Voodoo Doughnuts and the allure of novelty

Perhaps it was my fault. Perhaps my expectations of Voodoo Doughnuts was way too high. It is, after all, a doughnut shop, not a four-star restaurant that is home to a world-renown chef. But part of me walked away from the place a little underwhelmed.

I realize that I may have just offended a fair amount of the citizenry of Portland. Some of them may call me daft. Others may state that I just didn’t get it. But these positions still don’t change my opinion. My visit to Voodoo Doughnuts was disappointing.

My visit consisted of about seven minutes of my time, where I ordered a doughnut called the Old Dirty Bastard, a raised doughnut of glazed chocolate topped with crushed oreos and then some peanut butter glaze, as well as the infamous bacon maple bar, which is hopefully self explanatory. I consumed said doughnuts whilst walking with Tara up Burnside to Powell’s Books.

Here’s what I love about Voodoo: the toppings. If you want to a different kind of doughnut shop experience, then Voodoo is your place. Sometimes the unique take on toppings work (as it did with the ODB), sometimes they do not (as with the Bacon Maple bar). It took me a full five minutes to decide upon which doughnuts I wanted. This is a menu where a doughnut topped with Powdered Strawberry Quik gets serious consideration. Had I the metabolism of a gerbil on crystal meth, I would have ordered several more doughnuts aside from the ones mentioned above. Part of me is saddened by the fact that I may have to wait before I get a chocolate doughnut topped chocolate glaze and cocoa-puffs.

Here’s what I didn’t like about Voodoo: The doughnuts themselves. The maple bar was dense, and very reminiscent of those horrid, horrid pastries that supermarkets try to pass off. The doughnut foundation for the ODB was a little better, but in all honesty, I’ve had better.

Oh, and don’t get me started on the bacon. Cold, greasy, and more akin to jerky than the crispy bacon that I adore.

Here’s my perspective. Doughnuts are good when they are light and airy. They are best when served fresh from the oil or oven (depending upon your preference). My guess here is that these doughnuts would have been amazing if served that way.

But alas, they were not. They were allowed to sit for some time before I came along and plopped my money on the counter.

I’m still trying to piece together the love for this place in light of my experience. I’ve come up with several theories.

One: I went on a bad day. This is entirely possible. Perhaps the staff just wasn’t on their ‘A’ game, and the service and food ended up being no better than average.

Two: The novelty of their menu choices blinds everyone to the quality of the actual product. This is not outside the realm of possibility, and many an money has been made by selling an average product and dressing it up as unique. Hell, Archie McPhee’s business plan depends upon this phenomenon.

My guess is that the reality is somewhere between these two extremes. There is some novelty in their menu. Make no doubt about that. But there are also interesting ideas in there. Some work, some don’t. As an impartial observer, it would seem that Voodoo has gotten some really great press based off of their novelty. But they are able to maintain a regular crowd based off the menu options that work beyond the novel. There was enough people there to make me realize that their regular customers had found that one doughnut that keeps them coming back. When you keep coming back for the same thing on the menu, it loses its novelty but gains something akin to emotional value.

Getting people to come back leads to some measure of success. And sometimes success leads to complacency, which leads to status quo, which leads to going through the motions, which leads to forgetting what made you successful in the first place…the doughnut itself.

I would order the ODB again. I would pass on the Maple Bar. The bacon was just said, and did not match as well with the maple as one might expect. Cold Bacon on a cold doughnut just does not do it.

Meanwhile, if anyone wants to understand the possibilities of an exceptional doughnut, head to Sunrise Donuts in Redmond, about 6am or so. They make pastries that will make you weep.

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