This is a box of Voodoo doughnuts.

The Portland establishment is (in)famous for insane doughnut creations, and insane customer lines to boot.

The team attributes a lot of their creativity to the punch-drunk shopping they’d do after a 16-hour day spent in front of a fryer.

In a small trick of experience design, their store has no chairs or tables, to get people in and out--that said, after standing in a long line outside, you’ll basically have the store to yourself to make a decision. Because if you aren’t ordering, you aren’t invited in.

You’re greeted by two rotating pie cases of delight. Voodoo was warned by industry vets that pie cases weren’t for doughnuts. But not only do they look fantastic; they take up a smaller footprint that a wide display case in Voodoo’s tiny store.

As crazy as their doughnuts may be, they’re formulated from just a few core ingredients. Despite having over 100 doughnuts on their menu, they have just three icings.

Their namesake doughnut is still $1.95--a pittance in the face of premium doughnut culture.

The Maple Bacon Doughnut was crafted in minutes--it’s just a piece of bacon on a classic maple bar--but it’s played a part in the whole recent bacon-on-everything craze.

Many doughnuts are just covered in popular cereals. Voodoo creates a halo effect with their own brand by tugging at your nostalgia for a bowl of sugary breakfast. And as Tres Shannon told me, cereals just look fantastic on a doughnut.

In fact, Shannon hasn’t even tried doughnuts like their Voodoo Bubble (a super sweet doughnut topped with a piece of wrapped chewing gum). But the hyperbolic ideas, like this chocolate, chocolate dipped, chocolate cerealed "Triple Chocolate Penetration" are as much about sensory overload as anything else.

The Nyquil Doughnut got Voodoo into a bit of trouble with the FDA, but that trouble ultimately garnered a ton of press. (So it was worth it.)

Other dougnuts include the Old Dirty Bastard. It’s a raised yeast doughnut with chocolate frosting, Oreos, and peanut butter.

Grape Ade--the not-so-secret ingredient is grape drink mix sprinkled on top.

Cock-N-Balls--the epitome of Voodoo’s extra value milked from design. This $5.25 doughnut, filled with Bavarian cream, is little more than two cheap doughnuts mashed together. But it looks like a penis. (And for $1 extra, you can have any word you like written on top.)

Captain Crunch--a raised yeast doughnut with vanilla frosting and Captain Crunch.

Maple Blazer Blunt--Raised yeast doughnut rolled into a blunt & dusted with cinnamon sugar. The tip is dipped in maple frosting and red sprinkle "embers."

No Name (that’s actually the name)--Raised yeast doughnut with chocolate frosting, Rice Krispies and peanut butter.

Dirt Donut--raised yeast doughnut with vanilla frosting and Oreos.

And of course, their donut buckets. These budget-friendly packs unload day-old (actually, just 8-hour old) donuts to partiers. Plus, it’s a clever way to dispose of a lot of plastic icing buckets.

Weed, NyQuil, And Dongs: The Secret Ingredients Behind Voodoo Doughnut

Cereal, penises, NyQuil, even weed. Nothing is off limits for the creative minds behind Voodoo Doughnut, which is exactly what’s made them so darned delightful.

Long before the resurgence of Brooklyn and the birth of the Cronut, there was a West Coast revolution in sugar, flour, and yeast. These basic components behind the humblest of all pastries were elevated by two Portland entrepreneurs into a deep-fried mecca called Voodoo Doughnut. Despite being open 24 hours a day, long lines are standard, filled with crowds eager to buy everything from 95-cent old-fashioneds to the business’s chocolate-covered namesake, a voodoo doll that’s been pretzel-pierced through the heart. It bleeds goat’s blood (which, as luck would have it, tastes a lot like raspberry sauce).

For years, I’d thought it a tourist trap, and surely it is. But as I walked through the doors to be met with two spinning pie cases full of every glistening hyperbole of a doughnut imaginable--I found myself too tongue-tied to order. Did I want the doughnut covered in Crunchberries or Cocoa Puffs? What about bubblegum or bacon? Should I be good and get just one flavor? Should I be a glutton and order a dozen? How many is a dozen? What’s a doughnut? And as I stammered together a few loose sentences and made my way out of the shop, I, like Ralphie from A Christmas Story, had forgotten my most important request: the voodoo doll itself.

I may have failed at Voodoo Doughnut, but the store had succeeded. Despite the line and the persistent wafting of grease, I left enraptured with sheer childhood delight. Voodoo is a rare combination of superb product design and superb experience design, eye candy and mouth candy in one.

“People come and drop to their knees. They say, ‘I’ve driven here eight hours without going to the bathroom to get an apple fritter!” laughs Voodoo’s co-founder Tres Shannon. “It’s like, God guys. I mean it’s wonderful but it’s just fried doughnut! We haven’t really invented anything.”

Here’s what the best in the doughnut business taught me about redesigning the status quo.

Listen To Your 3 a.m. Giggling Self

It’s true. Fundamentally, Voodoo isn’t making donuts any differently than your average corner shop, except in one key way: Through a seemingly limitless supply of punch-drunk imagination, they’ve expanded the very definition of fried dough.

“We always went into the business trying to figure out how to make crazy donuts, but lots of those decisions were probably just based on being tired,” Shannon admits. “We were so exhausted after working 16 hours, and we’d still have to shop for the next day. So we’d walk through the grocery aisles and say, ‘Why not put cereal on a donut? A donut is a breakfast. Cereal is breakfast. And cereal looks great on a donut.”

