Federal Donuts exists because two small business owners were spending the morning picking up sidewalk trash.
The scene was Headhouse Square, the year 2011. Michael Solomonov was cleaning up outside Xochitl, which, along with Zahav, was one of three restaurants he co-owned with partner Steve Cook. Bob Logue was sweeping the bricks a few doors down at Bodhi Coffee, the cafe he launched with partner Tom Henneman.
“Whatcha up to today?” Solomonov asked. “Oh, heading to see this little former deli in Pennsport that’s available for lease,” Logue replied. Solomonov came along for the ride, and the rest is history.
A few months later the four partners — along with food writer Felicia D’Ambrosio, who’d heard something was afoot and smartly said, “I want in” before she even knew what it was — would launch their fried chicken, donut and coffee concept, which has become so successful it’s now a tourism draw for Philly and being exported to other cities across the U.S.
That part of the origin tale and more are told in a new book out today called Federal Donuts: The (Partially) True Spectacular Story (2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Monday night, Top Chef judge Gail Simmons chatted with the FedNuts founders as part of the Free Library Author Events series about their journey, their recipes and what might come next.
On forming a partnership: ‘We thought they were rich…’
Logue and Henneman had bootstrapped their coffee shop and didn’t have much capital, but the tiny spot at the corner of Second and Manton streets was something Logue had his eye on for years, so he wanted to sign a lease for the spot. Henneman had just come back from San Francisco and came back with the idea to add donuts to the mix.
“But we knew nothing about making donuts,” he told Simmons Monday night. So getting Solomonov and Cook involved was key.
“We were like, ‘This is great, wow, we’re bringing in these established rich restaurateurs’ — at least that’s what we thought at the time,” said Logue.
But no. “We had opened three restaurants,” Solomonov said, “and none of them made any money.”
On making it happen: ‘These guys are bluffing’
The potential partners hit it off, though, and plans edged forward.
“Bobby and I tend to get really caffeinated and talk out of our asses,” Solomonov explained. “We talked about how Pennsport was this amazing untapped place in Philly.”
Cook was a bit more skeptical. “I got roped into it by Mike and Bobby,” he told Simmons. “I was like, ‘No way.’ It was like a poker game. I was sure these guys were bluffing.”
And yet… “That’s how most restaurants happen,” Cook said. “Talk about it long enough and before you know it, it’s time to sign the lease.”
On choosing a name: ‘One round of logos’
Lease signed, there were plenty of other obstacles to overcome.
“We also didn’t know how to make cake donuts,” Solomonov admitted. R&D happened in the basement kitchen at Percy Street Barbecue, which was tight quarters since that South Street restaurant was fully operational at the time.
But one thing that didn’t take long was branding. “One round of names and one round of logos,” Solomonov said.
On buying a donut robot: ‘Put cash in your underwear’
All the equipment for the first Federal Donuts was bought used, per Cook. The original donut robot — the miniature automated machine that drops batter in hot oil and then flips it as it fries — was found by Logue on eBay.
They drove to just outside Harrisburg to pick it up. “It’s important to put all your money in your underwear when you meet strangers in the parking lot,” Solomonov deadpanned.
“It had cracks and divots,” Logue said, “but it was a beautiful piece of World War I-era equipment.”
Being so old, it did break a few times, but thanks to the foresight of Cook — “He graduated from college,” said Solomonov — the partners had purchased two of them, so could swap in parts. Said Logue: “That was probably the most brilliant move of our entire inception.”
On hot fresh and fancies: ‘Because we missed the turnpike’
Driving home from the donut robot exchange, Logue may or may not have taken a wrong turn and the ride home ended up taking a longer than expected. But that allowed for time to brainstorm.
“That’s where the ‘hot fresh’ donuts and tossing them in sugars came from,” Solomonov said. “On that ride home.”
The idea to do others dipped in various glazes (“fancies”) was because “when you dip a donut into a sugar glaze you’re preserving it, you get a few more hours of tenderness.”
On developing the chicken: ‘Za’atar on every surface’
The chicken part of the equation was added because the partners were enamored of the twice-fried wings at Cheltenham joint Cafe Soho, and wanted to bring something similar closer to the center of Philly.
But in addition to the traditional glazes of Korean fried chicken, Federal Donuts also offers versions dusted with various spices. That idea came about, per Cook, because of testing at Zahav.
“We were going to do only glazes,” Cook said, “but one morning there was just some za’atar [Middle Eastern spice blend] laying around — Zahav has za’atar on every surface.”’
On the Day One onslaught: ‘I was not surprised’
Whatever issues were going on behind the scenes, the buzz leading up to the original shop’s launch was huge. On opening day, donuts sold out within hours, and fried chicken within minutes.
The partners had not stocked much of either — they really didn’t think their tiny South Philly spinoff would garner the attention it did. The partners, that is, except for D’Ambrosio.
“For the record,” she told Simmons Monday night. “I was not surprised.”
“She did, she told us the day before, ‘You really should have more than 15 orders of chicken,’” Solomonov confirmed.
But that’s all there were, and when Logue went down the line taking orders, they were spoken for right away, with another 50 or 60 people still in the queue.
“I came back inside and said, ‘We’re screwed,’” Logue remembered. The partners decided that instead of selling actual orders, they’d just give the chicken away, one piece for each person waiting.
“We went outside and announced that and everybody was so happy!” Logue said. “It was like a football touchdown.”
“It was the Oprah effect,” Simmons observed. “YOU get a piece of chicken, and YOU get a piece of chicken…”
On Rooster Soup and the future: ‘World domination’
In addition to the original story, the new book includes various recipes for people to make donuts and fried chicken at home. It also has a section about the founding of Rooster Soup Co., one of the country’s first restaurants where 100 percent of the profits go to helping people in need.
“I think this idea is pretty revolutionary,” Simmons told the FedNuts crew, referring to their idea to use the leftover chicken backs and bones to make soup that forms the backbone to the menu at the Center City diner, which then donates its revenue to the Broad Street Hospitality Collective.
“Will there be more of them?” Simmons asked, adding, “Talk about world domination.”
“I hope so,” was Solomonov’s answer.
How about more Federal Donuts?
Said Henneman: “There better be!”