ANDERSONVILLE — For three years, Downstate Donuts has been a fixture of local farmers markets, pop ups and special events, serving its award-winning doughnuts from a homemade tricycle.
But a fire at its shared kitchen this summer grounded operations just as the business was taking off. Now, owner Virgil Roundtree has started a Kickstarter to launch the next phase of Downstate Donuts, which hopefully includes a shop in Andersonville.
“We’re searching for our next home right now,” Roundtree said. “If there’s one thing that [Andersonville] is missing, it’s a great doughnut shop.”
Roundtree started Downstate Donuts in late 2018 with friend Peter Guardalabene after sampling a potato doughnut in Portland, Maine.
Potato doughnuts can be gluten-free and have a consistency between cake and raised doughnuts. The friends noticed they could not find potato-based doughnuts in Chicago and set out to make their own.
That idea spawned Downstate Donuts. The business was founded in Andersonville, but “downstate” was chosen for the name to conjure ideas of organic ingredients and farm-to-table quality.
The makers uses organic and locally sourced ingredients for concoctions like vanilla sour cream and sweet potato maple. It also offers seasonal flavors, like a miso honey butter and a whipped Vietnamese coffee doughnut.
By early 2019, Downstate Donuts took the top prize at Chicago’s Donut Fest. It was a validating moment for the young business.
“We thought the company might stop there,” Roundtree said. “I was blown away.”
Brainstorming how to expand, the entrepreneurs settled on a virtual restaurant to produce their doughnuts from a shared commercial kitchen, then sell them at farmers markets and neighborhood events. Roundtree built a “little donut trike” that is essentially a bakery display case on wheels to get his product to the people.
“I wanted to mimic the feeling of going into a bakery, seeing the product,” Roundtree said. “It’s been a big hit.”
Downstate Donuts has expanded to the Logan Square and Evanston farmers markets and has grown its wholesale business. Its products were available in cafes like Printer’s Row Coffee Co. and Gallery Cafe. The company’s “donut tots” were placed in Foxtrot, the upscale corner store chain, this summer.
But a fire at its shared kitchen in July brought operations to a halt just as Downstate Donuts was scaling up, Roundtree said.
Roundtree has scouted new locations for a production kitchen but has yet to find the right one, he said. Roundtree said he used the hiatus to step back and plan the company’s future. He recently bought out co-founder Guardalabene’s stake in the business.
“We had already outgrown the space,” he said. “We were so insanely busy just keeping up with demand. I had to think of a roadmap forward.”
Roundtree wants to open his own kitchen to grow the business, and he is also hoping to raise enough money for an Andersonville storefront. The Kickstarter seeks $40,000 for a production kitchen. If $90,000 is raised, Downstate will be able to open a shop in Andersonville.
There are 10 “pledge levels” to the fundraiser, with backers getting perks like a year of “donut tots” ($400 or more), the investor’s name inscribed on the company trike ($500 or more) or a private doughnut-making class ($1,500 or more).
Andersonville is where the first Downstate Donuts was created and where the company began selling products to the public. The company’s fundraising effort has the backing of the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, as a doughnut shop would fill a need in the neighborhood.
“Downstate Donuts has been an incredible asset to Andersonville,” David Oakes, district manager for the chamber, said in an email. “We are in a ‘donut desert’ and need Downstate Donuts more than ever.”
If the Kickstarter — and other funding efforts — are successful, the business looks to be a permanent fixture of the neighborhood.
“The local residents, businesses and chamber of commerce have collectively supported us from day one,” Roundtree said. “That’s what every small business wishes for.”
For more information on the fundraising campaign, click here.
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