I first came across Yes! Doughnuts at their first market in Levenshulme market and fell in love with their interesting flavours and good texture. I was particularly happy to see that they were selling some vegan doughnuts, and although not a vegan myself, I had my best blogger friend, Lacey, in tow and was so happy that we could both have a doughnut!
You can find them frequenting GRUB at Fairfield Social Club but they hope to be back in Levenshulme one day. Here, I interview Phil of Yes! Doughnuts to find out what gets them buzzing about doughnuts!
I like the idea that each doughnut flavour could be an experience, or tell a story. Although it doesn’t matter if people aren’t interested in that, so long as they get a fun, delicious doughnut.Phil from Yes! Doughnuts
The business interview
Tell me the concept and idea behind the brand, Yes! Doughnuts.
So, I have this philosophy that every worthwhile job in the world is ultimately about making people happy. That might be the surgeon who saves your child’s life and obviously makes everyone happy, or the recruitment agent who makes you happy by getting you the job that means you can pay your bills. The person who picks up litter in the street is making the world a more pleasant place to be, and making people happy.
We’re just trying to make people happy with doughnuts. But we want them to be the most fun and exciting doughnuts you’ve ever seen.
How many people are there behind Yes! Doughnuts?
The core team is me and Amy, I guess we’re kinda like Harry and Eggsy from the Kingsman films. I did the very first stall by myself, which was fine but lonely. Once Amy joined it started to feel a lot more fun, which is exactly the experience we want for the people who come to visit us. She’s definitely the public face of Yes! Doughnuts.
Ultimately Linh is our boss, with catering expertise that’s vital in ensuring we don’t make any dumb mistakes (or fewer than I would otherwise make if left to my own devices). Also responsible for some of the more exciting creations such as Wish Upon A Star. We went through several iterations of that one just to get the glitter colours right in the lemon curd.
I’m also lucky enough to have amazing friends I can call on when we need help. I’d still be tinkering around in my kitchen at home if it hadn’t been for David giving me the push to apply for a stall at Levy Market. Then there’s our good friend Amy, who has worked alongside Mary-Ellen McTeague at Open Kitchen MCR, and saved the day when we needed help to cater a private event for Red Bull. Our mate Laura is a wizard at PR and is responsible for some of the more fun stuff we get to put on Instagram and Twitter.
Maybe we’re less like Kingsman and more like the crew of Serenity? Actually, I’ve got such a bad habit of pulling people in when I need them that some of my mates have started quoting that Tom Hardy catchphrase from the TV series Taboo back at me: “I have a use for you.”
What were you doing before setting up your own business?
Food-wise I started out by blogging. Food can be so exciting and creative, and blogging is a fantastic way to explore, remember and share those experiences.
For me it was a trip to the Fat Duck that kick started it. I’d hardly been to anywhere fancier than Pizza Express before, and it blew me away. I spent the next six years trying to recapture some of what I’d experienced by learning to cook all 16 of Heston’s “In Search of Perfection” recipes.
It was a completely idiotic thing to do, but I learned so, so much. And a lot of the techniques have found their way into our recipes. Plus, Heston’s philosophy about challenging everything and willingness to experiment leads quite nicely into our answer to the next question…
What was the biggest challenge in setting up your business?
The hardest part was definitely coming up with our doughnut dough recipe. You’ve had doughnuts from the supermarket, right? And they’re rock-hard and stale the very next morning – or later that same day if you’re really unlucky.
There’s even a doughnut-making workshop at Bread Ahead in London, run by Justin Gellatly who is universally acknowledged as the UK Grand Champ of doughnut-making (they sell over 2,000 a day across their London sites). I went on that course, and you make, fry and fill the doughnuts yourself. After the class finished it took about 8 hours to get from the Bread Ahead bakery in Borough Market back to Manchester, and by the time I did the doughnuts were already going stale!
Those doughnuts are the absolute best you can get, but I knew there was no way we’d be able to get away with that short of a shelf life unless we were frying doughnuts actually on the stall, which isn’t practical for all sorts of reasons. Also, I’m quite lazy and I wanted a recipe I could make the night before, so it’d still taste fresh after I’d had some sleep!
