Portland is Having a Doughnut Crisis
Voodoo is selling out to Silicon Valley. Blue Star's seen better days. Where does Portland's famed doughnut scene go from here?
As befits a climate where it is dark and wet and often quite chilly for a large part of the year, donuts have long been a staple of the Portland diet, best consumed with a cup of the city's very good coffee. Like so many things Portland likes to eat, donuts are the topic of much discussion, around town—asking which donuts are the best ones can spark an extensive debate. A couple of days ago, Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic ignited a firestorm of hot takes when he tweeted that the Rose City's most world-famous purveyor of weird donuts, Voodoo, was overrated. Cue outrage—or not?
The tweet certainly created a stir; a reporter from The Oregonian even conducted a follow-up interview with Nurkic, who doubled down. ("Like I said in the tweet, overrated," he told the paper.) If there was any outrage, it seemed to be swirling around the fact that the basketball player didn't already know how overrated Voodoo had become.
Not that Voodoo's feelings were hurt—coincidentally, on that same day Nurkic took to Twitter, news broke that the company had entered a partnership with a Silicon Valley investment firm. There were reports that the deal is based around a rather aggressive expansion strategy plan, which isn't surprising—Voodoo had already shown interest in expanding its sphere of influence, opening in Denver, Austin and at Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles. In Portland, they still call that what we all used to call it, back in the 1990's: selling out.
It's not the first time being part of Brand Portland has ended up making local food and drink entrepreneurs a great deal of money—Duane Sorenson's Stumptown Coffee, now owned by a European conglomerate, began life as one of the best little roaster-café operations in the United States, at the time; the city is full of breweries that seem super Oregon (Bridgeport, Widmer Brothers, 10 Barrel) but are actually owned by giant corporations, elsewhere. So why shouldn't doughnuts enjoy the same success?
And, where to now? Contributing writer Alexander Basek lives in Portland and enjoys the occasional doughnut—we sat down for a quick chat. —David Landsel
David Landsel: So, we saw the Nurkic tweet. The tweet. The one that made Portland go a little bit crazy.
Alexander Basek: More crazy than usual!
DL: How big a deal was this? I only lived in Portland for a short time a couple of years ago and am not up on the sports.
AB: He's a new player, they just traded for him last year. I think it's like someone from the Knicks (wait, we all know it'd be Porzingis) talking trash about Carbone. It's not so beloved, but it exists prominently in the consciousness here, and visitors really like it.
DL: That's what I found very entertaining—so many people agreed with him.
AB: Plus, the tweet was hot on the heels of news that Voodoo was taking outside investment from Silicon Valley. Two things Portland dislikes, joining forces! And the only man with the courage to say something was Jusuf Nurkic.
DL: That second part of the news certainly has been reverberating around the tightly-knit artisanal doughnut world, I assume. Personally, once I saw that they were opening at Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles, I figured they'd already sold the company. That's about as off-brand as you can be as a Portland company, but hey, stranger things have happened—there's a Salt & Straw ice cream shop in the San Fernando Valley now. I was never a Voodoo fan. I remember going there right at the beginning, back before everyone had a maple bacon donut, back before I'd had all of the ones people eventually started making. Even then, I thought it was sloppy and bad and sort of tasteless.
AB: Let's just say, from a culinary standpoint, Portland has moved on.
DL: Judging from Nurkic's mentions, it's not even smart to tell people that you even go to Voodoo, whether you liked it or not. How Portland is that, really—"wow, it's so embarrasing that you did not know how much we all hate Voodoo already."
AB: Yes, Portland loves to be on the leading edge of a backlash. Though I think visitors are moving on, too—just go to Blue Star Donuts' downtown location—there are just as many Instagram influencers visiting from out of town with SLR's around their necks and staging their Blueberry Bourbon Basils as you'd find at Voodoo.
DL: This may be slightly more controversial and if so, I apologize to no one, but so many people were still cheerleading for Blue Star and I just don't get it. To me, Blue Star had a moment—a wonderful moment—and then it became a larger, very commercial operation, and the quality and care just isn't matching the prices, which, by the way, have skyrocketed. It's $4.25 for a maple bacon donut now.
AB: Blue Star is totally Shake Shacking, now. Micah Camden's ideas are about proof of concept. Some of them survive the transition to chainlet, like his very good Boxer Ramen. Some don't. The feeling that no one is minding the store can be hard to escape when you roll into a Blue Star location on a Saturday morning and they haven't bothered to restock from the day before.
DL: It wasn't like that back in the old days, when going to the downtown Blue Star felt like going to an actual patisserie, seeing the level of fanaticism and care going into those donuts. And they were cheaper, then. So were do we go, from here? Of course there is a lot of chatter about Pip's, and Coco's, but I have a soft spot for those old school Portland places like Delicious, just over the Burnside Bridge, where you can get a donut for as little as a dollar, or Tonallis, which is right at the heart of the action on Alberta Street. What's your take? Where are your go-to's?
AB: I have been to Pip's and you should not. Look, I fully respect that Pip's is an adorable space filled with children gazing in wonder at the mini-donuts they serve, but they're not very good, and the waits and lines can get aggressively irritating. Fried-to-order is a nice idea, but it's just not worth a detour, as the Michelin Guide would say. On the other hand, I think Coco is good, and that even Jusuf Nurkic would find them to be properly rated. When people have had enough of the shellacked numbers at Blue Star, they can come here for the type of tasty donuts they'd lay out at the Twin Peaks Sheriff's Department. It's not fussy, at Coco, which is a welcome relief.
DL: And they use the dusty pink boxes, just like a good donut shop should. Voodoo is known for them as well, but it's important that people realize that on the West Coast a lot of shops have always rocked the pink, whether they are famous or not.
AB: Millennial pink is real, people.