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Learning Alongside Donut Friend's Mark Trombino in Highland Park

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Donut Friend's Mark Trombino talks about getting over the first year hump, and what he's learned since opening in Highland Park.

Elizabeth Daniels

When Donut Friend opened last September, the city was in the throes of a doughnut mini-renaissance, with upscale shops opening just about everywhere. One year in, and the market is still going strong, though not everyone managed to survive the rise (and fall) in popularity. Owner Mark Trombino counts himself lucky to have made it through his first year in business, especially since he has no formal culinary training.

After years of daydreams and "dicking around" in his kitchen, Trombino opened Donut Friend in Highland Park to long lines and plenty of press, particularly for his inventive, music-themed creations. Now one year in, Trombino is still learning, but with an eye towards refinement -- and possible expansion.

How did the idea for Donut Friend first start? The idea for it came about six years ago. I happened across Donut Man in Glendora and had their strawberry doughnut, and that was an 'a-ha' moment for me. I mean, it's so easy and simple and delicious, and why doesn't every doughnut shop do that? At the time, Pinkberry was blowing up, and I started thinking about combining those two ideas. Like if you can stuff a doughnut with strawberries, why can't you put all this other rad stuff in there?

Why Highland Park? I used to live in Eagle Rock, so York Boulevard had been on my radar for a while. I live downtown, and originally I wanted to be able to walk to work. I looked downtown but had trouble finding something, so I set my sights over to York and found this space. It's so vibrant, with all the young families moving in, there's Occidental, Eagle Rock. It just seemed perfect.

What was the space before you converted it to Donut Friend? A massage parlor, actually. It was a terrible build-out. I made all the classic mistakes: I hired the wrong contractor, I didn't do my due diligence. It was just a mess.

What was the first day like? I mean, I'm a record producer guy who got into making doughnuts. I had zero experience. So the first day was a Highland Park Art Walk, actually, and I was so scared of the whole thing that I just opened up and gave away doughnuts. We had all kinds of problems -- our fryer broke. It was crazy hectic, but at the end was the most exciting thing I'd done.

So you didn't have any culinary experience beforehand? None. When I got the idea for Donut Friend I started dicking around at home making doughnuts. I'd travel around the country to certain doughnut shops, figuring out what I liked and didn't like. It's figuring out what I didn't like that was the biggest thing. I didn't like all the pretentious doughnut shops, places that would only make a certain amount and run out, or would rotate through a menu. I figured out what kind of doughnut shop that I wanted to have.

Who is the average Donut Friend customer? I don't know. We get such a wide mix of people in here.There's a lot of families that come in with kids. We get musicians and music fans in, because there's a music bent with all of the donut names. Hipsters.

It sounds like a cross-section of Highland Park in general. Yeah. And that's exactly what I wanted. We're a vegan doughnut shop, basically, but I don't advertise it that way. I always wanted to be all-inclusive, welcoming to everybody. And I think we've done that.

What sort of changes have you made in that first year? When we first started, I don't think we had any doughnuts made ahead of time. Now we have a whole caseload of quick doughnuts, so if you're in a hurry you can just come and grab some. It's all helped, just to get people in and out. When we first started, we had lines out the door, which sounds great, but we weren't actually doing that many customers. Now we have more customers, and no lines. It's great

How many doughnuts are you selling on average? We're doing somewhere between 300-400 doughnuts a day. That sounds like a lot, but we definitely have unused capacity. Like, we do events every once in a while, where there's a full stress test of the kitchen. We've made something like 2,500 doughnuts in less than a day. We just crank them out. It nearly killed everybody, but we did it. We're starting to do more and more catering, weddings, because we have that capacity.

What else is coming up for Donut Friend? I'd love to see us start servicing cafes, getting our doughnuts into stores, small shops. I think we can always do better business here. Our numbers are rising, but it's still all about getting the word out.

How does it feel to be a year in? It's awesome. It just hit me this week really. I know that they say most new businesses don't make it a year -- there have been really cool doughnut shops that have come and gone in the time that we've been here. So that's pretty rad.

Donut Friend
5107 York Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90065
(213) 995-6191

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