June 30, 2021

Coffee and doughnuts: Exploring an iconic pairing


Across the world, many enjoy a cup of coffee with a sweet treat, but no pairing is quite as iconic as coffee and doughnuts.

Perpetuated through popular culture, particularly in the US, coffee and doughnuts have become a quintessential duo – leading to the global success of popular chains like Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’.

But, as consumers push for higher-quality coffee, has this been reflected in this iconic pairing? Is there a growing focus on ingredient provenance and the “craft” of making doughnuts?

To learn more, I spoke to Craig Blum and James Brewer from two specialty coffee and doughnut chains.

You may also like our article on serving food in specialty coffee shops

The origin of the doughnut

Despite being associated with modern US food culture, doughnuts actually date back as far as Ancient Greece and Rome, when cooks would fry yeast dough and glaze it with honey. Similar foods were also popular across the Middle East for hundreds of years: people often coated fried strips of pastry in a sugar syrup. 

These rudimentary “doughnuts” spread across northern Europe during the 1400s – becoming especially popular in England, the Netherlands, and Germany. However, the first recorded instance of a jelly-filled doughnut – known as Gefüllte Krapfen – can be found in a 15th century German cookbook. Savoury fillings were often more popular, as sugar was expensive at the time.

Doughnuts are occasionally referred to as “Berliners” in Germany. The story goes that a Berlin soldier was declared unfit for military service in 1756, and consequently resigned to become a baker. It was claimed he made doughnuts for the soldiers, who named the deep-fried dough after his hometown.

The classic ring donut is believed to have emerged as the middle would often be the thickest and most undercooked part of the final snack. Therefore, bakers would punch out the centre to leave a hole. It is also rumoured that a Dutch sailor by the name of Hanson Gregory impaled his doughnuts on his ship’s wheel to keep his hands free to steer, but there is no evidence to support this.

It’s believed that German and Dutch migrants introduced doughnuts to the US after the snack took hold across Europe. In the Netherlands, doughnuts – or oliekoecken – are traditionally made with eggs, butter, spices, and dried fruits, before being dusted with icing sugar. They are a classic Dutch Christmas snack.

Craig Blum is the owner and founder of Johnny Doughnuts, a small-scale specialty coffee and doughnut chain based in western California. “Doughnuts have always been part of [US] culture,” Craig says. “This goes way back to the First World War with the ‘Doughnut Dollies’ in the Salvation Army, who were baked them for the troops.”

The US and doughnut shops

There are currently over 18,000 doughnut shops in the US. They became prominent in the 1920s when the first ever “doughnut machine” was invented in New York by Adolph Levitt.

By 1931, Adolph was earning around US $25 million a year, mainly by selling wholesale to bakers. Three years later, the World’s Fair in Chicago was hailing the doughnut as “the food hit of the Century of Progress.”

Doughnuts at the time cost around US $0.05 (about US $0.81 today). This made them reasonably affordable and accessible for the vast majority of the population. 

Urban legend states that in 1930, a French chef named Joe LeBeau travelled from New Orleans to Kentucky. With no money to his name, he sold his doughnut recipe – which included potato, milk, and sugar – to a local store owner by the name of Ishmael Armstrong.

Craig says that Johnny Doughnuts still uses a similar recipe today. “Our recipe came from a narrative about families in the 1940s coming home from church. The mothers would stay behind and make doughnuts out of mashed potato, left over from the night before.

“Our classic raised doughnut [includes] fresh potato in the dough, rather than starch [or] potato flour.”

This recipe eventually formed the basis of early Krispy Kreme donuts – which were created by Armstrong’s nephew, Vernon Rudolph, who sold doughnuts door-to-door and from his car.

By the 1950s, Krispy Kreme had opened 29 stores in 12 different states, making around 900 doughnuts every hour. Rudolph even drilled holes through the walls of Krispy Kreme stores so the smell of freshly baked doughnuts could waft out and attract more customers.

Not long after, William Rosenberg launched a doughnut shop by the name of The Open Kettle in Quincy, Massachusetts. Two years later, he changed the name to Dunkin’ Donuts. 

By 1979, there were around 1,000 Dunkin’ Donuts stores across the US – competing with Krispy Kreme for their share of the doughnut and coffee market.

When did coffee and doughnuts become a common pairing?

Back when Rosenberg sold doughnuts from his catering truck – some time before he opened the first Dunkin’ store – he noticed that doughnuts with coffee accounted for around 40% of his sales. 

But what made this combination so popular?

Late-night and early morning doughnut shops became more popular in the US after the Second World War. They would often be the only businesses open in town after midnight. As such, police officers would frequently visit doughnut shops to eat during late shifts – bought with a cup of coffee to help them stay awake.

Rosenberg stated in his autobiography that he wanted Dunkin’ to create hospitable environments for police officers, who in turn would provide free policing for the stores.

