The world of food on Instagram is vast. No matter how many restaurants I “save” or recipes I screenshot, I’m always just scratching the surface. It’s so vast, that unfortunately my saved folders are overflowing with restaurants I never made it to and recipes I have yet to try. Today, in the world of food on social media, it takes innovation and individuality like no other in order to turn the “scrollers” and the “clickers” into paying — and returning — customers. You have to offer something that they feel no one else can. It has to catch eyes, turn heads and pause the scrolling, not just once, but over and over again. The feat seems overwhelming, but those that succeed are worth taking notes on.
Leslie Polizzotto is the owner of The Doughnut Project, an entrepreneurial doughnut venture in New York City’s West Village. The concept? Doughnuts that are inspired by and made with the flavors found in our favorite fine dining and drinks.
“In New York you can’t just be like everybody else. You can’t have a chocolate doughnut, there has to be something special about you,” Polizzotto said. “We came up with the concept of [using] ingredients that you would find in restaurant dishes; sweet and savory and out of the box ingredients that no one had ever thought about putting on a doughnut before.”
Each doughnut flavor, although unique, is designed to represent a balanced palette “so they’re not just huge sugar bombs.” Examples of the shop’s core flavors include peanut butter and jelly, beet and ricotta, olive oil and black pepper, bacon maple and cinnamon roll — but it was The Everything Doughnut that shot The Doughnut Project to social media foodie fame just four months after opening its doors, and propelled the company’s success.
“Nothing would make the press [again] like this made the press. It happened to be at a time when food culture and Instagram and all that was just coming into itself and it literally spread like wildfire,” Polizzotto said.
Today @thedoughnutproject has 153 thousand Instagram followers, an audience completely driven by organic growth and vital to the company’s success. The company’s marketing efforts and exposure to the public have been almost entirely directed through this platform.
“When we first started out we had 700 followers and I just started looking at food Instagram people. This is all when it was brand new. That’s old today but before this was cutting edge in 2015,” Polizzotto said. “I started inviting people. They would come and post about our doughnuts and we kept growing and growing our followers through these so-called influencers. They weren’t even called influencers at the time.”
As The Doughnut Project began to receive recognition for its unique embrace of savory ingredients and use of alcohol in its doughnuts, other companies began to take notice. At six months old, the shop was contacted by Angry Orchard, a hard cider company located in New York that wanted the shop to create a cider inspired doughnut for National Doughnut Day. After the Angry Orchard doughnut success, more national brands began reaching out for collaborations, spurring more innovative eats like The Prosecco Doughnut, The Watermelon Sugar Hi-CHEW Doughnut and The Guinness Doughnut, just to name a few.
In addition to national brand collaborations, The Doughnut Project teams up with local food shops and restaurants, like Bedford Cheese Shop or Caffe Panna, to create doughnuts inspired by one of their dishes or a signature ingredient. This has given way to inventive creations like doughnuts topped in pepperoni or pretzels.
“We became really popular for [collaborations] and because we have so many followers on Instagram, we are in essence an influencer. So if somebody wants to bring awareness to their brand, they’ll reach out to us to do a doughnut,” Polizzotto said.
These collaborations are offered in the form of “Weekend Specials;” announced via Instagram at 5 o’clock every Wednesday evening and made available Friday through Sunday. And, if there are no collaborations in the queue, Polizzotto doesn’t let the excitement of the Weekend Special fall to the wayside.
“That was one of the things I realized in the pandemic,” Polizzotto said. “We’ve got to have sexy Weekend Specials. Period. I know it’s a challenge every weekend to come up with new stuff but it’s what we’ve got to do. We can’t just sell the same doughnuts. We’ve got to make people want to come back every weekend. And it worked. Especially during the pandemic, that’s what people looked forward to. The highlight of their week was getting in their car and driving and picking up doughnuts and having some sense of normalcy.”
This commitment to creativity builds anticipation among the customer base and social media followers, and has become the foundation The Doughnut Project is built on. “In essence you can’t just be a doughnut shop and sell doughnuts, you have to have exciting projects and partnerships and something exciting going on or you’re not going to be relevant,” Polizzotto said. “As far as our brand we will always have to keep pushing the envelope. I think if we ever stopped doing that we would probably go out of business. We just have to always be creative. That’s what we’re known for.”
The brainstorming and incubation is a group effort between Polizzotto and The Doughnut Project’s three female pastry chefs. “We all love food and we all love desserts, so we come up with ideas all the time,” she said. “We take inspiration from savory foods, from desserts, from [things] we see on Instagram. We’re always looking and always keeping a list of things we want to do.” And, because of this running idea log, The Doughnut Project positions itself well for planned success. Polizzotto maps out the seasonal doughnuts and Weekend Specials typically over a month in advance.
Because Wednesdays and Thursdays in the shop are quieter than the rest, those days are planned incubation periods and Polizzotto and the chefs go to town bringing their calendar of creative concepts to life. “We work on the Weekend Specials or any upcoming partnerships that we have or collaborations and we taste test,” she said. “We try it, we taste it [and] we make sure it’s great. If it’s not, we tweak it. Sometimes things come together the first time and they’re perfect. And then other times we struggle and struggle and struggle to figure out how to make it work.”
However, Polizzotto makes sure the team sticks to a strict schedule that allows her to follow her marketing schedule. “We go through a lot of trial and error on those days and it’s really important because I have to take photos of the finished product,” she said. In addition to planned weekly posts, Polizzotto makes sure to stay active on the account’s Instagram story by featuring their other flavors and reposting customers’ posts. She believes a key to social media marketing success is to “always be generating content.”
This weekend, the specials include the “Root Beer Float” Doughnut and the “Thai Iced Tea Crème Brûlée” Doughnut. And just like clockwork, Polizzotto’s Wednesday five o’clock post with this announcement caught my eye and stopped my scrolling. After visiting the shop twice this summer, the enchantment of this West Village doughnut shop keeps me coming back. I’m hooked on The Doughnut Project’s creativity— it never gets boring and that’s the point.
Interested in learning more about Leslie’s story? Listen to her podcast episode here.