The Holy Donut

By David Lee

When Jen Horton interviewed for a human resources position at The Holy Donut earlier this year, she met with CEO Jeff Buckwalter in its Scarborough store. While talking with him, she could hear laughter, joking and singing coming from behind the counter as employees made donuts and served customers.

“Other employers might be bothered by that, thinking that must mean their employees weren’t focused, serious or driven, but Jeff paused, smiled and said to me ‘that’s our culture. I love knowing that people are happy coming to work,’” recalls Horton, smiling. “I knew right then that this was the place for me.”

Something different in the air

Two years earlier, Tristan Bean stopped into the same store. He’d been managing a donut franchise in New Hampshire for eight years and couldn’t help noticing the unique atmosphere.

“You could tell they were genuinely happy to be there. I remember thinking there’s something going on in this culture to make their people feel this way.”
What’s the secret to The Holy Donut positive culture? What makes it the kind of business that not only enjoys a passionate cult following for its products but also radiates a joyful “we’re happy to work here and serve you” vibe?

Bean, now the store’s general manager, says the company has an “Employees Come First” focus – “if you focus first on employees and they’re happy to come to work every day, that’s going to translate into passion for their work and the service they provide.”

A thoughtful beginning

Buckwalter’s sister-in-law Leigh Kellis started The Holy Donut nine years ago in her kitchen.
Her vision: Build a company that creates high-quality comfort food made from fresh ingredients that also delivers a warm, welcoming customer experience. As business took off, Buckwalter joined as CEO, and the two placed a high priority on creating a “thoughtful and kind” culture.

“Leigh and I consider ourselves thoughtful, and we both had worked in places where that wasn’t present,” explains Buckwalter, adding that his difficult childhood also led to valuable insights into the importance of thoughtfulness, caring and kindness.

“I wanted to pay it forward in a positive way. We wanted to create a company that was human-focused. We’ve all worked in places where that wasn’t the case. We wanted to be different.”

In describing The Holy Donut’s culture, Buckwalter also uses words like accepting, eclectic and helpful. Employees are selected more for their thoughtfulness and attitude than for job-specific knowledge and skills. “We’re not splitting atoms in our kitchen … we are making coffee and donuts on a high level. If someone comes to us with a great attitude and is ‘on culture,’ we can teach them the skills.”

Recovery as an asset, not a liability

Buckwalter caught Journey publisher Carolyn Delaney’s attention when she heard him speak about actively recruiting people in recovery during the Responding to Maine’s Opioid Crisis, a community forum in June in Falmouth.

“Both Leigh and I love giving people who want to help themselves a chance. Around 2016, it dawned on me that 10-15% of our workforce were in recovery. It started when we hired a couple of gentlemen in a sober-living facility in Portland, and they told their roommates. Now … three of our top five tenured people are in recovery. So there was nothing really purposeful in the beginning – we just noticed that people in recovery tend to be really successful here. They are really smart, hard-working people. So we thought … it’s good for them and it’s good for our organization, so let’s do something more formally.”

Buckwalter and Kellis met with representatives from the Portland Recovery Community Center, Milestone Recovery and Providence Place to help newly recovering people find work at The Holy Donut. “We feel like we’re willing to help anyone who is willing to help themselves,” he explains.

An important part of the company’s approach is seeing employees in recovery like everyone else. All employees are held to high standards and seen as capable of meeting them.

Buckwalter mentioned asking some recovering team members about their experiences as new employees. “They said, ‘you just treated us as human beings. There was no scarlet R for Recovery.’”

Horton explains how this mindset comes into play during the interview process: “We look at each person as a person and not just a resume. Say there are gaps in employment. They might have had some hard times and reflected on it, and learned how to overcome challenges,” she says. “That’s not something to be ignored.”

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