Whether you’re passionate about culinary tourism or simply have a wicked sweet tooth, no visit to Portland would be complete without planning a stop at Voodoo Doughnut, a wildly popular pastry shop where “the magic is in the hole.”
Breaking the Mold from the Beginning
The concept for this offbeat bakery began germinating in 2000, when local entrepreneurs Kenneth Pogson and Tres Shannon discovered that downtown Portland was a doughnut desert and sought to open the first shop of its kind in the area. In 2003, the original storefront opened between two nightclubs on Southwest 3rd Avenue in the Old Town neighborhood.
From the beginning, Voodoo Doughnuts took a counterculture approach to the traditional bakery business, staying 24 hours a day to serve patrons of the area’s music venues, bars and clubs. Eschewing the standard doughnut shop fare of boring glazed rings, the pair developed a menu of experimental flavors using ingredients like breakfast cereal, bacon and Tang with names like the Voodoo Doll and the Old Dirty Bastard.
Voodoo Doughnut quickly established a cult-like following among both locals and tourists, with lines for its treats often stretching down the block at all hours. In addition to serving creative baked goods, the shop developed a sideshow-style reputation with its unusual special events. These special events included live concerts, Swahili lessons and weddings officiated by Pogson and Shannon, who became ordained ministers in the Universal Life Church for this purpose.
In 2013, the founders even launched a record label named Voodoo Doughnut Recordings, hoping to establish a catalog of doughnut-themed music to support the company’s brand.
Over the past two decades, the company has received national media attention from outlets like the Today Show, Good Morning America, ESPN, the Travel Channel, People, Playboy and GQ, both for its menu and its publicity stunts. In August 2011, the flagship location put together a massive version of its signature pink box and filled it with 3,880 doughnuts weighing in at 666 pounds, which it then delivered to the Portland Bridge Festival.
The effort earned it a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s biggest box of doughnuts. Later that year, the shop joined forces with Rogue Ales to develop a line of doughnut-flavored beers, which included Bacon Maple Ale and Chocolate, Peanut Butter and Banana Ale and are still available at pubs around the state.
The Sweet Taste of Success
In the bakery’s early days, the shop became known for several signature flavors, including the Bacon Maple Bar, the Voodoo Doll (a ghostly-shaped raised yeast doughnut filled with raspberry jelly, topped with chocolate frosting and holding a pretzel “stake”) and the Elvis-themed Memphis Mafia (a glazed fritter packed with banana chunks and cinnamon, topped with chocolate chips and peanuts and drizzled with chocolate and peanut butter).
Voodoo Doughnut’s take on the classic Boston cream doughnut, dubbed the Portland Cream, was named Portland’s “Official City Doughnut” in a 2008 resolution issued by then-Mayor Tom Potter (who went on to square off in a doughnut-eating contest with fellow mayoral candidate Sam Adams).
Over the years, new flavors inspired by pop culture and current events have rotated on and off the menu, including:
- Ring of Fire (devil’s food cake with cinnamon sugar, cayenne pepper, and dried red chili pepper)
- Marshall Mathers (a plain cake doughnut topped with vanilla frosting and mini M&Ms)
- Oh Captain, My Captain (a raised yeast ring with vanilla frosting and Cap’n Crunch cereal).
For traditionalists, the list of flavors also includes standards such as powdered sugar cake, glazed and chocolate old-fashioned, buttermilk bar, and apple fritter.
However, a few experimental flavors have missed the mark over the company’s history. In a nod to the hangover battles of nearby bar patrons, the shop launched a NyQuil Glazed doughnut and Vanilla Pepto Crushed Tums doughnut, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually stepped in and halted the sale of any pastries involving over-the-counter pharmaceuticals.
(Fortunately, the Maple Blazer Blunt, with its combination of cinnamon sugar, maple frosting, and red sprinkle “embers,” managed to escape the scrutiny of federal regulators.)
Other ill-fated flavors have included a Jäger Bomb doughnut (a raised yeast doughnut filled with Jäger-infused guava jelly) and an oyster doughnut (a plain cake doughnut topped with cocktail sauce and a freshly-shucked mollusk).
In addition to the more than 50 flavors available daily, Voodoo’s “doughnut artists” collaborate with customers to develop unique creations on special request, such as its Voodoo Doughnut birthday “cake,” made from two giant stacked doughnuts and decorated with custom colors, toppings and a personal message.
Expanding Toward ‘World Doughnut Domination’
When the first bakery began churning out sweet dough in 2003, Pogson and Shannon joked with friends that their ultimate goal was to achieve “world doughnut domination.” They began inching toward this objective with the addition of a second Portland Voodoo Doughnut location on Northeast Davis Street in 2008. In 2010, a third shop opened its doors on East Broadway in Eugene, Oregon. A third Portland-area bakery was later added in the suburb of Milwaukie.
The first shop outside the Beaver State opened in Denver, Colorado in 2013, and the company has since established a second Denver outpost. Additional locations have also launched in Austin and Houston, Texas; Hollywood, California; Orlando, Florida; and Vancouver, Washington.
Fans not near any of the company’s physical locations can still broadcast their doughnut devotion via the Voodoo-branded line of apparel and other merchandise available for purchase online.
Voodoo Doughnut Responding to Growing Pains
To support the brand’s continued expansion and growing cult following, Voodoo Doughnut hired longtime industry veteran Chris Schultz as its CEO in 2017. Shultz’s three-decade track record includes 13 years at Starbucks Coffee and a stint as Senior Vice President of Operations at Seattle-based MOD Pizza, a quick-service chain that grew from a single location to more than 350 restaurants during his tenure.
However, devotees of the original Voodoo Doughnut have expressed concern that bringing in leadership from more traditional industry brands may weaken the company’s reputation for risk-taking, subversive humor and outlandish publicity stunts and replace it with generic, mass-produced consistency.
The company has also faced labor challenges in recent years. Employees of the downtown Portland location attempted to establish a union under the name “Doughnut Workers United” in 2020, but a tie vote among workers in 2021 resulted in failure to have the union recognized by company management.
That same year, a record-setting June heat wave blanketed the Pacific Northwest for several weeks. Employees at the flagship store staged a walkout protesting what they perceived as unsafe working conditions in the bakery, where indoor temperatures soared as high as 96 degrees. Three employees ended up losing their jobs in the dispute.
The Future of Voodoo Doughnut
Despite the considerable challenges to its business model posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Voodoo Doughnut has continued to thrive. In 2020, the company was named one of the industry’s Top 100 Movers and Shakers by FastCasual.com, joining the vaunted ranks of brands like Chipotle, BurgerFi and Sweetgreen.
It also continues to garner national press for its quarterly charitable partnerships, which recently included sales of a limited-time Key Lime Crush doughnut to raise funds for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Even with its national following and multistate growth, Voodoo Doughnut remains anchored by its Portland roots. No matter how many far-flung locations the chain may open, this idiosyncratic doughnut chain has cemented its status as a brick-and-mortar metaphor for a city whose unofficial motto is “Keep Portland Weird.”
For more resources relating to bakeries and such, right here on The Portlandist, we implore you to check out the following articles and guides: