As an untreated donut addict, I am happy to live in San Diego, home of Donut Bar, one of the most award-winning donut shops in the world.
When you meet Santiago Campa, who founded Donut Bar five years ago, it’s easy to understand why the shop is such a success.
Campa is a hugger, he gets teary when he talks about his regular customers and the stories they share with him – one woman came with her family to celebrate her 101, 102 and 103 birthdays and her family continues to come on her birthday even though she’s passed – and Donut Bar is his passion.
Donut Bar is pretty much the gold standard of donut shops, and if you're visiting San Diego or Las Vegas, it's a must-visit.
I talked to Campa about life, work and donuts over one of his outstanding Coconut Dreams. If anything doesn’t make sense here, it’s probably because I was in a state of sugary bliss. Sorry not sorry.
What made you want to start a donut shop? Were donuts part of your childhood?
I worked for ten years at five-star hotels. I always knew I wanted to own my own bakery, but the thought of traditional pastries, desserts and wedding cakes actually bored me. I wanted to stick with something classic but put a different spin on it. I soon discovered my life’s work would be perfecting a breakfast staple that has been around for the ages. DONUTS!
How did you want Donut Bar to stand out among donut stores?
I knew that in order to make Donut Bar stand out from the rest, I would have to create a truly top-notch donut. I spent over a year perfecting my recipes before we opened the doors in 2013. I’m not talking casually playing with food; I mean I would put in hours each and every day. I became fanatical. I don’t believe in settling, and I will never rest when it comes to perfecting both my business and my product.
What’s the secret to a really great donut?
The secret to a great donut is not to get too far away from what a donut is. You’ve got to keep in mind that donuts are classic. I never try to reinvent the “donut wheel,” only to perfect it. At the end of the day, it’s all about having a really, really great dough.
I only use the best ingredients, like organic strawberries, top shelf Vermont maple syrup, center cut bacon. Our chocolate molds are custom made. Every detail is important.
I think what makes your donuts so special is that, even when they have unique flavors or embellishments, they still have that pure donut taste. Perfected, of course.
My goal was to stay true to the pure taste everyone loves and elevate it to be the best it can be. I hate when people call donuts “trendy.” They’re anything but trendy. Donuts are tried and true; they’ve been around forever and they’re staying around.
What’s your favorite thing about owning a donut store?
My favorite thing about owning Donut Bar is the people. Donut Bar literally has every type of person in the world walk through its doors. The best part is that Donut Bar is a place where people are able to come together and they’re always happy to be here.
Why did you decide to open in Las Vegas, too?
Donut Bar opened in Las Vegas because our fan base from all over the world demanded it via email, private message, calls and in person. They wanted to share our concept with their friends and family. And, as luck would have it, Las Vegas is a top tourist destination. Donut Bar and Las Vegas are a natural fit – so much so that Mayor Goodman declared April 1st “Donut Bar Day in the City of Las Vegas” with an official proclamation!
Will you be opening more stores?
I’m excited to say that Donut Bar is franchising. Under my careful and selective guidance we have established a very thoughtful and conservative expansion of our brand.
What’s been the biggest surprise for you?
My biggest surprise has been our popularity. We opened in March of 2013 and, five years later, the lines continue to swell. Every year we get busier and busier.
What are the most popular flavors?
Our most popular flavor is hard to pinpoint since we sell out of everything each day. I can say that our Creme Brulee and French Toast Donuts are always crowd favorites.
What’s your own personal favorite?
My personal favorite is no secret; it’s my Maple Bourbon Donut. We use real Vermont maple syrup and a Jim Beam reduction to create a glaze that has a warm, round, and sweet profile.
What are some of your most unusual flavors?
Unusual donuts that I have created at Donut Bar are the Grilled Cheese Donut, French Toast Donut, and the famed Big Poppa Tart Donut. The Big Poppa Tart Donut weighs in at almost a whole pound and is stuffed with a full Pop Tart!
Have you had any fails when it comes to flavors?
I once had a bride request – because donuts are all the rage at weddings – a lavender flavored donut. No matter how I worked with this glaze it tasted like shampoo. In the end I was able to convince the bride to let me decorate my cake batter glaze with lavender leaves and ditch the shampoo tasting donut. She was happy, and so was I.
What’s going to be new on the menu?
I’m always creating new ideas. The best way to see my latest creations is to watch our social media. I love to “go live” and often ask for input and reveal new creations. Here’s a hint: “Summer Creamsicle” ...
The trend in the donut world seems to be going over the top and making them as Instagrammable as possible. What do you think about that and how does that affect your own choices?
When it comes to creating spectacular Instagrammable food, the secret is to make it real. Just because you can make colors pop like crazy on an iPhone screen doesn’t always mean you should douse your creations with food coloring. The follow-up pictures of stained tongues won’t be as pretty.
What’s next for you?
I really enjoy the food industry. Look for me to continue to perfect Donut Bar’s franchised locations and do my best to leave a legacy my sons can be proud of.
Tomorrow, June 1, is National Doughnut Day. What does that mean to you and Donut Bar? How do you celebrate? What should customers expect?
We will make no less than 9000 donuts, and we will give away ONE THOUSAND FREE DONUTS! National Doughnut Day is our biggest day of the year. For us, it’s the absolute equivalent to the Super Bowl.