The StoriesAugust 15th, 2018
HELMSMEN SERIES: A CONVERSATION WITH MATT AND SIMON OF DOUGHNUT PARTY
Simon Underwood and Matthew Garrett, founders of Doughnut Party
If you think about doughnuts in Edmonton, chances are, Doughnut Party will come to mind. Matthew Garrett and Simon Underwood have been in the doughnut game for over 6 years now, starting with their farmer’s market foray, Moonshine Doughnuts, back in 2012. They jumped into a brick and mortar location in 2017 with Doughnut Party, and the city has been better for it ever since.
Matt and Simon have combined bright colours, bold flavours, and minimalist design to bring a completely unique approach to confections in Edmonton. Turns out, their approach to doughnuts isn’t all that different from their approach to style.
We had the great pleasure of chatting with them for our most recent Helmsmen episode, where we talked branding, personal style, niche markets, and how much we love Edmonton. We also had the chance to explore some style options with them in the store to create a couple of fun looks for our interview.
Without further ado, we present to you our newest Helmsmen, Matt Garrett and Simon Underwood of Doughnut Party. Full interview transcript below!
THE HELMSMEN WITH MATT AND SIMON, FOUNDERS OF DOUGHNUT PARTY
We’re here with Matthew Garrett and Simon Underwood, the two masterminds behind Doughnut Party and Moonshine Doughnuts, arguably Edmonton’s favourite doughnut establishments. They’ve been in the doughnut game for over 6 years now, starting off in farmer’s markets and working their way up to their first brick and mortar store with Doughnut Party.
Chad Helm: Both of you born and raised in Edmonton. That’s super rare.
Matthew Garrett: We kind of stuck around in Edmonton most of our lives because there is a lot of opportunity here to start a business.
Chad: What prompted Moonshine?
Matthew: A couple of things. I was a teacher at the time and there was some downtime in the summer, and then we also had a friend who was starting a farmer’s market. Kirsta Franke was starting the 124th Street Market. She was looking for vendors and I had recognized that there was a gap in the market in Edmonton for artisanal doughnuts.
And I’ve always been somebody who, if I can’t find it in Edmonton, then I just go out and make it. So one night I bought all the supplies on Amazon and then sold doughnuts at the farmer’s market, and that’s kind of where it all started.
“I’ve always been somebody who, if I can’t find it in Edmonton then I just go out and make it.”
Chad: Matt, you said you were a teacher. What were you up to, Simon?
Simon Underwood: I have a Master’s degree in Library Science so I was working as a college administrator at a First Nations college, Yellowhead Tribal College. I still work there one or two days a week.
Chad: So there are always risks when you’re firing up your first venture. What were some of the ones you encountered?
Matthew: Some of the biggest risks are how people are going to respond to it. Because we didn’t really know. We also don’t have a business background so we’re kind of all self taught. For us everything that we do is kind of new to us and a risk.
“For us everything that we do is kind of new to us and a risk.”
Chad: The best entrepreneurial stories start that way. So fast forward five years after you guys started Moonshine. You decided to open up your very first brick and mortar store with Doughnut party. Tell me a little bit about how that happened.
Simon: It was a big jump. I think we're pretty risk adverse and we’d been thinking about it for a long time, but it probably wouldn’t have happened if Jake, Giselle, and Garner from the Duchess hadn’t been taking over their new space. They had a small storefront and a kitchen for us to share with them. So they presented an offer to us that made the decision a lot easier. There are so many different reasons why you might not do it, but that took care of a huge one, so we kind of just took the jump.
“There are so many different reasons why you might not do it, but that took care of a huge one, so we kind of just took the jump.”
Chad: So the space became available and the two of you said, “Hell yeah!” and jumped in.
Simon: Yeah I think we deliberated for a long time and then a space that was ready to go basically was presented to us, so at that point we were like, well let’s just do it. And then even afterwards for six months we were like, “This is a terrible idea.”
Chad: As you were building...
Simon: As we were building, yeah. ‘Cause it took a long time when we started. I think they approached us in August of 2015 and we didn't open until January of 2017, so it was a long time to think about whether it was going to work or not.
Matt: It was a very long pregnancy. You get to that point where you’re like, “I’m ready to have this baby.” Get it out.
“It was a very long pregnancy. You get to that point where you’re like, ‘I’m ready to have this baby.’”
Chad: From my perspective you hit a homerun with Doughnut Party. Was there anything that took you off guard, the challenges that came about with the hype and having a brick and mortar?
Matthew: Yeah, I think the thing that probably surprised us the most was Edmonton’s enthusiasm and response to it, because we were taking what I think is the next natural step, but we didn’t really expect people to be so excited about it. We were working hard at it but you never anticipate what the response is going to be. We opened the shop because we had to open the shop.