This led to a stereotype of the doughnut-loving and coffee-drinking cop, perpetuated by characters in movies and TV shows – like Chief Wiggum from The Simpsons.

While late night visits from police officers kickstarted the trend, it has gradually grown to become more and more popular across the US. Today, consumers generally expect doughnut stores to sell coffee, and a 2020 report from The NPD Group found that 2.1 billion coffee orders were made in doughnut shops in the 12 months to October 2019, in contrast with 805 million doughnut orders.

The report also found that 68% of purchases from doughnut shops include coffee, while only 30% included a doughnut. It also showed that specialty coffee orders had increased by 14%, showing interest in higher-quality beans.

Craig says that consumers seeking high quality doughnuts also generally look for good-quality coffee. “It’s interrelated,” he tells me. “If you open up a specialty doughnut shop then you’re going to want to source specialty coffee.

“Somebody who spends US $3 to $5 on a doughnut is somebody who is likely going to want to experience good-quality coffee.”

James Brewer is the Head of Marketing at Crosstown. Crosstown is a London bakery chain that specialises in high quality doughnuts – however, it also sources roasted coffee from Caravan Coffee Roasters, a specialty coffee chain based in the same city.

“In 2014, Crosstown created the world’s first sourdough doughnuts, and soon after we opened our first stores in central London,” James explains. 

“As consumers’ desire for great coffee has grown, so has their appetite for unique and interesting flavour combinations in the food that they enjoy.”

Elevating the doughnut & pairing it with the right coffee

Craig says: “Since we opened, it seems more shops are [also] opening up, and we’re seeing more attention on the doughnuts themselves.

“We’ve worked hard to elevate the classic doughnut into something which appeals to a more sophisticated palate.”

Alongside the growing demand for specialty coffee, we’ve seen a number of cafés and coffee businesses offer higher quality products in kind – including doughnuts. This isn’t just limited to the US, either – across Europe, there are many specialty doughnut and coffee shops, including Talor Made in Oslo and Brammibals in Berlin.

“I was fascinated by doughnuts themselves and what I could do to make them taste better, so I decided to [start] a doughnut truck,” explains Craig. “While I was working on that concept, I interviewed around 30 different coffee companies before I chose Equator Coffees, because of their quality and [range].”

Craig says that cafés and roasters who are interested in selling doughnuts should offer complementary pairings with coffee.

“If you’re more of a classic roaster, maybe go with more of a classic doughnut,” he says. “You could always do a [more experimental] pairing, however, like blueberry doughnuts with Ethiopian coffee.”

He also tells me that Johnny Doughnuts incorporate coffee into the doughnut recipes themselves: “We put coffee in our chocolate glaze to give it more richness.”

James also notes that consumer interest has pushed Crosstown into sourcing higher quality, local, and fresher ingredients for their doughnuts.

“We’re seeing that consumers want to know more about where their food comes from, the ingredients that are used, and the ethical and social responsibilities of the businesses that they buy from.

“In 2017, we launched our first vegan doughnuts in response to what our customers wanted. Now, half of our menu is suitable for vegans, which includes our range of small-batch ice cream and cookies.”


Will we see a move away from larger chains?

Doughnut and coffee chains are immensely popular. There are 8,500 Dunkin’ outlets across the US, and they sell an estimated 2 billion cups of coffee every year between them.

But despite this, Craig thinks that people are switching to higher quality products. “In this Slow Food movement, for instance, people have started focusing more on quality ingredients [and] taking their time with food preparation.

“People are making the move away from chains and more towards specialty. However, there’s always a place for the chains because they fill a niche that’s really important.”

Currently, Dunkin’ supposedly offers “over 15,000 ways to order coffee”, in line with a growing focus on customisation, especially among younger customers. The brand is also appealing to other key coffee sector trends, including home cold brew packs, RTD coffee drinks, and K-cup capsules.

Despite the prominence that doughnut and coffee chains have in the market, smaller-scale coffee businesses shouldn’t necessarily be deterred from launching a line of specialty donuts, however. Boutique chains like Crosstown and Johnny’s Doughnuts (which opened its fourth store in May 2021) have thrived despite the competition.

For specialty coffee shops looking to partner with local doughnut bakeries or even offer their own doughnuts, James has some advice. “Operators must listen to what their customers want and look to create the best version of that,” he says.

“Sourcing the best seasonal ingredients, crafting products by hand, and operating in such a competitive environment isn’t easy,” he adds. “If you can keep your offering interesting and relevant, it will help to nurture a loyal and engaged customer base.”

Doughnuts have come a long way, from their humble beginnings in Ancient Greece and the Middle East to the variety of experimental flavours on offer in specialty coffee shops and bakeries across the world.

As more consumers demand higher quality products, we may see more specialty coffee shops offer doughnuts and other baked goods. As this happens, we should expect quality to increase – in line with a growing push towards higher quality in the coffee sector across the board.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on four coffee desserts you can make at home

Photo credits: Crosstown, David Robson

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