So, to me (because my brain is wired that way), it seemed easier to just try and invent a doughnut dough recipe that didn’t go stale so quickly. That process took 18 months and involved a lot of failures. We went through 177 iterations before we got it right. Our dough stays fresh for about 2 days now, although we still fry as close to opening time as we can, and all those intricate toppings and decorations mean we still don’t get much sleep!
The second biggest challenge was confidence. After so long trying to get the recipe right it’s terrifying to have to stand behind a stall and have people walk past judging your creation. We did an unbranded trial-run in Didsbury in August 2016 and it was so nerve-wracking that I didn’t trade again until June 2017!
Where do you get your inspiration for flavours?
Everywhere! I’m doughnut obsessed, so there’s very few things I can’t connect to them in some way.
One of the flavours we’re most known for is the “Ambassador’s Reception”. It’s a ring doughnut we pump full of Nutella ganache, then top with golden hazelnut brittle and finish with a whole Ferrero Rocher. That flavour is directly inspired by the Ambassador’s Reception dessert from Hawksmoor, created by one of our all-time dessert heroes and biggest influences, Carla Henriquess (with the name itself coming from the cheesy old TV advert).
Our NYC PB&J is another tribute, this time to Mark Israel’s hugely famous square-shaped Peanut Butter and Jelly creation from Doughnut Plant in New York.
Others take their inspiration from more obscure sources. From Persia With Love is based on a holiday I had to Iran. They don’t really have a snacking culture there, but I managed to find some orange, rose and pistachio nougat for the coach trip between Tehran and Esfahan. It was a gorgeous flavour combination and works brilliantly as a vegan doughnut flavour.
One of our more recent additions to the menu is the OMG Yes! Mess. That’s inspired by, of all things, a female-focused sex advice website that was mentioned in an interview with Emma Watson. I’ll stay away from that site’s details to keep your blog family-friendly, but we wanted to create a doughnut that was as orgasmic as its inspiration: soft, pillowy dough, smooth raspberry, coconut and rosewater filling that’s creamy, fruity and fragrant with a crunchy raspberry crumb and some in-the-mouth fireworks courtesy of popping candy.
For all the weight-lifting fans we’ve got a high-protein Snickers inspired doughnut on the way. And I’m still trying to come up with a Mojito-On-The-Rocks doughnut, with lime curd filling, a pipette of white rum and crushed glacier mints for the ice, but I can never get it to look the way I want.
I like the idea that each doughnut flavour could be an experience, or tell a story. Although it doesn’t matter if people aren’t interested in that, so long as they get a fun, delicious doughnut.
What are some of your favourite flavours?
I’m probably supposed to say “they’re all like my children so I love all of them equally” but we do a Milk n’ Cookies doughnut and that one is my absolute favourite! It’s got a vanilla-infused fresh milk filling, milk chocolate coating and chewy cookie pieces on top. We’re currently working on making it a permanent fixture on our vegan menus.
Our Earl Grey Tea & Lemon biscuit one is another. It’s a combo filled with lemon and Earl Grey cream with lemon shortbread crumb and lemon curd drizzled on top. I love it to bits but saying “Earl Grey” can be as divisive as saying marmite, so it doesn’t always sell quite as well as some of our other flavours.
I can’t stand bananas though. If I have my way you’ll never, ever see a banana-flavour doughnut on our menu!
What was your worst kitchen disaster?
Doughnut-wise there have been so many! I think every trader has tons of things go wrong, and it’s a huge part of the learning experience. You start to understand that theatre catchphrase “the show must go on”.
Our dough rests in the fridge overnight, and I once left the door open. Yeast blooms like crazy at room temperature, so when I got to the kitchen the next day instead of a firm, workable dough I had a mass of something with the texture of shaving foam spilling out on to the floor. It was like the final scene of Akira! Worse, the fridge light had stayed on and there was a crusty spot in the dough where the heat of the bulb had scorched it. I was lucky not to have burned the place down!
Recipe-wise we tried to do a special flavour for Levenshulme Pride. I didn’t want to just pipe rainbow icing onto the doughnuts, because it would have felt like a token gesture, so we came up with a doughnut based on the movie The Babadook, which has its own cult following and meme in the gay community. The idea was to have a jet-black bombo-style doughnut with rainbow custard inside and rainbow sprinkles on top. I was gonna call it “The Bombo-dook”. But by the time we got to the stall the colours of the custard had all bled into each other and tuned a bleak-looking grey, and the colour ran off the sprinkles making them ghastly white.
