Dun-Well Donuts, a shop founded by Christopher Hollowell and his friend Dan Dunbar, sits just off the Montrose L stop in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Every day, the pair offer an array of different vegan donuts (flavors rangefrom Tangerine Basil to Maple Bourbon), and they currently make every single one themselves. The shop opened last year. Hollowell was on his way to a postbac program at Columbia when he and Dunbar decided to drop everything and make donuts. Earlier this year, the New York Daily News called them the best doughnuts of 2012. Over a blueberry frosted one, Hollowell talked to me about the decisions involved in opening the shop and building the business.
So how did you end up here?
Dan’s my best bud. We always wanted to start a business together, but we’d never lived in the same city together, and we weren’t in a position to do anything. We were both doing other things. I watched a “Simpsons” episode. It was the anniversary special, and they did a whole section on Homer and donuts. I started craving a donut, and I thought there must be vegan donuts in New York. I found one, but it wasn’t really a donut. It didn’t taste good. I realized that was the business. It was a market that wasn’t being tapped. I was that market. I called up Dan. He started working on the recipe immediately. He was living in Chicago, but it all came to a head when he decided to move to New York.
How long ago was that?
He moved here in November of 2010, and we officially launched the business February 2, 2011. It’s been a little over a year now. We started the wholesale thing and in two weeks, we were already maxed out. There was a lot of demand.
Where were you making them?
Officially, we were making them in a commercial kitchen. Realistically, we were making them in my apartment. There was a fryer that could hold four donuts. We were flipping them all at once and doing what we could. We realized pretty quickly that we should just go for it, and we started looking for spaces. Eventually, we got here [to the shop off the Montrose L stop].
What were you doing before?
I was applying to postbac and pre-med programs while I was making my money as an actor in New York. Directly before that, Dan and I did a bike trip around the world and before that I was in the Peace Corps.
That’s quite a shift from postbac to donut maker.
When Dan decided to move here, I had just been accepted to Columbia. I deferred everything. You have to make a choice at some point. And I chose to do this.
Are you happy with the decision?
Yeah, I am. It’s a lot of work. It’s hard work, but we are just now getting to the point where we can hire some people. That will make me happier.
What’s a typical day like? Are you making all the donuts yourself?
Yeah, it’s just the two of us right now. That’s why we’re starting to restructure and being able to take on people. Right now, we’re forced into two separate roles. Dan’s been doing a lot of the baking, and I do most of the front-of-house. We make all the donuts at the beginning of the day and sell them throughout. We’re each working really long hours. What we’re hoping to be able to do is split it up more and make the donuts throughout the day, which will be great. They will be fresher. They will be more wonderful. People will want them more. [Laughs]
Did you have a plan of what you wanted to do when you grew up? It seems like you bounced from thing to thing to thing.
That’s the nature of the middle-class life. [Laughs] Your choices are so many. I went into theater. That’s what I did. I was making money. I’ve been in a few films and things like that. That’s what I love. I’ll always do it. I pay my dues in the union. That’s what I was thinking I would still be doing.
Where did the med school idea come from?
That’s something I also always wanted to do. You kind of get into a real desire for stability. But I don’t know how it would have worked out. Audrey [Ellis, previous interview subject], who is a great friend, always says I would have gone but I wouldn’t have done it. I would have kept doing it because I would have wanted to finish, but being in a hospital was never my idea [of something I wanted to do]. I would have wanted to do something like Doctors Without Borders.
It sounds like travel is pretty important to you.
Up until this point in my life it really was. I’ve been a nomad for a long time. But not anymore. I don’t have time to travel anymore.
Back to the donuts, I’m not sure the vegan donut shop model works anywhere outside of New York. Are there others?
There are a few, but there’s a reason we chose to do it here.
Bushwick seems like a good place to have one. I imagine it’s cheaper than somewhere more centrally located.
It was definitely serendipitous that we ended up taking this place. It was a struggle looking for a place to do this. We originally were going to be doing everything in a space a third the size of this entire place, which would have cost more money. It was a pretty emotional time. We negotiated a lease in the East Village, and we were everywhere but signing it. It fell through in the last hour because of zoning laws. They rezoned the block to be non-commercial. It was devastating for everyone involved, the landlord and us as well.
How did you learn about the business side?
Really, it’s just figuring it out. Dan’s brother went to business school, and he’s down here helping us get stuff in order so we can start to hire people. I’ve been doing a lot of it on my own and with Dan. But, for example, we pretty much self-funded this space, and you have to cut corners where you can cut corners when negotiating a commercial lease. We did it without a lawyer, which is really hard but, thankfully, I have some friends who are lawyers or people I know in the real-estate industry. I was just calling them up and asking how to do things. By the time we got to this space, we had gone through three other lease negotiations, so I felt like I could do it. We knew exactly what to ask for, what percentages there were, what the taxes were. The lease looks good to me.
Going from a business that’s just you and a partner to one with employees must be hard.
It’s a lot more work than either of us thought it was going to be. Well, we knew how much work it was going to be, but the reality of doing it is a lot of work. I think restructuring things is going to make things a lot easier for the both of us, but also more manageable so we can really focus on the business plan. I’m really excited about the next year with Dun-Well. I think it’s going to be really great.
It sounds like it’s been phenomenally successful, even beyond your expectations. Were you surprised?
Dan and I didn’t want to make the best vegan donut; we wanted to make the best donut. We really expected to be a very, very niche market thing for people who had dietary restrictions, but the fun thing about opening our shop around Bushwick is that while this isn’t a high-traffic area, we’ve become a neighborhood donut shop. We see some of the same people every day. It’s fun for both of us to realize that, as Dan likes to say, we’re a small-town donut shop in a big city.
People live in Bushwick for a reason, which does create a sense of community.
Especially now that things are constantly changing. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for three-and-a-half years. I don’t leave it that often anymore. The best sushi restaurant in New York is in this neighborhood. Roberta’s is in this neighborhood. There’s so much. There’s very little to want for. And, especially for me being a vegan, it’s surprising to me how much there is. We have an Associated supermarket next to us, and they sell three different types of vegan cheeses. The manager is amazing.
Where does Dun-Well go from here?
We’re figuring that out. One of both of our main goals is to make ourselves irrelevant to some extent. But also, we want to open up more shops. I would love to have another shop in a really high-traffic area. That would be great. Right now, we haven’t been able to do things like Smorgasboard or the Hester Street Fair. We would love to have tables there. We’re working right now on making that possible. If not by the end of this summer, next summer. Dun-Well is poised to take over.
You’ll have your own little donut empire.
Yeah, I guess. [Laughs]
Kate Wolff. She is a comedian in NYC, single mother, and jewelry designer.
Previously: Audrey Ellis, Dancer
Noah Davis is frequently lost.