Leslie Polizzotto from The Doughnut Project
Want to know how Instagram, flavor innovations, and eye-catching brand collabs all add up to a delicious recipe for marketing success? In this season 3 episode of The Art of Sway, Leslie Polizzotto from The Doughnut Project shares her uniquely effective strategies for using influence to keep customers lining up for more.
Leslie Polizzotto is the co-founder and owner of The Doughnut Project, a handcrafted gourmet doughnut shop in the West Village in Manhattan. The Doughnut Project shop takes inspiration from food and cocktails to create their flavors, and is known for its collaborations and partnerships with local, national and international brands where they create custom doughnuts for product launches and events.
In this episode, you’ll find out the tactics Leslie has successfully used to promote her business, from her focus on visuals to how she tackles the weekly need for fresh ideas and content. Plus:
- Why the pandemic actually helped The Doughnut Project — and forced a focus on profitability
- How The Doughnut Shop uses brand collaborations: from new product creations to PR
- The power of avoiding ‘shock value’ flavors and images in favor of a gourmet experience
- What the art and decor means to consumers in The Doughnut Shop’s retail presence
- Why Leslie says that social media was instrumental to creating a global brand
- The (many!) reasons women make better business owners
Episode 28: Leslie Polizzotto Transcript
Danielle Wiley: Welcome to The Art of Sway, the podcast that uncovers the power of influence and its impact on all areas of our lives. I’m your host, Danielle Wiley. Each week we’ll explore the many facets of influence through candid conversations with industry insiders, from brand marketers to social workers, educators, leaders, and more. Let’s dive in.
Danielle Wiley: Leslie Polizzotto is the co-founder and owner of The Doughnut Project, a handcrafted gourmet doughnut shop in the West village of Manhattan. She is a former litigation attorney who had a passion for food and fine dining. When the opportunity to help open a doughnut shop was presented, she took the leap into entrepreneurship creating one of the leading doughnut brands in the United States. The shop takes inspiration from food and cocktails for their doughnut flavors and is sought after by national and international brands to do collaborations and custom doughnuts. Leslie oversees daily operations and handles the business side of the brand. She leads a team of four female pastry chefs to create the one-of-a-kind doughnuts, including new weekend specials every week that are available Friday through Sunday only, leading to customer lines around the block.
Danielle Wiley: The Doughnut Project has received extensive press for its unique doughnut creations, and for the many collaborations it does. The shop has been featured on many national and international television shows and has a global following on Instagram of over 155,000 followers. Leslie’s motto is, it is never too late. She graduated UCLA at the age of 36 and graduated Pepperdine University School of Law at the age of 40. Leslie became a business owner at the age of 46. I was introduced to Leslie by our Season 1 guest, Jared Watson, and I am so glad he made that intro. This was an utterly unexpected and fascinating conversation, and trust me when I tell you that you probably need to be close to your kitchen or a local doughnut shop while you are listening. This conversation will make you hungry. Enjoy.
Danielle Wiley: Well, hi, and welcome to the show. I’m so excited that you agreed to come on and thrilled that our mutual friend Jared introduced us to each other.
Leslie Polizzotto: Yes, thank you for having me. I always love telling my story, and so I can’t wait to tell you all about The Doughnut Project.
Danielle Wiley: Yeah, yeah. So we pretty much start every episode I have my guests tell me a bit about their career journey, and I kind of cracked myself up with my dad joke of your story, really taking the cake, pun intended, for most fascinating. So I’d love for you to share with our listeners how you went from law to doughnuts and just kind of take us through what your journey has been.
Leslie Polizzotto: Yes, my journey is definitely unique and I’m sure some of the people I used to work for at the law firm probably thought I had gone insane, but I never intended this when I was practicing law that I was going to open a doughnut shop. That was never the intention. It was kind of a situation where the stars aligned. I was practicing law in LA, I moved to New York. I had intended to practice law in New York. I took the bar, had to do everything all over again, and passed it but the law firm that I was working for, which was a national firm, their New York office didn’t quite have enough work to bring me on.
