Filling the Void

An Interview with PVDonuts

Lori Kettelle does not know why donuts are round, but that hasn’t stopped her from building Providence’s very own donut empire. In the sanctum that produces College Hill’s most popular weekend indulgence, she tells the PVDonuts story, one of a rise to greatness as impressive as those on the yeasted rounds in her display case.

“My husband and I, whenever we would travel, would try and find the best donut shop. I don’t know why, I don’t know how it started, but that’s what we would do. And then coming back to Providence…We have such a big food scene here, and missing a specialty donut shop, we figured, let’s try it out…I know we have a bunch of donut shops now, but the only thing we had here [then] was a Dunkin’ Donuts.”

For a year, the idea stayed put in Kettelle’s home kitchen. “I would make six donuts at a time, and he would bring them to a gym, bring them to friends, and they would kind of give me feedback.” Eventually, these taste testers began placing orders, and the donuts crept onto the public stage via Instagram. Kettelle then quit her job at another local bakery, and she and her husband poured their savings into a wholesale operation on the corner of Hope and Maine.

Kettelle described this moment as the real turning point. “The day you quit your job, you have to make it work at that point…The plan was to do wholesale for six months or a year, but it went super fast; we couldn’t keep up.” While Kettelle didn’t yet have a storefront, her donuts made it into local coffee shops. The reception was stunning. “The first weekend, we had probably 10 dozen donuts on order for the entire weekend, and then the next Saturday we had 22 dozen for [just that day]. After that first weekend we knew we had to look for something else.”

From the wholesale operation at Hope and Maine, Kettelle and her husband moved to share retail space at Sin, a local bakery near the Harborside Campus of Johnson & Wales University. Even enforcing a four donut limit per customer, they consistently sold out only two hours after opening, making the need for their own store even more apparent. After two months of searching, they found a location on the corner of Ives and Wickenden, and that was the beginning of PVDonuts as we know it.

While Kettelle shies from calling PVDonuts a mom-and-pop shop, the workplace camaraderie and accessible food that the label implies live on in her store. All 17 employees, from diverse backgrounds that range from vegan baking to plated desserts, pitch in to brainstorm the monthly menus. Describing the crew, Kettelle said, “We have a really big background when it comes to flavor profiles, so it’s really fun when we all get together and just kind of spitball ideas…If we come up with a mock menu, we’ll show the girls up front and ask them, ‘Hey, tell us what you think.’” The store has no investors, meaning constant communication with the front staff about sales and customer preferences is the only influence on the menu.

The food at PVDonuts is conscientious. The store uses the word “gourmet” not to describe food in a trendy niche, but rather something well-prepared that is just good. Everything they sell, from glaze to brioche, is made in-house daily. The display case features not only Instagrammable flavors like the PSL or Nitro Vanilla Latte, designed to cater to the millennial, but also honey crullers for the older crowd and chocolate sprinkle for kids.

Despite the pricing and fame, these donuts really are universal. Kettelle said, “At first I thought it would be more millennials and that age group, but we get such an array—we get families, we get people from the nursing home across the street who just buy like a single donut and read a newspaper, we get, on the weekends, just a crapton of college kids.”

The store also supports the development of other local businesses by giving them the opportunity to test their products. “We wish we had [had] a mock day of what it would be like in retail…I think [it] is really, really important…to provide that for others starting out,” Kettelle said. Their most recent popup allowed the owner of The Burgundian to prototype the dense, pearl-sugar, packed liege wafels heretofore restricted to Brussels or New York City. While The Burgundian had done some pop-ups and wholesale before their debut at PVDonuts, the owner told Kettelle that the experience was eye-opening, improving his concept and motivating him toward the goal of opening his own shop.

PVDonut’s community projects aren’t restricted to building the Providence food scene either. Once a month, 20 percent of sales (and sometimes a special promotional donut) is directed towards a charity organization, from Planned Parenthood to hurricane disaster funds. “We also think it’s really important to be part of the community and help where it needs to be helped,” Kettelle said.

Despite all of her achievements, Kettelle insisted her success is the product of having the right concept at the right time. “It was an idea, you know, I didn’t think this would happen…We just saw that there was a void back three years ago.” When PVDonuts opened, they were the only specialty store around, the only place with inventive, in-house flavors instead of the mass-produced classics. “At the end of the day, Dunkin’ Donuts can only do so much,” Kettelle said.

As far as I can tell, however, the characteristics of a specialty store do not explain PVDonut’s success. In-house flavors are ordinarily a novelty buy; a dessert shop that runs on local ingredients and does good in the community is still an occasional indulgence. The cupcake or cronut, even back when they were all the rage, never classified as a breakfast ritual. PVDonuts has regulars, that much is clear from the line of people snaking outside the door at 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday. But if the specialty donut status is not what keeps these customers coming back again and again, what is? What is the real void in Providence?