“I think the thing that probably surprised us the most was Edmonton’s enthusiasm and response to it, because we were taking what I think is the next natural step, but we didn’t really expect people to be so excited about it.”
Chad: You committed. So was there a plan B?
Simon: I think we’re always prepared for it to totally fail. I think we felt like, we said we would do it and then we had to do it. I kept working when we opened the shop. We were kind of always prepped for it to maybe not work, and we were thinking there was the possibility. I think that’s how we approach things. Maybe that's not the right way.
Chad: It was always in the back of your head.
Simon: Yeah, yeah.
Chad: But there was no formal plan.
Simon: No, like I would just keep working. I don’t really know.
Matthew: I had a background in teaching and think that I had come to terms with, if it didn’t work out, we were lucky enough to have fallback plans in terms of degrees. And I think that was plan was.
Simon: Yeah, we’d just sell all the equipment. Just return it.
Chad: So you found your space by Duchess in Queen Mary Park, and instantly it’s home. It’s a little out of the way from the hype of the core.
Matthew: We had a lot of discussions about it, but we were really sold on the parking.
“We had a lot of discussions about it, but we were really sold on the parking.”
Chad: How Edmonton!
Simon: I feel like Matthew was hesitant, and probably feels like it’s a bit of a weird spot, but the actual building itself and the brick wall and the features of the space were appealing. And Edmonton is really spread out so you kind of just have to pick somewhere. And it is close to downtown. And our neighbours. And it’s close to where we live.
Chad: So you said you share a space. You and Duchess share the back side of your kitchen. As we were talking you were waving at neighbors. It seems like you have a lot of people around you that you are aligned with.
Matthew: I think initially we didn't really know what to expect, and then as time went by we realized it is in a community, just a weird part of a community a bit off the beaten path. I think people recognize it more. We are right between Westmount and Queen Mary Park, there is a bike path that goes right by, so people are discovering it and realizing that it’s more accessible than just in some weird industrial park in Edmonton.
Chad: The building is for sure getting a lot of attention, and people like going there and hanging out there. People like that it's somewhat off the beaten path.
Matthew: I think so, too. I think part of the appeal for us--and we had talked about it--was that people also like hidden gems and things that are secrets and surprises. So we felt that because it was off the beaten path it might feel that way and might contribute to the experience.
“People also like hidden gems and things that are secrets and surprises. So we felt that because it was off the beaten path it might feel that way and might contribute to the experience.”
Chad: I’m going to take this back. What do you do when you’re not in full-blown doughnut mode? How do you kick back and relax?
Simon: I don’t know. This is the first time in the past couple months that we haven’t been in full-blown doughnut mode for six months, so I think we’re exercising more. Getting out, just getting outside. It was a long time spent doing a lot of stuff on Friday nights and early Saturday mornings--it was a lot of early mornings.
"It was a long time spent doing a lot of stuff on Friday nights and early Saturday mornings--it was a lot of early mornings."
Chad: Well the build up, too. I think people overlook the amount of time it takes to get something going. You think, they're open now, you’ve been in business for a year and a half, but that was a full year of planning and building.
Simon: It was a lot of prep for the shop, and even still a year and a half in there are a lot of things that we haven’t got to yet that we need to get to. So it takes time, but I feel like it’s at a good place now where we can leave it and that's a big deal. We have a really great staff that we’re grateful work for us, so we’re very lucky.
Chad: Let’s talk about the branding behind the business. The first thing I noticed was the characters, the bright colours--how did all of that come to be?
Simon: When we started Moonshine it just it just kind of happened, so we created the brand really really quickly just on the fly. When we knew we were opening the shop and we knew we wanted a new name we spent a lot of time thinking about it--maybe too much time. And we went to Tokyo twice before we opened the shop to get a sense of how to design a small space and how to make it unique because we knew we wanted to do like a takeout place.
“We went to Tokyo twice before we opened the shop to get a sense of how to design a small space.”
But the brand itself came from where we were going around Tokyo. The circles for each of the characters are the colours of the Tokyo metro line, and it just so happens that there are thirteen major lines and thirteen letters in Doughnut Party, so it's just this really wonderful thing that happened. We just didn’t really know what we were going to do and then we saw these rings.
“The circles for each of the characters are the colours of the Tokyo metro line, and it just so happens that there are thirteen major lines and thirteen letters in Doughnut Party.”
For me, I like colour. It was really important that there be a lot of colours and the brand be really bright because we wanted to do something cute and kawaii in Edmonton, and Edmonton doesn't always have a lot of cute things. There are a lot of rustic things or Western things but we wanted to do something that was a little like a dream world.
“We wanted to do something cute and kawaii in Edmonton, and Edmonton doesn't always have a lot of cute things.”
