A sweet start for Sugar Shack Donuts

It may only be a shack, but don’t be surprised if Sugar Shack Donuts soon becomes a doughnut Mecca (if it isn’t already).

  • Who: Co-owners Ian Kelley and Casey Ward
  • What: A new doughnut shop within city limits
  • When: Opened June 11th
  • Where: 1001 N. Lombardy Street (across from Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School)
  • Why: To do something both fun and different.
  • Dishes: Flavors rotate every 5-10 minutes. Previous doughnuts include Irish Toffee, Caramel apple, Raspberry glaze, Maple bacon, Toasted Coconut. Also serving fritters, milkshakes (including vegan varieties), and will soon offer gluten-free options on Sundays.

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You really know you’re onto something when a woman happily waits 45 minutes to buy six of your s’mores-flavored doughnuts. Or when a guy returns twice weekly to buy six dozen doughnuts for unknown reasons. But that’s the norm for Sugar Shack Donuts in just its first month of business.

When they opened on June 11th, they sold over 500 doughnuts in the first hour. “That first day we just got crushed,” said Sugar Shack Donuts co-owner Ian Kelley. “It was completely unbearable.” A week later, Sugar Shack closed for two days to hire and train additional staff.

Bakers now have a firmer grip on production. They use, on average, 400 – 500 lbs. of dry flour to make up to 3,000 doughnuts daily. They also make 10 lbs. of glaze and bake roughly 100 – 200 fritters each day.

But Sugar Shack is more than the Irish Toffee, Caramel Apple, Maple Bacon, or any of its other doughnuts. It’s rise was years in the making.

Sugar Shack kitchen

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It began in Richmond, when Ian Kelley became co-owner of Richmond restaurant The Old City Bar in 2004. There he cooked entrees like crab, duck, steak, but by 2007, “I wasn’t learning anything new,” Kelley said. “I didn’t want to stagnate.” So he hung up his apron at age 22.

He drove across the country, eventually making it to Colorado, where he worked at an upscale Italian restaurant. “That’s where I started playing with dough.” He later left the restaurant and continued his cross-country drive, stopping in Seattle where he worked at a French bistro to save money.

Eventually he tired of the restaurant business altogether. In 2009, he traveled to New York to play soccer at Brooklyn College. He enjoyed the soccer just fine, just not the city. “I absolutely hate Brooklyn. I hate New York,” he said. The Big Apple became too much, and by the summer of 2009 he returned to Richmond. “You can’t escape Richmond,” he said. “There something about this small town that pretends to be a big one.”

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Sugar Shack plain dougnuts

In 2010, Kelley ran the Greater Richmond Futsal League1, helped create Own Touch Soccer academy in Goochland, and coached the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School Girls Soccer team. Then, while playing soccer, Kelley fell, injuring his shoulder and blowing out his knee. “The doctor told me…I had to quit playing,” he said, but he stayed on as coach at Maggie Walker.

One day, “I told the girls I was opening a doughnut shop,” Kelley said. The girls laughed.

But unknown to them, their coach had been scouting restaurant locations over the past year. “I was looking at the building that is now Lunch,” in Scott’s Addition, Kelley said. The building’s owners passed on Kelley’s idea after the projected sales of a doughnut shop failed to impress them.  

Among the other buildings Kelley eyed was one in the Museum District that now houses Deco Ristorante. Kelley envisioned that location as a Portuguese fine dining restaurant, not a doughnut shop. But that idea fell through.

So Kelley continued to coach at Maggie Walker, doughnuts kicking around in the back of his mind. But why create a doughnut shop in Richmond?

In several of the regions of the country Kelley had (sometimes briefly) lived were artisan doughnut shops like Portland’s Voodoo Donuts and New York City’s Doughnut Plant. But there were none in Richmond.

Yes, there’s the venerable Country Style Donuts. But that’s out by the airport. Krispy Kreme? That’s closer, but still out in Willow Lawn. And what about Dixie Donuts in Carytown? It opened in May 2012, years after Kelley had the idea for his doughnut shop.

After years of searching, Kelley would ultimately find a location–right across the street from Maggie Walker.

Sugar Shack doughnuts

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1001 N. Lombardy Street was previously a 1,200-square-foot used car lot. In March 2012, Kelley and business partner Casey Ward began a protracted purchase that finally netted them the keys in September of that year.

“Doing fine dining, I want to slow down and have a little more fun,” Kelley said about how he envisioned his doughnut shop. It wasn’t called Sugar Shack originally, but rather Dodo Donuts. Kelley said the original concept also called for black-and-white checkered tile floor and a more “childish, stark, drier” atmosphere. But as Kelley and Ward began building out their shop, Kelley found the aesthetics of his previous fine dining experience creeping back in.

What resulted was exposed brick and wood and a coppertone ceiling. “Everything was a progression to this,” Kelley said. Dodo Donuts would no longer do, and one day, the name Sugar Shack Donuts struck him.

In talking to Kelley, you soon realize that Sugar Shack’s business philosophy is two-fold: have fun and be different.

To the latter, Kelley decided that Sugar Shack would roast its own coffee in-house, even ordering a roaster all the way from Turkey to do it. That idea has been sidelined as keeping up with doughnut demand takes precedence. For now it serves Baltimore-based Zeke’s coffee. They also serve milkshakes, including the city’s only vegan varieties.

Making doughnuts is where the fun comes in. When Sugar Shack first opened, it offered both cake and yeast-based doughnuts.2 “We were finding that demand was predominantly yeast,” Kelley said. So bakers ditched the cake outright.

Sugar Shack has no set menu. That’s a deliberate decision, not because owners are still working out the kinks. “The guys have free rein to make doughnuts,” Kelley said about the roughly four-to-five people that staff the kitchen at any given time. “I want them to have fun.”

Part of the fun means a quick turnaround of flavors. “[Customers] love the fact that we come out with a different flavor every five minutes,” Kelley said. Those flavors depend upon who’s stationed in the decorating portion of the kitchen assembly line. One person may be partial to using homemade puree, another glazes, or another using bizarre pairings of flavor. No one person occupies the decorating station for more than two hours straight to further diversify the outflow. Kelley estimates they’ve already made roughly 40 different combinations.

According to Kelley, the far-and-away favorite (thus far) is the bacon maple doughnut. “I can’t put bacon maple on the shelves fast enough,” he said. His personal favorite is the plain raspberry doughnut, a particularly tasty summertime confection. Kelley also enjoyed a one-off apple cider doughnut with a glaze made from local apple cider.

Beginning July 21st, Sugar Shack will be gluten-free on Sundays: all doughnuts and pastries will be gluten-free, with some both vegan and gluten-free.

And if you find Sugar Shack’s daily closing time of 3:30 PM hinders your doughnut fix, Kelley said he envisions Sugar Shack to be open 24 hours. “We’re getting more efficient,” Kelley said. “We just need more help.”

Having previously moved from restaurant to restaurant, and crisscrossing the country from the comfort of his car, Kelley certainly seems the restless sort. But he’s put down roots here in Richmond. And while it may have humble beginnings, don’t be surprised if Sugar Shack Donuts soon rises to landmark status.

Sugar Shack Donuts is located at 1001 N. Lombardy Street.

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  1. Indoor soccer played on a smaller field. 
  2. Dixie Donuts offers cake-based doughnuts. Krispy Kreme and Country Style offer yeast-based doughnuts. 

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photos by Anne Aurelia Lewis

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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