By NOAH BUHAYAR
From his post behind the espresso machine at Dynamo Donuts on 24th Street, Chris Shively meets a skeptic every day. The handmade treats sold here—“Spice Chocolate,” “Vanilla Bean” and “Maple-glaze Bacon Apple” (yes, a donut topped with meat)—cost between $2.00 and $3.00 apiece. Grocery-store sugary rounds packaged by the dozen, they are not.
But even the most dubious customers come around when they take a bite, said the 22-year-old tattooed barista on a recent Wednesday morning.
“They’re like, ‘Goddamn, that’s a good donut!’” he said.
The four-month-old Dynamo Donuts gets a reaction out of most people. Some balk at the price; others at the juxtaposition of a high-end donut shop on a street dominated by Mexican bakeries selling pan dulce for 70 cents or less. But as patrons flock to the counter—steadily on weekday mornings, in droves on weekends—the cafe is gradually winning over more of the neighborhood.
For her part, Sara Spearin, the 41-year-old co-owner, baker, and mastermind behind the fried-dough creations, said the idea to dress up donuts just came to her.
“Everyone is going out for ice cream these days. ‘What’s American?’ I asked myself,” she said, sitting on one of the modern-looking chairs set up on the sidewalk in front of the coffee counter. Cupcakes had already been done, and fancy tarts just didn’t appeal to her after two decades working as a pastry chef.
Spearin, who used to bake at Liberty Cafe in Bernal Heights, said she became consumed with the idea of concocting never-before-tasted donut flavors about six months ago. Around that time, Bill Stone and Tom Moran, the owners of Atlas Cafe, were looking for a pastry chef.
Stone had been eyeing a former sandwich counter near the intersection of 24th and Hampshire Streets. He thought a bakery—“the Mission’s answer to Bar Tartine”—would make a nice addition to the street. When he heard Spearin’s idea to do donuts rather than pastry, something clicked.
They could phase the opening by starting with coffee-and-donut window to generate revenue, and then expand to a full bakery with indoor seating a few months later.
According to Stone, Dynamo has yet to turn a profit even charging $2.00 per donut, mostly because of all the upfront costs of rehabbing a building and renting an off-site kitchen until the baking and frying equipment gets installed. Four months in, though, he still felt the venture was a good one.
“It’s kind of like the donut is the new cupcake,” he said, reflecting on how the fried balls of dough had as much buzz now as cupcakes did a few years ago.
Jacquie Vankeuren and her husband Will Yarbrough, both graphic designers, bought into the craze and now wander over to Dynamo every other morning from their house a few blocks away. On Wednesday morning, the couple lingered in front of the bar, eating Vanilla Bean donuts and sipping coffee.
Asked how the Dynamo stacked up to Krispy Kreme, the graphic designers said there was no comparison.
“It’s like Wonder Bread versus Acme Bread,” said Yarbrough, comparing Dynamo’s donuts to the artisan loaves found in high-end grocery stores.
Nearby, Xavier Cobos, 30, who also lives close to Dynamo and works at the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, was a fan of the cappuccino, but a little less enthusiastic about fried pastries.
“It’d be like six bucks a day to have a donut and coffee,” he said. “It’s more of a treat.”
Later that morning, Toby Heitkamp, 37, a bartender at the Makeout Room, dragged two friends from Sacramento along to try the donuts and coffee. A Mission resident for 12 years, he said his allegiance was now torn between high-class Dynamo and his favorite dive, Jelly Donut, at the corner of 24th Street and South Van Ness Avenue.
That hardly concerned 19-year-old Victor Nhul. Keeping customers coming by Jelly—the donut shop his grandmother started in 1987—was his specialty, he said. Regulars always got an extra glazed or two thrown in their bag, on the house. When told the upstart at the other end of 24th Street was charging $2.00, he laughed.
“For a donut?” he said. “That’s like drug prices.”
“Must be a Colombian donut,” a paramedic joked, as he handed over 75 cents for his morning sweet fix.
Back at Dynamo, Hietkamp straddled the neighborhood divide, pointing out the merits of both establishments.
“If I’m in a gourmet mood, this is the place I go,” he said. “If I’m in a-lot-of-donut mood, I go to Jelly.”
So far he hasn’t had to make the decision on price alone, something that Spearin and Stone hope continues, as the economy slows and the cash strapped budget less for comfort food.
Hietkamp, though, thought that Dynamo’s core business was essentially recession-proof.
“They’d probably be like booze,” the bartender said of the donuts. “They’re only two bucks if you want to treat yourself . . . . Coffee and donuts, that’s like staples almost.”