The Holey Land: Customer Experience at Hole Doughnuts
Doughnuts inspire a lot of reactions: delight, salivation, swooning, palate glee and diet abandonment. At Hole Doughnuts in West Asheville, doughnuts—fried to misshapen perfection in an open kitchen and divvied out to grinning customers, made to order—inspire passion.
Passion for Bon Appétit Magazine’s 2016 dessert of the year is contagious, shared by hundreds of regulars and pilgrims who make the trek across state lines to the little white building every year or every week. But it’s the passion of Hole’s employees, not just for their product but for the way it’s delivered to customers, that truly sets the bakery apart.
“Finding what you love, and selling it, and authentically being that person and authentically sharing that with the world—people want to be a part of that,” says Hallee Hirsh, who bought the business with her husband Ryan Martin two years ago.
Hirsh’s path to Hole is far from a traditional one. She was an actor in television and film from ages 3 to 26, a role that uniquely prepared her for her current one as business owner and doughnut maker: “You’re constantly selling yourself, and what you’re selling is an ability to connect with people,” she says of acting. When she and fellow actor Martin moved to Asheville three years ago, they began making and selling handmade sourdough tortillas at local grocers and developed their own passion for Hole’s chewy, warm desserts. The couple became regulars, which inspired Hirsh to apply at Hole to gain experience in a brick and mortar bakery. Within six months, they bought the business from founder Caroline Whatley.
What they purchased was a business with a cult following and a bustling but small hub of employees, and over the years Hirsh has learned and multiplied those endearing aspects of the business. That means hiring charming and multifaceted people-people, cultivating a sense of community within and outside the business, and establishing her own confident leadership. Here are the top lessons we gleaned from our interview with the dough gal.
Offer a Product You Can Stand Behind
Hole doughnuts are undeniably delicious, but their preparation is also thoughtful and intentional. Hirsh uses farm-to-home milk, organic stoneground flour, and local, seasonal ingredients; they don’t cut any corners in their production cycle. Doughnuts are made to order in sight (and scent) of customers.
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Create an Environment of Joy
“Our number one focus is enjoying ourselves, because if we’re not enjoying ourselves things don’t work as efficiently or well,” says Hirsh. Hirsh and her small team love their jobs, their products, and their customers, and that passion is palpable from the moment you walk into Hole. She cultivates a family-like environment for both her employees and her customers. “It comes from a pure desire really to make friends,” she explains. “I think the ability and the desire to want to make friends is also dependent on a place of extreme comfort in your work where you have the emotional space to do so, and if you’re surrounded by friends in the workplace, you’re put in a more socially receptive zone.”
Hire Employees Who Are Multifaceted and Passionate About Service
Hirsh just hired her first employee with extensive culinary experience, which may come as a surprise, but she’s always prioritized an enthusiasm for service over a working knowledge, much to Hole’s advantage. Because they fry and glaze their doughnuts in front of customers, it’s an act that’s performative in nature and provides a lot of opportunity to engage with customers. “There are a few people on our team who have this super human power to remember people,” she says. “They’ll remember details about people because they make genuine connections with our customers. Even though we’re operating at full tilt on a weekend, we still make sure we take the time to make that connection.”
Hirsh is also sure to hire employees who bring a unique advantage to their position; manager Neomi, for example, is detail-oriented and makes up for Hirsh’s lack thereof. It’s also important that Hirsh doesn’t wait hire simply out of necessity; when she recognizes talent, she capitalizes on it. Employee Laurie, for example, was a Hole regular when she moved to Asheville and would enthusiastically engage with other customers in line. Hirsh recognized her talent, and asked her to become a part of the team—a proposal Laurie heartily accepted.
Cultivate a Rewarding Work Environment
Even new employees begin above living wage. Everyone has a say in the business, and everyone’s personality is honored. It’s an environment of joy and fun, but it’s also one where everyone’s job is done well and employees are encouraged to take pride in their work.
Approach Tasks as an Egalitarian
At Hole, everyone has a thorough understanding of every position, and they rotate between tasks seamlessly. “Teaching everyone who works at the doughnut shop the tools to do everything gives everyone agency over the product,” she explains. Whether they’re making the dough or glaze or working the register, every employee finds satisfaction in their day’s work.
Maintain a Sense of Enthusiasm for Every Customer
Hole’s employees are required to describe their product to customers every day, sometimes dozens of times a day, and Hirsh acknowledges that it’s easy for such a script to get stale—but that’s not what happens at Hole. “I am so in awe of our employees who maintain that passion on a daily basis, and who are able to maintain the ability to communicate that passion,” she says, citing Laurie as an example. “The way she says it, every time it is indeed a unique experience, and she genuinely connects with that individual as an individual every time she say the spiel.”
Lead Like a Leader
My most important job as a leader is to maintain the workplace environment within the team as a really safe, comfortable, fun social space—while all getting working done,” Hirsh says of her role. She learned on sets that group dynamics depend completely on how everyone is jiving, and that weird energy between people, gossiping, and alliances can negatively affect the project. “It’s really important for a strong leader to see that, address it, and step out of that zone, and appreciate the team members for what they do have to offer,” she adds. With strong leadership that encourages everyone to have each other’s backs, there’s always a support net.
Develop Relationships with Other Local Businesses
Asheville is a collaborative community, and Hirsh has capitalized on the nature of her town. She maintains relationships with other local businesses that are positive and reciprocal, so that when the press comes to town, she often gets a piece of the proverbial pie.
A Great Experience is Great Marketing
“Word of mouth marketing is a really positive result of offering a great experience,” Hirsh says. Regulars and first-timers eagerly share the news of the crispy doughnuts. Employees share their passion for their job around town. Other businesses send customers to Hole for breakfast. By pairing a great product with a great experience, Hirsh guarantees the success of her business.
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