”
They didn’t get that lease, but after a few more tries, they landed the spot in Brooklyn where the shop is now.
The shop’s old-fashioned style pays homage to the Salvation Army “Lassies” of World War I, who served doughnuts to soldiers in France. Hollowell’s family owned a bakery back in Germany, where his grandparents grew up, and photos from that time line the walls of the shop. Somebody once asked Hollowell what his grandparents would think of him running a vegan bakery.
“It’s more in line with the past than people would think,” he said. “While my grandmother used eggs in her bakery, she was getting them from the chicken coop out back, not from an industrial factory farm. We try to keep things as local and sustainable as possible in our doughnut shop.”