West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 20 | October 17 - 23, 2007

The Lower East Side Traditions and Transitions
A special Villager supplement

Villager photo by Barry Paddock

Mark Isreal with a fresh batch of doughnuts at the Doughnut Plant on Grand St.

Ultimate designer doughnut took long time to design

By Barry Paddock

A young man in a baseball cap hurried past Doughnut Plant, a bakery a few blocks from the Manhattan entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge.

“Those doughnuts are the best in the world,” the man crowed to his female companion. “They have pumpkin doughnuts. They have apple cinnamon doughnuts.” His friend looked back over her shoulder in puzzlement.

Inside the store and bakery, at 379 Grand St., a staff of seven produces some 2,000 doughnuts a day in round-the-clock shifts. A driver ferries the bulk of them by van each morning to 40 gourmet Manhattan stores. The rest are sold in the bakery’s small storefront, where on a recent day a middle-aged Japanese woman in head-to-toe black sat in the window seat. She nibbled lustily at a tres leche cake doughnut.
“I came all the way from the Bronx for this,” she said, and was taken aback when manager Haraka Das bantered back from behind the counter in Japanese.

“We’ve all picked up a little Japanese,” Haraka said. The store’s staff has trained dozens of visiting employees from the 10 Doughnut Plants that have opened in Japan in the wake of the Lower East Side store’s success.

Mark Isreal, 44, a longtime Lower East Sider, created Doughnut Plant in 1994 as a small wholesale operation. In a tenement basement he mixed dough by hand, deep-frying the doughnuts in a large pot.

“If you were alone in a room focusing on one thing for five years, hopefully you’d get good at it,” he said. Never seen without a bandanna tied around his head, he still devotes 12 or more hours a day to the bakery.

His grandfather ran a bakery in North Carolina for 30 years starting in 1935 and died when Isreal was 3.

“All the equipment was moved into the basement of my grandmother’s house,” he said. “My brother and I used to play with it all.”

Isreal came to New York in 1981 at age 17, and for 13 years pursued various creative and culinary endeavors.

“Those things had limited success,” he said. “When I started the Doughnut Plant I’d never experienced in my life making people happy like that.”

He walked into gourmet food stores unannounced and bearing samples. Orders began rolling in, which he delivered on bicycle.

“It was almost like a prison,” he said of those years working alone in the basement. “Brick walls, there wasn’t even a window. I didn’t have my grandfather. I didn’t have anybody teaching me. I took his recipe and tried to make it work.” He added his own innovation — glazes made with seasonal fresh fruit and fresh roasted nuts.

In 2000 he left the basement behind to open the bakery on Grand St. Four years later he opened the first Doughnut Plant in Japan, working with a Japanese partner who approached him after tasting one of his doughnuts at the Soho Dean & DeLuca. The Grand St. bakery remains the only Doughnut Plant outside of Japan.

His reinvention of the jelly doughnut caused a media sensation in 2004.

“For two weeks we had film crews in the bakery nearly every day,” he said.

He held one of the jelly doughnuts before him. It was square with a hole in the middle, designed to resemble a screw nut. His father was manager of a clothing factory, and his mother would see his father out the door every morning by saying, “Have a good day at the plant.” Her words inspired the name and industrial theme of Doughnut Plant.

Tart jam, which he had made a few days ago from fresh Italian plums, ran through all four sides of the trademarked square doughnut.

“I wasn’t interested in having the big glob of jelly in the middle,” Isreal said.

A year after introducing the square jelly doughnut, Isreal’s first cake doughnuts, made without yeast, made their debut. Developing the recipe had consumed him for five years.

“When I first started to make cake doughnuts, I took somebody else’s recipe and made it,” he said. “It was so uninteresting to me. That’s why I threw it all away. When you’re not starting with a recipe, you start with glop. It was trial and error, seeing what I liked and didn’t like. I had people try them at different points, and they liked them. But it wasn’t until I was satisfied that I would sell them. There’s no other cake doughnut that has this taste. No other in the world.”

Isreal and his unusual creations have been featured on “Good Morning America,” “Live With Regis and Kelly” and other television programs.

“A lot of things, if I knew they were going to happen ahead of time, I would have been scared,” he said. “Appearing on national TV, I would have been scared. But because it wasn’t for me, it was easier. It was for the doughnuts.” 

For more information, visit doughnutplant.com.


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