It might seem counterintuitive to double down on a business opportunity at the start of a crisis, but that’s exactly what two determined doughnut enthusiasts did when covid-19 closed the country in 2020.
Best friends Shenine Dube and Grace Tauber first started their doughnut journey in 2014 while living in Australia.
Battling homesickness, the pair began baking Cook Island doughnuts in their tiny Sydney flat, drawing on flavours from their Cook Islands and Fijian-Indian heritage, and using Tauber’s family recipe passed down by her mother.
After moving back to NZ two years later, the pair were encouraged by family and friends to turn their doughnut baking hobby into a business.
Doe Donuts was born – the name playing on the word ‘dough’ and an acronym for ‘doughnuts over everything’ – and the business quickly grew from selling at weekend markets to weekly orders through their website.
“From there, we just got more attention and we grew from there,” Tauber says.
A focus on Doe
Their full-time jobs – Dube worked in digital marketing and Tauber as a buyer in a homewares company – at the time were supportive of their budding entrepreneurship and let them take several days off a week so they could focus on Doe.
It was hard giving up secure full-time income but both women knew it wouldn’t be possible to achieve their Doe goals unless they went all-in on the business.
“At that time, Doe wasn't making a whole lot of money, but we could see the potential,” Dube says.
“Quitting our jobs was a huge risk but we wanted to put our all into it.”
It felt like an even bigger risk when several weeks later, covid reached NZ and the country’s first nationwide lockdown soon followed.
“Lockdown was a shock because we've never been in that situation before,” she says. “But it also gave us that time to take a breather and figure out what we were going to do next.”
When some businesses such as Doe were able to open for online orders in the looser level 3 covid restrictions, doughnut requests started flying through the door.
“We got so many orders from people who were still in lockdown and were just dying to have food that was made by someone else,” Tauber says.
Dube says sales tripled for a time: “We were baking around 300 doughnuts a day, which was a lot for us back then as this was before we had any staff.”
At that point, the pair were still renting kitchen space and managing sales purely through their website, but the sales uptick over the next 12 months pushed them to open a retail shop in Grey Lynn in May 2021.
They went through a “small rough patch” as they figured out how to make the switch from e-commerce to cajoling people to come into the store.
Part of that was ensuring they had a constant cycle of new flavours every week.
“We have a set amount of flavours that we rotate every single week and it's nice because people will get one flavour they potentially like one week and then another flavour that they like the following week,” Dube says. “It keeps it quite fresh and exciting.”
Since opening their retail shop, they’ve hired a baker and two other staff members, but Dube and Tauber are still in the kitchen at 5am every morning and aren’t planning to stop.
“Shenine and I do all aspects of the business,” Tauber says. “We haven't given up on cooking and we’re still very hands-on.”
They would love to open another shop, but it’s too much pressure in the current environment, where the omicron outbreak has left people reluctant to head back into the city.
“We've done well but we’ve gone through some rough patches over the last couple of years,” Dube says.
Doing business in the country’s covid capital has meant they’ve had to constantly adapt through Auckland’s multiple lockdowns.
“It’s been a really vulnerable time for businesses,” she says.
She wishes businesses could be more open about their struggles.
“What we've been seeing is that it's actually really hard for businesses to say 'Hey, we’re not doing that great’,” Dube says.
December and January were part of the “worst quarter” they’ve experienced since opening their retail shop, which was disappointing after a particularly frantic Christmas with a full order book the year before.
Things have perked up since then, and Tauber says, and the last couple of weeks have been "really good”.
Those tough times are soothed by having great customers.
“There are so many awesome people who just come here every day and just always have something positive to say,” Dube says.
“It’s nice when you're working so hard and then these people come in and say you’re doing a great job – that positive energy is contagious.”
Dube and Tauber say they like to think their customers see that they’ve put a little bit of themselves and their personality into their doughnuts, which the pair see as an underappreciated sweet treat.
“We love to see the looks on people’s faces as they sink their teeth into a doughnut we’ve made, out of real, quality ingredients and with extra lashings of heart and soul,” Dube says.
“Food brings people together and creates memorable experiences.”