Pro tip: The original Federal Donuts is super close to Exit 20

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He runs Federal Donuts, but you don’t know his name.

It’s Tom Henneman, and he might be the least-celebrated owner of a nationally-famous restaurant around.

The Philly-based fried chicken-donut-coffee outfit is most commonly associated with Mike Solomonov and, to a slightly lesser extent, Steve Cook — the duo behind the rising restaurant organization known as CookNSolo (Zahav, Dizengoff, Abe Fisher, Percy Street). “We now know who the mystery James Beard Award winner [is],” cooed a recent Eater Nashville article about the chain’s planned expansion there, touting its Solomonov connection.

True enough, Cook and Solomonov are two of FedNuts’ founding partners. So is Felicia D’Ambrosio, the vivacious food writer/beer expert/lady about town who’s responsible for the company’s social media presence, especially the wildly popular Twitter account. A fourth member of the group is Bob Logue, a former construction worker who helped build and create the look of the counter-service cafes and now maintains a full-time position with the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Then there’s Tom.

As Federal Donuts’ operating partner, he’s the one responsible for the day-to-day. The 36-year-old Baltimore native who grew up in Reading, Pa., makes sure the trays of colorfully-glazed “fancy” donuts show up at the five outlets scattered across the city. Assures that racks of battered chicken are ready to drop into the fryers the minute the clock strikes 11:45 a.m. Handles the emergency scramble when one of the Donut Robots that send out hot, made-to-order sugary rounds inevitably breaks in the middle of a rush. He’s there when the Internet connection drops and the registers can’t process credit cards, and he picks up the cash for the daily deposits. He’s the one who negotiates with Aramark about what the FedNuts’ stand can or can’t sell this year at Phillies games.

Put another way, Tom Henneman fills holes at Federal Donuts. His critical role in the project came as something of a surprise — both to his partners and to Henneman himself.

“I only say this because of how it turned out,” says Cook, “but at the beginning, Tommy was probably the least important partner. Now he’s by far the most important.”

A leadership role

Henneman at Bodhi Coffee in 2011
Henneman at Bodhi Coffee in 2011 Credit: Danya Henninger

Before he partnered with Logue to open Bodhi Coffee on Headhouse Square in 2010, Henneman did not have a restaurant background.

When Logue decided to give Philly one of its first modern “third wave” coffee houses, he knew he’d need someone to run the place, since he wasn’t planning to give up construction work. He’d met Henneman through mutual friends in recovery after alcohol or drug abuse, and had done jobs with him over the past few years. Though Henneman didn’t have any money to invest, Logue appreciated his work ethic. The pair joined forces, with the understanding that Henneman’s contribution would be sweat equity. And sweat it out he did: If you visited the petite cafe anytime of any day that first year, it was a pretty good bet Tom would be there.

It was during the build-out for Bodhi that the seeds for Federal Donuts were planted. At the time, Cook and Solomonov were still running Xochitl, the Mexican tequila bar a few doors away, and they and the Bodhi guys became friends.

When Logue spotted an available cafe-size storefront near where he lived in Pennsport — a place called Messy Jesse’s had just gone out of business — he decided that instead of just coffee, he wanted to add some food.

“Cupcakes are so over,” Henneman remembers him saying. “Let’s do donuts.”

Logue also didn’t have a lot of food prep experience. But he knew who did. When he asked for advice from Cook and Solomonov, they got excited about the idea of joining the project (which somewhere along the line picked up fried chicken as the third prong in its trifecta of offerings). D’Ambrosio, a good friend of Solomonov’s, wanted in, too. Each of the five ponied up $7,800, and Federal Donuts was born.

While Cook wrote out the business plan and he and Solo tinkered with recipes, refining the donuts’ baharat-spiced batter and the chicken’s double-fry, Logue designed and built the shop, outfitting the 500-square-foot corner space with a counter backed by a tiny open kitchen and a couple rows of stools. D’Ambrosio began working the media, helping craft press releases and buffing expectations on social.

Henneman — well, Henneman helped out. He was handy, and quick, and good at making people laugh. But he had no clearly defined role. Then the joint opened as a smash hit, and he got one.