Chad: That’s interesting. Things can be very industrial looking.
Simon: I feel that way when I drive in and out of Edmonton. It’s very masculine and very industrial and we wanted to something that was more androgynous and fun and friendly. That was a huge part of what we wanted to do, was make it really friendly.
Chad: Was that where the pink comes in?
Simon: Yeah I think pink has become more of a genderless colour. Pink is bright and fun and exciting and the packaging is a huge part of Doughnut Party. This bright pink box is really fun, and that’s something we wanted.
Chad: The doughnuts themselves are also all colourful and completely unique. You did a curry doughnut. So not only the flavours but the color of the packaging and then when you open this box and you can’t help but look down and like…
Simon: Yeah, and that’s another Japanese thing--and in a lot of cultures--is the gift. We wanted to create something that is like a gift. So you have this thing that you can have and bring somewhere.
“We wanted to create something that is like a gift.”
We do think about the colours and flavours at the same time, so we have six doughnuts a day and what we put out is really curated. That’s mostly Matthew in terms of flavours. It’s a collection of six and we hope that when people come in that they get one of each, because we kind of built the box around it being this perfect little package that you can then take to work or give to a friend or bring to a party.
“It’s a collection of six and we hope that when people come in that they get one of each because we kind of built the box around it being this perfect little package.”
Chad: Yeah, and I think it resonated. People open it up and you've got these beautiful pieces of art almost.
Matthew: We think about the customer when they come in, and we know that different people want different things. When we put together the curated box we think about what doughnut a child would eat, what doughnut someone who is a bit more adventurous would eat, what doughnut someone who wants something a little bit safer would eat. So there’s something for everyone.
Chad: I see, so you play like a few angles in your rollout for the day.
Matthew: Well the motto is “Everyone’s Invited!”
“There’s something for everyone, is kind of our hope. The motto is Everyone’s Invited”
Chad: You touched on being inspired by Tokyo, particularly in square footage, being as small as it is. Tell me a little bit about that.
Matthew: I think that when we were designing the space we were hopeful that we would be busy but we were also realistic. And so we always knew that we wanted a space where people would come in, get their doughnuts and go. That was inspired by our trip to Tokyo where there were small places there aren’t necessarily places to hang out.
We also have a product that we want people to take places. We don't necessarily want them to consume it here, we want them to take it to the office, take it to a party, share it. So when we designed the space we wanted it to be clean, wanted it to be inviting. We wanted it to just be a welcoming place.
“We have a product that we want people to take places. We want them to take it to the office, take it to a party, share it.”
Simon: And there are some little elements like the birch wood that was a feature that was in a lot of Japanese shops, so we did that and we also did the brick and the cement floor which we did grind down. It used to be a denim factory.
Simon: Yeah so there were a lot of features that were already there. We worked with Michael Dub from Dub Architects who is a friend and a really great architect, so he really got what we were going for. We tried to make it as simple as possible but also make it really clean and bright and fun.
Chad: Does the Doughnut Party brand come out in your personal style?
Matthew: For me, I think... Actually I think for both of us it really does. We like to say we’re t-shirts and jeans guys but I like to have a little bit of flair, a pop of colour. I think that comes across in the design of the space and also in the design of the branding and of the doughnuts.
“We like to say we’re t-shirts and jeans guys but I like to have a little bit of flair, a pop of colour.”
Simon: Yeah, I think so. I’m a bit utilitarian sometimes in how I dress but I always like there to be one colour, and I do love colours. Especially singular solid colours, and I think that part is there definitely. And the minimalist design or one particular feature like the circle to me was simple enough but it’s also kind of cool.
Chad: It had personality.
Chad: Who inspires you in business?
Simon: That's a hard question.
Matthew: I don’t want it to be super cheesy but it’s going to be super cheesy. I really look up to Simon. It seems so silly because neither of us really have a lot of business experience but I really couldn’t have done this business if it weren’t for him. It was my idea but we did everything together, and if he wasn’t in my life I don’t think it would be where it is right now. He is a really good person for supporting me and telling me that we can do this because I am super risk averse. So yeah.
“We did everything together you know, and if he wasn’t in my life I don’t think it would be where it is right now.”
Simon: Well, you. [gestures to Matthew]
Matthew: You don’t have to say me.
Simon: I definitely think Giselle Courteau from the Duchess. She’s just very committed and very passionate about her business. Just the way that she treats people that she works with--including us, we’re her tenants--and her staff I think is really inspiring. She sets an example for how to run something that is incredibly successful in a very kind way. We get to see her and work with her all the time so she’s hugely inspirational.
“[Giselle] sets and example for how to run something that is incredibly successful in a very kind way.”
Chad: Is there any advice you’d give to someone looking to get into business in a niche market?
