HAMILTON’S DONUT MONSTER:
CATCH ONE IF YOU CAN
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘What should we grab?’, I ask TOQUE Partner Cai Sepulis as we work our way closer to the front of the line – a line that keeps growing behind us. ‘The Matcha Mint White Chocolate looks fantastic,’ she says. ‘I’ll probably get one of those – and maybe a Beeramisu.’ I peer through the glass case at the donut Cai’s pointing to – a gorgeous specimen with rich mascarpone cream filling infused with Hamilton brewery Grain & Grit’s double chocolate stout and topped with cocoa dusted cream cheese icing capped with a chocolate- covered espresso bean. My mouth begins to water.
As the couple ahead of us places their order, I need to think fast. I want a Classic Apple Fritter for sure. And the Double Almond looks amazing too. And I’ll need to try the Beeramisu – and let Grain & Grit’s Joe and Lindsay know how it is. And some for my kids, too, who can never get enough of what my four-year-old calls ‘the donut monsters.’ (I can already hear her little voice when she sees the box: ‘Did you get us the donut monsters, daddy?’ It kills me. Every time.) ‘Let’s be sure to get enough for a box,’ I tell Cai. ‘I love their boxes.’ And their cups. And everywhere this place – Hamilton’s storied Donut Monster – puts its distinctive brand.
‘We worked with Burlington’s Insite Design to flush out the visual representation of the customer experience,’ Donut Monster founder Reuben Vanderkwaak tells me when, on another visit, I ask him about it. ‘They do a lot of work with breweries and wineries around the Niagara region.’ He continues: ‘Most of the agencies we approached immediately began creating central monster characters – but I wanted something more subtle,’ he explains. ‘Insite crafted amazing illustrations and built a story around the brand – which had only existed visually as a logo up to that point.’
Reuben waxes eloquent when we talk about his logo: ‘To me, the donut monster represents a phenomenon we experienced in our early days when folks would scour our distributors in search of our product. We tended to sell out really fast, so people started mythologizing the journey to find our donuts. The donut monster is always pursuing donuts but rarely finding them. There’s a seductive, elusive quality to it all.’ A quality that’s manifested in the illustrative elements of those boxes, and cups, I find so appealing. Bits of hands, or fur, or other parts of the monster, are made visible. Poking through. Here and there. Never fully realized. Just enough detail that you get the sense the donut monster is on its quest. Always lurking. Searching. For donuts.
In the beginning Donut Monster really was an elusive product. That was when Reuben, a former graphic designer and avid cyclist, first began developing his donuts out of his home. He was a stay-at-home dad to a two- and four- year-old then and his distinctive confections, inspired by the donut shops Reuben and his family discovered during a hefty cycling tour across America, were a distraction from child rearing. Those early donuts were distributed only to close friends and family who – as you can imagine – were only too happy to serve as his guinea pigs. When it became apparent that Reuben’s culinary wares were a hit – and could become the focus for a business – he sought out a commercial kitchen and, in 2015, co-founded The Kitchen Collective, a non- profit co-op kitchen that serves as a culinary incubator of sorts.
After an initial showing at the Hamilton Flea, it wasn’t long before Reuben was baking donuts out of this kitchen and delivering them to a handful of spots across Steeltown – including The Cannon, RELAY Coffee Roasters and Vintage Coffee Roasters. And on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays only. ‘This seemed to work for a while,’ reminisces Reuben, ‘but not for long.’ He chuckles, recalling those early days. ‘We sold out so quickly that it became apparent we’d need to expand. And so, in our first two years, we found ourselves increasing distribution from three locations one day a week to twenty-five locations multiple days each week – across Hamilton, Dundas, Burlington and the Mountain.’ And increased demand didn’t just require more circulation. It also put a strain on Donut Monster’s kitchen situation. Indeed, by 2017 almost thirty aspiring and small businesses used the kitchen as their own, and Reuben simply found himself needing more space.
Which is where this gorgeous Locke Street location, opened January 2018, comes in. With these exposed brick walls. And leather-back seats with belt buckle accents. And painted tables and murals decorated with bits of the donut monster. And this line-up. And Cai and me up at the front ordering donuts. I make final decisions – which is not easy with twenty flavours from which to choose. Behind the counter a small army of Donut Monster employees – in various flavours of hipster – are working dutifully and with purpose. I spot Reuben in the back – a cycling cap perched atop his head. I wave – and he returns the salutation. Cai and I grab our box of donuts – as well as a seat near the window.
After all, there’s no way we’re leaving without first enjoying the fruits of our labour. Of our pursuit. Of these elusive donuts. I dive into a pear walnut armagnac fritter my mouth stuffed with donut, breathe a sigh of relief. The chase is over. For today, at least.
246 Locke St S, Hamilton