It only took two days of being open for the Federal Donuts crew to decide to expand.

“We planned to stay open through 9 p.m. every day and even deliver fried chicken dinners via bicycle,” Henneman marvels. “We really thought of it as a side project, a little something we’d do for fun. We didn’t know.”

But the quirky concept took hold fast and strong. On launch day, the Manton Street shop sold out by early afternoon, after struggling to deal with lines that stretched around the block. The New York Times came down and fawned over the sweets. Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan fell for the chicken. The partners inked a deal for a lease in the middle of Center City, and realized they were going to need a full-time point person.

Tom volunteered.

“He really wanted to do it,” Cook says. “So we said, ‘Why not?’ ”

‘More, more, more’

Fried chicken at Federal Donuts
Fried chicken at Federal Donuts Credit: Danya Henninger

When Henneman goes back to his hometown near Reading these days, conversations with former acquaintances often go something like this:

“What you doing with yourself now, Tom?”

“I run a donut and coffee shop in Philadelphia.”

“Oh, cool. Hey, so you must’ve heard of that place that gets all the press — Federal Donuts?”

“Actually…that’s the one. That’s me. That’s what I do.”

It’s not surprising Henneman’s former neighbors don’t expect him to be at the head of a hot, buzzy company. When he left town for the last time and headed to Philadelphia, it was as an addict and a bum, kicked out by his parents because they couldn’t take his destructive nature anymore. They’d been dealing with it since he was 13 years old.

Henneman and his friends first discovered alcohol in eighth grade, but even back then, he says, there was something different about the way he approached it.

“I didn’t care what drink it was, I just wanted more, more, more.”

In high school, he began leading somewhat of a double life, since during the day he was quarterback of the football team, a star point guard in basketball and an integral part of the baseball roster. At night, though… Parents out on a Tuesday? Time to get wasted.

“It got so bad that my parents couldn’t leave me alone with my siblings, they had to get a babysitter if they wanted to go out,” remembers Henneman, who is the eldest of six, with the next-closest in age five years below him.

“There was tension and fighting and we were left to clean up a lot of his parties,” says Henneman’s younger sister Kassie Savoy, who is now one of his best friends. “He wasn’t allowed to come to my 8th grade graduation. I didn’t really understand that he had a problem, and I was angry and hurt.”

Booze led to other vices — “I clearly remember the first time we smoked pot,” Henneman says —and soon he wasn’t leading two lives but three.

One group of friends he played sports with, another crew he’d regularly get drunk with and then there was a third with whom he went to raves. Those were the ones whose drugs got harder and harder — ranging from psychedelics like LSD to dissociative anesthetics like ketamine and narcotics like cocaine.

“Thank god no one ever ended up with heroin, because I’m sure we would’ve snorted it if we had it when we ran out of K,” he says.

Amazingly, the partying didn’t interfere with Henneman’s performance on the field. He only ever missed one season — failing to turn in homework on time kept him out of football his sophomore year — and when he was sent to rehab, he successfully squeezed it into the summer months so his positions on the sports teams weren’t affected.

At the rehab facility — the first of three he’d attend — he learned more about drugs than anything else. “We had 15-year-old crackheads coming in there and telling us all kinds of stories.”

After getting out, it didn’t take long for him to fall back into his regular ways, and his church-going Irish Catholic parents were appalled. He spent his final semester of high school sleeping on friends’ couches, and finally his father gave him an ultimatum: Either join the military or get shipped off to a convent-like facility in North Dakota.

Tom enlisted in the Marines. The day after high school graduation, he left for Paris Island.

Rehab, again

Customers gather inside the Center City FedNuts during a snowstorm
Customers gather inside the Center City FedNuts during a snowstorm Credit: Danya Henninger

At first, the rigorously structured military environment was good for him, though not easy.

“They start shouting at you the minute you get off the plane, and basically never stop,” Henneman says. He recalls a moment a few weeks in, during a particularly brutal target practice exercise, where he stopped and thought, “What did I get myself into? Here I am learning how to dress a rifle and my friends are all getting ready for Senior Week parties.”

