Touring musician and lover of pastries, Joey Pepe often made it a point to frequent independently owned bakeries whenever on the road. He discovered, especially on the West Coast, that artisan donuts were finding a foothold. When he returned home to Charlotte, the 28-year-old found himself longing for the taste of something far beyond Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts.
Both foodies, he and his now-fiancée Jen Hall decided to try their hands at making donuts of their own. Friends who'd sampled his fried goods repeatedly suggested Pepe sell them. His opportunity came one day last fall while visiting The Daily Press in NoDa, when owner Lindsey Pittman asked Pepe to sell his gourmet donuts at the coffeeshop's Saturday Farmers Market. Thus, Joe's Doughs was born. These days, he brings about 150 with him every other week, and usually sells out in less than an hour.
Creative Loafing: Is making donuts easier or more difficult than you expected?
Joey Pepe: Way harder. Selling isn't hard, because they sell themselves. I make some weird combinations and flavors, and people like craft foods, so that's the easy part. Getting up at 3 a.m. is the hard part, too, in order to make the donuts and have them done in time. It's also finding time to do research to find new flavor combinations. Making the donuts themselves is really hard — I can't tell you how many times I failed. I've made a lot of shitty donuts. It's hard to get the right amount of yeast, to get them to rise long enough, not burn them in the fryer, you can overpunch the dough or not punch the dough enough and you don't even know how they're going to taste. Even now, every time I make them I feel I learn something new. It's not like I went to school to learn how to do this. I learned how to write songs just from doing it; I learned how to make donuts just from doing it.
How do you come up with the flavor ideas and what are some of the most popular/worst ideas you've had?
I research on flavor-pairing websites — what pairs well with bourbon or strawberries or coconut. Then I try to figure out something unique to do with it. For a lemon donut, I candied the lemons and then take a blowtorch to it to add a smoky flavor. Some of the most popular — peanut butter s'mores, maple bacon, chocolate salted caramel, blueberry French toast, Thai coconut basil and chicken and waffles. I didn't think a white chocolate wasabi with candied ginger would do well, but they sold out in about 10 minutes. The worst idea was trying to make a Spanish-inspired dulce de leche donut that used jalapeño — I changed it to cinnamon.
Are there any plans to make this a full-time gig?
It's a nice side business, but music is my passion and livelihood. I'm not looking for a storefront. It's really fun and something that Charlotte doesn't have, so I'm glad I can help supply that. Jen and I always say that one day when we retire, we'll move to the beach and open a donut shop.