I was so ashamed I hid them in the car. It was only after we sold out that Amy and Lad, one of the organisers of Levy market and all round brilliant bloke, talked me into selling them. Amy had to come up with a new name for them though.
Quick fire questions
Are you more of a savoury person, or sweet?
Sweet for sure! I’d live off Chou Choux eclairs and the menu at Dominique Ansel if I could get away with it. We’ve been on day trips to London that involve about five different dessert places and just some token sushi for the train home.
Thin fries or thick cut chips?
I’ve got a huge soft spot for McDonald’s fries, but Hawksmoor’s triple cooked chips are incredible. Thick chips are hard to get right, they need super crunchy outsides and melting centres, you can’t find better than Hip Hop Chip Shop. Otherwise it’s thin fries, the crispier the better.
Ketchup or mayonnaise?
Mayo without question! Most ketchup is, like, one-third sugar. I know I’ve just spent ages telling you how much of a sweet-tooth I have, but good may makes most things better. A fish finger sandwich with mayo beats one with ketchup any day.
Tea or coffee?
Neither! I’ve got the taste buds of a child when it comes to liquids. Can I have Cherry Pepsi Max instead? (If pushed I’d go for jasmine green tea, I don’t mind that).
last meal on Earth?
Three course menu please.
I’ve been lucky enough to eat at some famous posh restaurants, including Noma and Eleven Madison Park, so you’d expect it to be something along those lines. But to be honest I think nostalgia, memories and happiness would be far more important for your very last meal than picking fancy food.
When I was a kid we’d go on classic, British-seaside holidays. One year we went to Scarborough, where the beach is at the bottom of a very steep cliff. We’d spend all day digging holes in the sand, then make the exhausting climb back up. There was this café at the top called the Green Lizard where we’d have fried eggs, chips and peas with loads of buttered white bread. Even now that’s still my go-to comfort food, the main course would definitely be that. (Although I’m a lot more stuck-up these days, so I’d probably demand organic free-range eggs, triple cooked chips and lightly blanched petit pois. The bread would still have to Warburton’s Toastie, though!)
Dessert would be along similar lines. A 99 soft-serve ice cream with a flake from the stand to the left of the pier on the seafront at Lytham St-Annes, but it’d have to be eaten right there for the full multi-sensory experience. If that wasn’t possible then I’d go for a slab of Lush brownie topped with strawberry sauce, loads of peanut brittle and a full tub of Ginger’s Comfort Chorlton Crack, because you might as well go out in style!
I’m still kinda fancy in my tastes though, so for a starter I’d have the lobster, langoustine and salmon ravioli from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Not a fashionable choice, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten. I could happily finish a bucket of those!
What are your future plans for Yes! Doughnuts?
Wow! If you’d asked me last year what my ambition for 2018 was I’d have said “try and somehow get in with Grub”, but they invited us to trade there last November and working for them has been an incredible experience. Jules and Bailey are masters at curating, and their attention to detail is amazing and what makes the event nationally renowned. To be included amongst so many big-name traders is a major honour. As a very selfish bonus, being alongside some of the UK’s best street food means we always eat really well when we’re there.
Things are going so much better than we could have hoped, we’ve been incredibly lucky that people seem to like what we do. At the end of April we’ve got a doughnut and beer-pairing collaboration with BrewDog Manchester, and we just helped provide doughnuts for a weekend menu special for Ginger’s Comfort Emporium. Personally that was a huge deal because we’ve always been fans. In fact I can remember reading the Ginger’s Comfort interview on this very blog and daydreaming that it would be awesome to do something similar one day. So things are most definitely going better than we could have hoped!
Beyond that we really, want to find time in our calendar to get back to Levy Market, we absolutely love it there. And we’re going to keep trying to find as many fun things to do with doughnuts as we can. We’re already looking at how we can make giant birthday cake doughnuts, and three-tier wedding doughnuts. More flavours, more ideas, more fun!