After bootcamp, Henneman’s go-getter attitude combined with his fit figure and all-American good looks ended up getting him assigned to the “8th and I” barracks. The elite unit is the one that stands at attention to welcome foreign heads of state and plays the salute at other significant national events. Instead of slumming around, Henneman was representing his country at one of the most prominent levels.

It didn’t last.

Addiction took over, and after getting blasted drunk one too many times, Tom was sent to the military equivalent of rehab, which he remembers as one of the worst experiences of his life. Whenever he messed up or did something wrong, it was his facility-mates who’d be punished.

“They do that to show that in combat, in the field, your actions don’t just affect you, they affect everyone around you,” he says. “At least, that’s what I think the theory is — I didn’t sit down with my commanders at the time and ask them.”

A year-and-a-half into his five-year term of service, both Henneman and his superiors had had enough. He got what’s called a discharge for other than honorable reasons, and headed back to Pennsylvania. He made efforts to reconcile with his family — Savoy remembers him taking her out to dinner to apologize for past behavior — and even got a steady construction job.

He saved up $5,000, enough to buy a Nissan truck, and headed out to Albuquerque, where he’d lined up an apartment and a friend of his father’s had a lead on a job. He planned to start a new life.

Three months later, he came back on a Greyhound bus, car repossessed by the bank and no more than $10 in his pocket. He was 21 years old.

Since his parents were unwilling to allow him to continue distracting them from the rest of their family, Henneman ended up in Manayunk. He spent most of his time drunk or high, sleeping in abandoned houses between doing odd jobs, until an acquaintance took pity on this skinny, anemic-looking kid — Tom estimates his 6-foot frame probably carried little more than 135 pounds.

“This guy who didn’t even know me very well — he basically saved my life,” he says, describing how the man scored him a bed at the always-full Salvation Army, where he began his third and final push toward getting sober for good.

“I’m not a Jesus person,” Henneman says, “but at that point I was like, ‘I’ll believe in whatever you want if you can just help me.’ ”

‘None of these people drink?’

Henneman helps make sure each piece of fried chicken is as good as can be
Henneman helps make sure each piece of fried chicken is as good as can be Credit: Danya Henninger

Henneman has always made friends easily.

When he calls someone “Brother” — which he does around 100x a day — it doesn’t feel forced or condescending. It just feels cool, like he’s accepting you onto his team. As he makes his daily stops at the various FedNuts locations (which the crew refers to as North, South, West, Center City and, during the summer, “the Port” at Spruce Street Harbor Park), dozens of people stop him to say hello, or give him a hug.

“Tommy has a way with people,” says Steve Cook, elaborating on why his partner is so good at running the business. “He has a way of being someone’s boss and also having them like him, and not just like him but relate to him on a level that is more friendly. That’s very hard to do.”

Cook continues, then catches himself. “He isn’t one of those guys who needs to be liked, and therefore overcompensates. He’s just a great guy. He can talk sports. He can talk music. He’s just a guy you want to hang out with. He’s a guy you want to have a beer with, even though—”

But Tom doesn’t have a problem being around alcohol anymore.

While his wife Jessica is also sober, the couple keeps beer and wine in the fridge at their Graduate Hospital home, in case a dinner guest might enjoy it. And he’s learned how to have fun without drinking, something he credits to friend Bob Hostutler, who he met after leaving the Salvation Army.

“When you’re 22 years old and facing a life without intoxicants,” Henneman says, “it can seem really bleak. I remember he took me to this gathering, and I walked in and there were all these young people there, beautiful girls, everyone having a good time. I looked at Bob and said, ‘Wait, none of these people drink?’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Hostutler, who now lives in California but has been proudly following Henneman’s career from afar, offers words of admiration for his old friend: “He’s never been an academic, but he’s a bright guy. He’s always had these smarts and social skills, this ability to build relationships and bring people together.”

Those skills, according to Cook, are going to be critical to Federal Donuts’ continued success.

“More than great chicken or great coffee or great donuts, I think what people love about it is the culture,” he says. “And as we move into other cities [Miami is up next after Nashville], it’s really going to be Tom’s job to spread that culture, that feeling of the shops being fun, communal places. To the staff and also other customers.

“He was the least likely person to emerge, but he has become key to Federal Donuts — he’s the heart and soul.”

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...