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Doughnut stop believing: YES House students create successful doughnut business

GILLETTE -A classic favorite, this beloved breakfast pastry comes in all shapes and sizes.

Covered in sugar, glazed, filled or frosted, its history is based in Dutch, Russian and French cultures. Some bakers work all night to get the rows of delectable delights ready for the morning rush. Favorites differ but can include crullers, fritters or long johns.

What is it?

If you guessed doughnut, your tastebuds and intellect led you down the perfect pathway and right into a bakery on a Saturday morning.

The cakey or flaky pastries are simple in nature, made up of flour, sugar and a little milk and yeast, but making a business out of an uncomplicated recipe is something else entirely.

To do that, newfound owners and workers have to take into account the cost of machines and labor, the knowledge of their product and the clientele they market to. Not to mention the understanding of whether or not the business is actually turning a profit.

Holy Moly Donuts, a joke-turned-successful business venture, accomplished all of those markers in its journey to fruition.

And rather than a bakery, all a customer needed to do was cross the threshold of Gillette's very own YES House kitchen on Friday afternoons last quarter to inhale the smell of grease and watch as a class of teens tweaked their process to account for making, bagging and delivering doughnuts on campus - all within 70 minutes.

And that doesn't even count the cleanup.

The company began thanks to a very simple question: "If you had to start a small business, what would it be?"

Paul Utzman posed the question to his business class at the beginning of the year and received a few answers and ideas before a sophomore at the school pitched the making and selling of doughnuts.

"I heard it and I was like, you know what, what if we could?" Utzman said.

The idea came into fruition after a recipe was found and an order form was concocted. Students went around to school administration, staff, therapists and other students giving samples and promoting their product before making the pastries in an older machine.

By all pitching in together, they were able to not only maintain their clientele but also expand it, posing them with an issue to overcome: The first machine simply couldn't keep up with the demand.

To right that difficulty, students in the class put together a presentation they gave to the YES House Foundation Board of Directors for help buying a new $1,200 doughnut machine.

"It wasn't too bad," the sophomore business creator and designated CEO said. "They were supportive and you could tell they were supportive so it was easier for us to speak. We had to make slide shows for it and then we each presented on a slide."

YES House students are not being identified by name out of respect to the agency's policy. The YES House provides services such as substance abuse treatment, counseling, family support, mentoring and crisis assistance.

Mary Melaragno, executive director of the YES House Foundation, said the doughnut machine request was the first of its kind.

"They really set the bar high with this project," she said of the students. "The board is super supportive of it."

Ultimately, the board approved the request and the students received an updated machine that takes in batter, punches the holes and flips the doughnuts over itself at a designated time. Its use was overseen by either Utzman or Ryan Anderson, YES House executive director, who pitched in some of his time to promote the thriving business.

Students met the demand of their audience each week, even when orders came in at a combined 500-600 doughnuts.

Orders for one customer made their way up to the 100-mark and feedback for the product remained positive after the students gauged their audience with a survey. Students also met the demand of the survey with a new variety pack that was added to accommodate those who wanted more than one flavor of doughnut in their order.

Bringing in about $100 a week, the students soon paid off the money they owed the board for the machine and started to build a reserve. But the streamlined process didn't come without trials and errors along the way.

The start-up included students who focused in different areas including bakers, money, sales and delivery. One junior who had previous experience working in her grandmother's bakery tweaked the recipe to include the essential dairy factor.

"I came into the class and they weren't using any milk," the 17-year-old baker said with a shake of her head. "We had to change that."

The student also pointed out that figuring out how many doughnuts can be made from one batch of batter was difficult.

"We were either making too little or too many," she said.

Better communication developed a smoother process that cut back on wasted product while also supplying enough for all customers. Some students weren't as keen on making the batter but found they were talented at making a pitch.

"I was more a salesman, I would go deliver (doughnuts) and I'd go around asking people who wants doughnuts," a 17-year-old student said. "I'd just be respectful for the most part. But after they'd bought I'd always walk away and say 'Have a holy moly day.'"

The sales were productive and no one stopped buying, which was the real test.

"I kind of figured, at first, (staff) will buy on the first round to support the cause," Utzman said. "But then they just kept buying."

The growing sales meant that numbers were even more important, making sure all dollars were tallied and none went missing along the way. The CEO was in charge of keeping the books, along with Utzman, completing the full financial business experience.

For the teen, it was neat to see his idea bloom into a larger operation.

"I was surprised because I kind of said it as a joke because I was just playing around," he said of his business idea. "I was really surprised because I haven't had a teacher go through as much as Paul has to be able to do something like this. Not only are we learning something valuable, we're actually learning things we can use in the future."

The salesman echoed his boss' comments.

"I grew up doing stupid stuff so this helps a lot, this helps me with that stupid mindset and shows I can do something different and better," he said.

He also was pushing for the business to continue in Gillette as a food truck but that was still up for debate.

The overall accomplishment of the business was something students attributed to the help of everyone involved, even if it meant wrangling co-workers who didn't want to clean up after the tasty tidbits were topped off. It was something that brought the teachers, staff and entrepreneurs together in a way the typical classroom format couldn't.

"It takes a bunch of teamwork and trust because you have to trust each other to do the right flavorings, get the right amount of money, make the right amount of doughnuts," said the 17-year-old girl who couldn't believe they weren't using milk.

"It really brought the teachers and students together and was a kind of team building experience, too."

That feeling of support and accomplishment was something Utzman and Anderson worked for, ensuring the students had the space to bring their business venture to life.

"Our kids are really resilient and being able to encourage them on that was great," Anderson said. "We all to some extent have had challenges in our lives but some of these kids had some huge, huge roadblocks, and I think the biggest thing about this was having them be able to see that they can be a success."

It's a success that the students believe they will take with them as they continue their education and look toward future careers, a talking point they can use to boost themselves in completing interviews and resumes.

By bringing the business to life, the students discovered that it's the small things, sometimes jokes or side comments, that if given proper consideration and work ethic can grow into something they'd never imagined - even with something as simple as a doughnut.

This story was published on March 25, 2023.