***

I had never heard of Kellogg’s before coming to Brown and learning to eat breakfast and snacks a la America. Coming from China and Singapore, where rice porridge and pickles or kaya jam on toast is the breakfast baseline, Pop-Tarts were a revelation, crispy pastry edges and oozy sugary filling the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee. The creamy, doughy masterpiece that is a bagel with cream cheese followed, before being supplanted by the Uncrustable. I learned to dunk Oreos in milk, ate Nutterbutters by the sleeve, sampled every type of generic candy bar in a Halloween pack. My friends couldn’t understand why I viewed these things as treasures. Pop-Tarts in the morning made them feel gross, Uncrustables were only nutritionally acceptable nowadays after a 30-hour stint in the Rock. I was spared this disillusion only because I came to these foods late, experiencing them for the first time with the same taste buds I possess now.

The hard truth is the Oreos you nibble on now will never be the same as the ones you inhaled at your fifth-grade birthday party. We are born with super-sensitive taste and a propensity to seek sweetness, an evolutionary mechanism designed to help kids seek high-energy foods for survival. As we age, our sensitivity to sweetness dies off, replaced with a new appreciation for the salty and bitter. We overcome our aversion to the unknown, trying new cuisines and adding spice to our foods; we begin internalizing the difference between the natural sweetness of a banana and sucralose, start reading nutrition labels. The net result is sweet foods are less intensely pleasurable, an Oreo becoming a poor alternative for cookies studded with dark chocolate chips and sea salt.

However, taste is as much a product of memory as a physical reaction—despite the calories and our new, complex tastes, we continue to reach for that Oreo, craving the childlike rapture of eating it. We hope to find escapism and instead get disappointment, the sour aftertaste of what we now know is high fructose corn syrup reminding us of just how far away naptime and recess are.

“There is only so much Dunkin’ Donuts can do,” Kettelle said. She’s right—not about the limitations of what can be achieved in an 89-cent donut in terms of flavor inventiveness or nutrition, but about it not being enough. We are not chasing the donuts of yesteryear, but rather the memory of splitting a glazed old-fashioned with dad after school—we want the same euphoria, but it takes different flavors to hit that now.

PVDonuts gets it. The brioche base for all their yeast donuts is saltier, butterier, and less sweet than the traditional, and thus more adult. Paired with a nostalgic topping, it may just be enough to spark that childhood memory in many. This was the case with the Dunkaroo donut, unveiled as part of PVDonuts’ ’90s menu last March.

Dunkaroos were the Froot Loops of the ’90s, packages of snack-size cookies and icing for dipping devoured by millions of schoolchildren before they were discontinued in the United States in 2012 (serious fans can still get their fix across the border in Canada). On the surface, the Dunkaroo donut seems simple—a brioche donut, covered in a sprinkle-laden vanilla glaze reminiscent of the frosting, dusted with graham cracker crumbs. For customers born in the golden age of Dunkaroos, it was Kryptonite. Kettelle laughed, “I feel like every time you throw in something like childhood, people freak out…We now bring back the Dunkaroo once a week, because people would email me just being like, ‘Bring back the Dunkaroo!’” I could visualize the customers in Thursday’s line, standing in the cold, waiting to replace the worries and strain of adult life with the nostalgia of preschool snack time.

Standing in line for my own donut after the interview, I was at a loss. I wanted that same experience, but I didn’t grow up with most of the toppings on offer. The one familiar item was cookie butter. Here, it is the most millennial spread imaginable; in Singapore, it is called speculoos and ubiquitous.

The cookie butter donut, like the Dunkaroo, looked unassuming. However, it tasted like the buttery, solidly adult luxuriance that comes from dipping croissants into milky coffee, suffused with the sweet warmth of gingerbread. No bittersweet reminder here that speculoos is too sweet now to eat straight out of the jar— this donut was a hit of nostalgia, bringing a sense of home comforts and burst of childlike positivity. Instead of worrying about the lecture on dot products I was missing for an interview, I remembered the Biscoffs I’ve eaten on every plane trip to the United States since I was 10, bouncing out of my seat with excitement to be on vacation. I got the simple happiness of spreading cookie crumbs onto bread at breakfasts long before Nutella came around. It’s a feeling worth sharing. I could see myself joining the line some Wednesday morning with my Pop-Tart-wary, Uncrustable-skeptical friends, just to watch their eyes light up as they rediscover childhood favorites through toaster pastry crumb and peanut butter creme patissiere. For those without an association to any of these foods, don’t worry—the cookie butter donut, like so many others, is part of a monthly menu of ever-changing, inventive flavors. Eventually, your Dunkaroo will come.

This is the void, and PVDonuts fills it.