Outlook 2021: Experimentation, hard work pay off as Saratoga Springs’ Darling Doughnuts become local favorite

Outlook 2021: Experimentation, hard work pay off as Saratoga Springs’ Darling Doughnuts become local favorite

Published Feb. 25, 2021 in Outlook

Natascha Pearl has two 7-month-olds.

One’s a little girl named Georgia. The other is a little doughnut shop named Darling Doughnuts.

The Saratoga Springs bakery opened three weeks after Pearl’s second child was born, smack dab in the middle of the pandemic. That’s a whole lot to manage all at once, but Pearl is used to having lots of doughnuts in the fryer.

The Glens Falls resident dove into doughnut making when older daughter, Clementine, now 3, was an infant. Her hope: that the deep-fried delicacies would generate some serious dough to supplement her family’s income.

Pearl wasn’t educated as a baker. She studied art and philosophy in college, then waitressed and did jewelry repairs until Clementine was born in 2017.

Longing to stay home with her baby, she set about brainstorming ways to make money outside of a conventional workplace. Baking had always been a hobby, so she started experimenting with different recipes at home.

She tried croissants, pretzels, then apple cider doughnuts, but none of them thrilled her.

Doughnut destiny

It took a trip to Brooklyn for her to realize that yeast-raised doughnuts were her destiny. While there, she visited Doughnut Plant, a confection mecca in the borough.

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

“I had just never seen anything like that before,” she recalled. “The line was out the door down the street, and when you walked in there, there were so many amazing varieties and flavors.”

Inspired, she went home determined to become a yeast-raised doughnut maker. A yeast doughnut is a light, airy doughnut made from dough leavened by yeast. The dough, which has little or no sweetness, is fried until golden, then typically topped with a sweet glaze or sugar coating.

“I had never deep-fried anything, so that was a little bit of a fear hurdle to get over,” Pearl said. “But I looked up a recipe and made a batch, and they were awesome.”

Pearl spent six months developing doughnut and glaze recipes, and tried them out on family and friends.

She settled on square doughnuts instead of the conventional round shape.

“Coming from an art background, I was kind of used to having a square canvas to work on,” she explained.

Decorating the doughnuts is her favorite part and it’s where she really shines, she said. Her designs are a feast for the eyes. She makes doughnuts for weddings that include intricate mandala designs. Her Galaxy Glazed ones are topped with a “Starry Night”-esque swirl and glittery, golden stars. Her matcha doughnuts have a green tea glaze and are topped with a matcha-flavored Pocky biscuit stick and a fortune cookie.

Once her product was perfected, Pearl formulated a business plan and secured insurance, a DBA and a food processing license.

In order to comply with Health Department regulations, she contracted with Temple Beth El in Glens Falls to use their commercial kitchen. By June 2018, she was ready to sell to the public.

Popularity skyrockets

Her first big order was in June 2018. Death Wish Coffee Company ordered her doughnuts for an event celebrating a rocket launch that transported their coffee to the International Space Station.

A TV news crew covering the event found out it was her doughnut-selling debut and granted her an interview that helped her doughnuts’ popularity take off.

“It definitely set us off with a bang,” she said.

As summer 2018 progressed, Pearl began selling her wares at festivals and at Glens Falls’ Thursday Market and Food Truck Corral.

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

She also delivered leftover confections to local businesses in hopes that some would become future customers. They did.

“I went from doing one or two events a month to being close to fully booked by six months in,” she said. “I think in my first six months in business, I sold 1,500 doughnuts.”

One year later, her production tally had jumped to 15,000.

Every one of those doughnuts was made solely by Pearl. Her tools: a standing KitchenAid mixer and a five-quart fryer.

She worked 12-hour shifts to make each batch of 150 doughnuts.

“I usually would get to the kitchen at about midnight and cook all night long until the morning, and then bring the doughnuts to wherever they were going,” she explained. “The Thursday Market days were long days. It usually was about 20 hours when all was said and done.”

Darling Doughnut demand continued to intensify.

“My first pop-up shop, back at the [Glens Falls Thursday Market] in May 2019, I had a giant line and I sold out in 30 minutes. It was crazy,” she said. “I mean, people were actually getting upset that they waited in the line and I didn’t have enough product.”

