White Stone, Virginia, boasts one traffic light in a village of 317 souls. Last June, Chesapeake Doughnut Company opened its doors at the corner of that intersection, its blue metal roof gleaming, filling the spot left by a gas station convenience store that had vacated years ago. From 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., a steady stream of customers, averaging 45 a day, enters the brightly lit shop with the shiny doughnut robot at its place of honor in the front plate glass window.
The Covid-19 pandemic closed hundreds of thousands of small businesses in towns just like White Stone, so who in their right minds would open a new one? Meet Gabe del Rio and Jeff Ewing, partners and founders of an organic, locally sourced gourmet doughnut shop, paired with espresso drinks, in this small rural community.
When the pandemic hit, “We had just signed the lease, the business plan was done, the loan was in process, everything was good to go, and we were planning to open in April,” said Ewing. “Then everything just went sideways.” They delayed their opening from March to June and set up a doughnut cart in the parking lot. “We were open for three days and made round after round of doughnuts until we ran out of everything,” said del Rio. One person ordered 17 dozen doughnuts on that first day, recalled del Rio. Because of the demand, they had to close for a day to restock. The duo credits some of their success to a large social media following that developed very quickly over the spring and summer.
Del Rio grew up in the next village over. His grandparents had a second home in Irvington, Virginia, and he spent his summers enjoying sailing and the outdoors. When he was 12, his mother died and he moved in with his grandparents, who were then fulltime residents. Del Rio graduated from the local high school. He met his partner, Jeff, in California, where they lived for 20 years before returning to the Northern Neck a year ago. “Who wouldn’t want to live in a place with more trees than people?”
With Cuban and Irish roots, del Rio speaks animatedly about the business decision to open a specialty food store in the middle of 2020. “No nearby competition, product missing in the market, and who doesn’t love doughnuts — it is fried dough and sugar in the South,” he said. “The nearest competition is 37 miles and 50 minutes away,” said del Rio.
The location of White Stone was strategically chosen because it is a major gateway to the Northern Neck. “Approximately 9,000 cars travel through this intersection every day, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation,” he said, gesturing to the street in front of the store. Their vision doesn’t end with one store. Their second store in Warsaw, Virginia, will open in November, and it will sit near another crossroads where 16,000 cars pass daily. Many, del Rio hopes, will want to stop for a doughnut made with only the best ingredients and exceptional coffee made with cutting-edge reverse osmosis equipment. Growth plans include stores in Dahlgren and Stafford, and “then Chesapeake Doughnut Company will be at every bridge into the Northern Neck.”
This vision is just the beginning of what they hope will be a chain with 12 to 20 shops producing fresh, high-quality doughnuts in three states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Their store joins a specialty food niche that is growing steadily, according to industry reports. Doughnuts have a colorful history, going back to fossilized, rounded bits found in prehistoric Native American settlements. The first “modern” doughnut came to the island of Manhattan, then called New Amsterdam, by Dutch settlers who called them olykoeks or oily cakes. Since then, doughnuts have been the dream product of many entrepreneurs, who in 2020, collectively built a multi-billion-dollar food sector from fried sweet dough. Smithsonian magazine has dubbed the doughnut, “in its democratic ethos, its optimism, and its assorted origins…rather quintessentially American.”
Despite the pandemic, new businesses are being started across the United States at faster rates in more than a decade, with applications for employer identification numbers passing 3.2 million so far this year, compared with 2.7 million at the same point in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Del Rio and Ewing still work full time at other jobs and haven’t paid themselves a salary yet. Ewing opened his CPA business, The Numbers, in an office adjacent to the doughnut store, while del Rio runs a national non-profit from a desk in the adjoining office.
Given del Rio’s professional background in community development work, he said, “The mission of the company is to be a job maker, paying living-wage jobs.” The White Stone store has four full-time staff. The “doughnut engineer” arrives at 4 every morning, seven days a week, to start the process of making hundreds of doughnuts each day.
Del Rio points out that customers can get a dozen classic doughnuts for $20, working hard to keep the price reasonable for everyone to enjoy. They added a breakfast sandwich to expand their savory offerings. “We want to have fun and experiment with flavors like lemon lavender, but we always offer the classics,” said del Rio. “We make everything 100% from scratch, all organic and locally sourced when possible.” They don’t scrimp on any ingredients, using the chocolate frosting as an example. “We melt dark, semisweet South American chocolate, mixed with French fondant – all the best quality.” According to del Rio, glazed yeast doughnuts are the best seller, but others, like Boston Crème, are a close second.
Specialty flavors and toppings are pushing global doughnuts consumption up, as customers eat sweet or savory, classic or gourmet, yeast or gluten-free doughnuts in increasing numbers. The U.S. doughnut market is expected to reach approximately $8.4 billion in 2020, according to industry projections. Some small number of those millions will be sold to new and faithful customers at the Chesapeake Doughnut Company, a new rural business, born in a pandemic, and bringing hope and organic doughnuts to rural Virginia.