Matthew: I think farmers’ markets are a good way to start a business because there’s minimal overhead and you get to test everything. If it doesn’t sell or people don’t like it you can just stop doing it. And I think especially in Edmonton it’s important to take risks. I think too often people are hesitant to do things that are outside of their comfort zone or do things they don't’ feel like they have the skills to do and so they just don’t do it. But if you don’t, it's so ridiculous, but if you don’t try then how are you ever going to know. It’s like, what does that building say? Take a risk. It’s the most Edmonton thing you can do.
“What does that building say? Take a risk. It’s the most Edmonton thing you can do.”
Simon: I think try. I think it’s important to try because that's usually the hardest part. But also, have a backup plan or keep working or start small. It was the way we did it and I felt the most comfortable that way. I think if you’re working then maybe start in your evenings and weekends. Keep that stability in your life so you can make good choices. I know some people just jump into things but for us we had a plan and we were able to just start small and test it out.
There is a lot of hustle at the beginning. People aren’t going to come or be drawn to what you’re doing right away just by virtue of the fact that you're’ doing it. You're going to have to hustle a bit and it might not pay off right away, so be paying yourself in other ways when you're doing that hustle to begin with. That’s what I would say.
“You're going to have to hustle a bit and it might not pay off right away, so be paying yourself in other ways.”
Matthew: You've got to be patient.
Chad: What’s your favourite doughnut?
Matthew: I really like the fritter, and that was a lot of motivation for opening the shop. Simon and I would go every Sunday to Safeway and get a fritter. It was like our treat for the week. But there was nowhere else that you could get an artisanal fritter. Before we opened the shop I knew that I wanted to make the best fritter there was to get in Edmonton, so for me I still like the fritter.
“Before we opened the shop I knew that I wanted to make the best fritter there was to get in Edmonton.”
Simon: For me, I think it’s the Little Debbie. Basically we recreated that cream filled snack cake that you can get at 7-11. I just like it because I think it’s what we do really well. It’s from scratch so it’s really good, but it’s also kind of pop, kind of campy. It’s funny and it’s simple and it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is kind of our approach to food. It’s a very simple take on something processed, but everything is done from scratch so it tastes really good. I think it’s really cute and funny.
“It’s funny and it’s simple and it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is kind of our approach to food.”
Chad: So the fritter and the Little Debbie. How would each of you describe your approach to personal style?
Matthew: I think that my style is like cool, comfortable, and cute.
Simon: Good answer
Matthew: For me I like not to overthink what I’m wearing, but I also really like to be comfortable. There was a time when I was younger that I would always choose fashion over function but now I’m busy all the time so I like to choose something that’s comfortable for me, something that’s easy, and something that I feel good in.
“I like to choose something that’s comfortable for me, something that’s easy, and something that I feel good in.”
Chad: That functions but with a little bit of…
Matthew: Yeah! So for me, I usually like to do different things with my hair. And shoes are a good way that I can bring out my personal style. And sometimes I like to incorporate accessoires.
Chad: I think I saw a photo of you from before, and you had brown hair. So you put a little splash of colour recently.
Matthew: Yeah, I think over the last 6 months I’ve had white hair, pink hair, blond hair, brown hair.
Chad: Yeah, that’s great! And you, Simon?
Simon: I think for a long time it was very an androgynous uniform. I would just wear the same thing every day. White sneakers, black jeans, and a t-shirt. And for a long time I would wear a vest but I was told to stop wearing the vest all the time.
“For a long time I would wear a vest but I was told to stop wearing the vest all the time.”
And then when we opened the shop I would wear the same thing everyday, and it was like my kitchen outfit.
Lately I am really inspired by people who are sort of playing with gender with their clothes, whatever their gender is. So this is like, a very interesting sort of masculine drag. I’m also just really inspired by people who will play with their femininity or take a more feminine approach regardless of their gender to how they dress. I don’t think I’m doing either. I’m still a bit nervous, but I’m always very impressed by people who dress up in a way.
“Lately I am really inspired by people who are sort of playing with gender with their clothes, whatever their gender is. So this is like, a very interesting sort of masculine drag.”
I feel like this is dressing up. Like, really taking risks with clothing or how they express themselves--in any way I find that really inspiring. I think the way I dress sometimes, it’s easy for me to wear the same thing over and over but I’m trying to break out of that.
“I think the way I dress sometimes, it’s easy for me to wear the same thing over and over but I’m trying to break out of that.”
Chad: That’s one awesome thing about clothing is that it is a way to express yourself, and when you wish to do it, there it is.
Simon: Yeah, and I love that. Matthew does that, and I try to do that, and I just love everyone I know who does that. I think it’s really cool.
Chad: Not scared to take a chance. Just like you and Doughnut Party.