In response to the overwhelming demand, she began making mini doughnuts, which she could produce in batches of 500.

She limited how many market-goers could buy, but still consistently sold out in less than two hours.

Saratoga storefront

That same spring, Pearl was contacted by Glenn Severance of Saratoga Springs.

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

He and his wife, Hellene London, had a dream of opening a doughnut shop but weren’t bakers. Severance asked Pearl if she would like to partner and open a shop. By summer’s end, they were searching for locations.

The lease for 441 Broadway in Saratoga Springs was signed in November 2019. The 900-square-foot space, formerly the Swedish Hill Winery’s tasting room, had no kitchen and needed significant plumbing and electrical upgrades. Construction, inspection and permit delays pushed the grand opening from April 2020 into midsummer.

Everything finally came together two weeks before Pearl gave birth.

On July 29, when baby Georgia was just three weeks old, the shop opened. Pearl was there glazing doughnuts with her newborn in an infant carrier.

With the help of a small staff, a 30-quart mixer, a large proofer and a fryer that can churn out 35 dozen doughnuts an hour, Darling Doughnuts began to produce about 1,000 doughnuts a day.

“When we first opened our doors we were selling out in under two hours,” Pearl recounted. “It was really crazy. There was a line all the way down the street for the first couple of months. I really didn’t anticipate it being that busy, especially with COVID and the fact that there was no track [Saratoga Race Course] this year.”

Due to COVID-19 precautions, only takeout, curbside pickup and DoorDash delivery orders are offered.

Commerce during COVID

Pearl has fried doughnuts for special events since before the shop opened.

She said the type of events being booked has changed since COVID hit. Last summer, she had 15 or 20 weddings on her catering schedule that were all canceled. They were replaced by smaller orders for micro weddings, virtual charity events and drive-by celebrations.

“We were fortunate.” Pearl said. “I think it’s a lot harder for sit-down restaurants to pivot in the pandemic. Where people are used to fine dining and sitting down and having drinks and that whole thing, it’s a lot more difficult. But doughnuts are easily packaged. They’re fine at room temperature. So I think that aspect made it a little bit easier.”

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

Pandemic-related restrictions likely slowed business, but gave Pearl and her staff time to get into the swing of things at the shop.

“Considering how busy we were right out of the gate, even during the pandemic, if it had been a normal summer, with normal events and the track open and everything, we would have been slammed,” she said. “It would have been scary.”

Quality ingredients

The shop features 10 doughnut varieties daily with rotating weekly specials. Prices are $3.74 for a large doughnut and $2 for a mini.

That’s more than you’d pay at a chain like Dunkin’, but there’s good reason for that, Pearl said.

“There is a lot more labor involved, and purchasing local ingredients is more pricey than getting something from Sysco, but I’m really committed to having the best quality ingredients and the best doughnuts you can get,” she explained. “I’m using real fruit and real ingredients to make those flavors, so when you bite into it, it doesn’t just taste like sugar, food coloring and flavoring. It actually tastes like what I say it is.”

All of the dough ingredients originate within a 150-mile radius of the shop, she noted.

Now that she has staff to help out, Pearl gets a little more shut-eye than she used to.

She sleeps in until 3 a.m. and arrives at the shop at 4 or 5. She’s there six days a week and works about 80 hours a week. She said it’s tough, but her kids motivate her.

“This is why I get up at 3 in the morning every day. It’s for them and for their future,” she said.

Darling Doughnuts is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. until sold out, which is typically 6 p.m. on weekdays, but customers should get there early on weekends, Pearl advised, since the doughnuts typically sell out by 3 p.m.

Darling Doughnuts favorites

Natascha Pearl has about 100 doughnut varieties on her catering menu. The best-sellers are:

Galaxy Glazed: Celestial swirled vanilla ice cream glazed, with sparkling sugar stars

Reese’s: Peanut butter glazed and topped with Oreo cookie crumble, chocolate drizzle and a Reese’s cup

Caffe Latte: Espresso and cream glazed, with a latte art design

Blue Strazzberry: Blueberry, strawberry and raspberry glazed, with vanilla swirl

Dunkaroos: Funfetti frosting glazed with vanilla wafer crumble, buttercream swirl and a vanilla wafer

Churro: Rolled in cinnamon sugar, drizzled with cayenne-spiced dark chocolate

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

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