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Heaping Helpings: The donut shop as an experience; Duck does well in Latham debut

Duck Donuts employee Madalynn Walsh decorates two dozen donuts at the Latham shop
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Duck Donuts employee Madalynn Walsh decorates two dozen donuts at the Latham shop

LATHAM – When David Marks clicks the button on his key, his car doesn’t beep or chirp. It quacks.

Marks is one of the entrepreneurs who in November opened the northernmost outpost of the Duck Donuts chain on the East Coast and he’s been busy ever since.

The store is an experience for customers as much as a place for a tasty treat, and Marks believes that’s what has made it a success.

The donuts are made to order before the eyes of those who ordered them, decorated with an array of flavors and colors while still warm from the fryer. During peak hours, the donuts a customer buys were likely still just batter when he or she pulled into the parking lot. A pair of semi-automated fryers behind the counter crank out donuts at a steady pace when demand rises.

What’s also notable about the Latham Farms donut shop is that it was opened and found success amid a public health crisis that has crippled many eateries.

But it was built to be mainly a takeout store, with minimal seating, so it was positioned to succeed in such an environment
The shop is co-owned by Marks and Jenny Matteo, who also work together on the Albany Clipper Magazine, and by Marks’ wife, Danielle.

TEAMWORK
Marks said the trio make a good team: “We have three different personalities on the ownership side.”

He’s got the sales and marketing skills; Matteo already was experienced with setting up and running franchises; and Danielle is a math and computer science teacher with strong organizational and training skills.

Manager Christine Ebel has been on-site since a month before the grand opening. “She is the backbone of our operation,” Marks said.

The Marks’ older daughter, Samantha, a 2020 college graduate whose career plans are on hold until COVID is over, jumped in on social media; the store has already exceeded 12,500 Facebook followers.

And the staff is young, mostly 15 to 19 years old and working their first jobs. They exude an enthusiasm that is part of the store’s atmosphere, Marks said.

“We feel they’re the most excited, ambitious people,” he said.

And then there’s the heart of the operation, the infinitely customizable cake donut, dressed up with flavors ranging from cheesecake to bacon, or served as a sundae, or made into a breakfast sandwich.

“The whole world is going to made-to-order,” Marks said.

Referring to the neighboring eatery in the Latham Farms shopping center, he continued: “CoreLife next door — you’re able to walk in and create what you want, walk out with what you want. So this plays into that whole thing, which is customization and the whole experience. You’re not just eating anymore.

“It’s not just a place to go for donuts or milkshakes. It’s the whole experience. It’s a happening.”

The donut fryer is largely automated, but a little human supervision is needed to regulate the level of oil in the tank: Too much and the donuts start to distort; too little and they may not cook through before the machine flips them over in the oil, then eases them out.

Skylar Miglucci kept an eye on it one morning in early April. She can also work the register and decorate donuts, but more often she’s making batter and using a ladle to fine-tune the fryer.

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“Usually I’m the donut maker,” she said. “A lot of us morning people are very well-rounded because we usually do everything. But on Saturdays and Sundays, we get so busy that you’re stuck to one station.”

THE BEGINNING
Though the team has made the store work well, the timing of its opening couldn’t have been much worse, Marks said: They bought the franchise and specialized equipment, and secured their space in Latham Farms. Then the state shut down because of COVID.

“We had all these plans and then COVID hit,” he recalled. “And we already had about $100,000 into the idea. We had an option at one point to bail. But I knew if we did that we’d never open another business again. So we decided to move forward.”

David and Danielle mortgaged their East Greenbush home to help pay for the new business.

They opened Nov. 21, just as the Capital Region was rapidly building toward a late autumn/early winter COVID surge that was worse than the original COVID outbreak here. But the Duck found its market, and the market found it.

The corporate mascot is a yellow-beaked duck named Ollie, but Duck Donuts takes its name from the North Carolina town where it was founded, not from the quacking waterfowl.

The company has added more than 200 locations since the first opened in 2007.

Dave and Danielle learned about it in 2015, when she called him from Virginia to say her sister was taking her on a donut run, 45 minutes each way.

And … what else? Dave asked.

Nothing else … just donuts, she said.

“She called me, she’s like, ‘These are the best donuts in the history of donuts. If you ever want to open one where we live, I’d be OK with that,’ ” Marks said.

“I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” he said. “I’ve always been looking for something that was going to be THE THING. And the Clipper Magazine was the thing, except it wasn’t mine. I’m working for someone else. I treated it like it was my own, but I’m an employee.”

Marks got his first taste of Duck Donuts in 2017 while visiting his parents in his native Long Island, and that set the wheels in motion.

“It’s one of those things — there’s not too many people who don’t like donuts,” he said.

But it’s not just the revenue potential or the tastiness of the Duck Donuts menu that attracted Marks — it’s the vibe, the atmosphere the store presents.

It really has to be about more than donuts — donuts are everywhere. Cider Belly and Bella Napoli have their own fan bases. Dunkin’ has dozens of shops in the region. Krispy Kreme flourished (then flamed out) right around the corner from Duck Donuts in Latham.

People can (and do) debate which is better, the cake donuts Duck and some other shops make or the yeast donuts in favor elsewhere. They can even debate the correct spelling — “donut” or “doughnut” — but that misses the point.

Ultimately, the effusive David Marks and crew are out to create an experience as much as a taste.

“If I was to draw a business that looked like my personality, it would be this donut shop,” he said. “If I was reincarnated as a business, it would be this donut shop.”

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Categories: Food, Heaping Helpings, Life and Arts

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