Most of Voodoo’s 100+ list of dazzling doughnuts was improvised just this quickly between Shannon and his business partner Cat Daddy. Did an idea sound good? Would it look good? Sold. The epitome of this idea might be the Voodoo Bubble. It’s a pink vanilla donut with a piece of wrapped bubble gum on top.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even know if I’ve had a Bubble. The experience of eating one is hard to imagine partaking in,” Shannon confesses. “It’s definitely for the masses, for the crowds. With us, a lot of it is just, it has to be appealing to the eye. The Bubble doughnut looks great on TV and in magazines.”

Indeed, the goal of every doughnut seems first and foremost to be sensory overload. But not every doughnut is designed solely for the eyes. An early hit happened when Cat Daddy spontaneously brought a pack of bacon into work one morning--a possible missing link to a sweet and savory doughnut they’d wanted to make for some time. They fried it up and had the idea to stack a crispy slice on a traditional maple bar. Voodoo’s most successful creation was born, an absolutely delicious but somewhat unappealing pile of tan, the Maple Bacon Doughnut.

“We’ve been sort of apologizing for it at this point,” Shannon says. “Everyone is putting bacon on everything now.”

Embrace Big, Bad Ideas For The Spectacle Alone

Of course, when punch-drunk ideas become products, some missteps are bound to happen. Some of the team’s most notorious include a Pepto Bismol doughnut--a chalky pink donut that was actually dipped in Pepto and sprinkled with Tums. It was conceived as a digestif for Voodoo’s late-night drunks (and a few actually bought them). Another over-the-counter creation was the NyQuil doughnut--laced with the real green stuff--that led to trouble with the FDA.

“It’s not like you were getting buzzed off the NyQuil; you would have had to eat 50 donuts to get high off it,” Shannon says. “But we got a lot of notoriety for it. That was one of our first big press successes.”

In a sense, these failures were actually a type of triumph, garnering the notoriety that leads customers to still request a Nyquil-laced doughnut today. Yet neither questionable idea holds a candle to the horrific failure of the oyster doughnut.

“There is a famous oyster restaurant across the street. So we’d run over and get a fresh shucked oyster. And we’d run back and put the oyster on the doughnut lovingly, and that didn’t really fly,” Shannon laughs.

Consider Cock, Balls, And Everything In Between

If there’s one fundamental alchemy that’s so tough to pin down at Voodoo, it’s not the sweet and colorful, cereal aisle appeal of their product. It’s that Voodoo sells such an array, from the most conservative 95-cent glazed doughnut to a $5.25 chocolate-coated "Cock-N-Balls," all in the interest of appealing to grandma, mom, and her kids (and maybe their eventual bachelorette party) in one.

“That’s part of the whole idea, we appeal to everybody--from the loon to the toon,” Shannon says. “I never thought I’d say ‘Cock-N-Balls’ 50 times a day.”

That might sound like a mere phallic joke, but doughnuts like the Cock-N-Balls are also pretty serious business. Not only do they give Voodoo’s brand a late-night edge, Voodoo’s more ambitious creations also open the door to expansive pricing on an otherwise low-return product. Through penises, cereals, and over-the-counter medicines, Voodoo has essentially added a design-driven ROI to the doughnut industry.

“We are charging $5 for our Cock-N-Balls, which isn’t really more than two doughnuts, crafted in a way that’s shaped funny,” Shannon explains. “The work and time isn’t much beyond making two glazed donuts. There are ways we’ve snuck around that and still given people a value--made people think we were giving them a value.”

Don’t Be Afraid To Soar Even Higher

With a decade of doughnut-making under their belts and a triple-digit doughnut menu, you’d think Cat Daddy and Tres Shannon may be slowing down with new ideas. (Just imagine if a company like Apple had more than 100 products!). But in fact, they’re set on continuing the insanity, upping their own antes of delight and sheer shock value. The team is opening a new store in Denver, Colorado, in the coming months, and with it will come a whole new wave of joojoo in the Voodoo.

“With Colorado legalizing marijuana, that could be interesting,” Shannon teases. “There’s a dispensary right across the street from where we’re opening.”

Just don’t forget the Crunchberries.

[IMAGES: Taestell via Flickr, Camknows via Flickr, Youth Radio via Flickr]

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4 Comments

  • Sense_n_Sensibility

    VooDoo swings in that unique "tourist trap/local's hangout" space ... yes, people drive from far-flung locations & line the block for CRAZy amounts of time to purchase "Cap'n My Cap'n" or "Texass" doughnuts just to say they've "been to VooDoo..."  However, the doughnuts ARE pretty dang good & locals know to pick up a VooDoo Dozen (or two) in addition to an extra "Memphis Mafia" or four for later (which, by the way, are totally delicious - liberated - after being wrapped tightly in cling wrap, placed in a Zip Lock -  & defrosted in the microwave --- even after being frozen for weeks....) AND, they know to go over the Burnside Bridge to VooDoo Too where the lines aren't usually as long, parking is free & there's a little more elbow room when they just want doughnuts & not the "full meal deal" or "dinner & a show."
    If you're lucky, you may get in on a wedding performed right there in front of the spinning doughnuts in the cases and help a nice couple celebrate their happy day.  

  • T.J. Barber

    Everything looks so disgusting that the whole thing feels like a Portlandia skit. I mean, more power to them for getting it to work for them, but good god I wouldn't eat most of that on a bet.