Leslie Polizzotto: So I was kind of waiting around. I became friends with a bartender who mentioned to me that he wanted to open a doughnut shop, and I pulled out my phone and I showed him all these pictures of doughnuts that I would take when people would bring in doughnuts to the law firm and how happy they would make me and how I just could see how the whole dynamic of the room would change when doughnuts were brought in. And I told him, “Hey, I have some time on my hands. I’ll help you with a business plan and raising capital” and things like that. The process itself was really fun and I really started to enjoy creating a concept from the ground up. Midway through that long process, my firm had a position for me and they reached out and I turned it down and just kept going in the direction I was going and kind of dove head first into opening this doughnut shop.
Leslie Polizzotto: I was a foodie. I kind of knew I wanted to get into the food business at some point in my life, and this was kind of an entry level, I thought, way to get into the food scene. So I was fortunate enough that I had a spouse who was like, “Sure, go for it,” because most people would not be so thrilled when their spouse gave up a six figure income to not take a salary for over a year. So the journey was definitely unique, but I’m so glad I did it because I could never go back to working for someone else. Or, not that I don’t miss practicing law, but I’m very happy with my choice.
Danielle Wiley: Why don’t you tell… I mean I gave a little bit of info through reading your bio to everyone, but why don’t you share what The Doughnut Project is? I know you have two locations. Just tell us a little bit about what you guys do.
Leslie Polizzotto: Well, actually I have one location now, and we’ll maybe we’ll touch on that a little bit later when we talk about the pandemic. But The Doughnut Project opened in October of 2015. We’re in the West Village. We are a handcrafted hand cut, everything’s done by humans, no machines doughnut shop that takes inspiration from food and cocktails for our flavors. So we use ingredients like sesame seeds, beets, ricotta cheese, olive oil, black pepper, wheat, bacon. We use a lot of unique ingredients that at the time in 2015 had never been done before. So it’s a very unique brand that does a lot of collaborations. Every weekend we have two weekend specials that are only available for three days and then they go away forever or at least a year. So there’s always something new that people want to get.
Danielle Wiley: I love it. I love it. I love doughnuts, but are these cake doughnuts or yeast doughnuts or both?
Leslie Polizzotto: They’re all of the above. We started initially with yeast and then we added cake. And now we have French curlers, which is a pâte à choux dough. It’s completely different dough. We have vegan cake, we have gluten-free cake. So keep in mind, each time you add a different type of dough, it’s adding a whole nother process into your business. What’s interesting about the doughnut is every day you start with nothing. You have to make it to sell. So it’s not like ice cream where you open up the store and the ice cream’s in the freezer and it’s all there waiting to sell. We have to make it to sell every single day. And so that’s the challenge.
Danielle Wiley: It seems to me this is the type of business that’s kind of tailor-made for social media, right? doughnuts are just so… They can be so beautiful, they can have different colors. You’re doing these unique weekend concepts that kind of come and go. They have that kind of fleeting nature and people are excited to share them. What do you think is different about starting a business like this now in the age of social media versus before where that word of mouth was truly just word of mouth, but now people are showing what they’re eating and sharing that out with the world in a different way?
Leslie Polizzotto: Right. Well, yeah, honestly, I would not have survived if it wasn’t for Instagram specifically because Instagram is a very visual platform and my doughnuts are very visual. We kind of came into the doughnut scene just when Instagram and food was kind of coming into its fruition. Now it’s probably the most popular thing that’s posted on Instagram. It was very new. And so we were fortunate enough to actually get a lot of exposure, global exposure through Instagram because of our unique doughnuts.
Leslie Polizzotto: I have people from all over the world, Scotland, Japan, they come in and they say, “We’ve been following on Instagram for three years and we’re finally here.” I mean, my brand is a global brand. People from all over know it, but it’s a tiny little shop in the West Village and it’s me and three people. It’s amazing. And it’s all because of social media. If I had to tried to do this without social media, it would’ve failed because no one would’ve known who we were. When we started we were woefully under capitalized, didn’t have any money for PR or marketing or anything like that. It was all social media, and I’ve never paid one penny for marketing.
Danielle Wiley: That’s amazing. And do you find that just in terms of the design of the shop and how you present the packaging? And are there things that you do to make your shop, to make your product more social media friendly, more Instagramable? Or do you just put out the amazing product and let people take it from there? Do you nudge at all through hashtags or photo ops or that sort of thing?
Leslie Polizzotto: We definitely are very cognizant of the visual of the doughnut. First and foremost, it has to taste well and makes sense. I don’t do anything just for shock value or anything like that. It’s based off of a dish or dessert or a cocktail. And so it all makes sense, the ingredients do flavor profile-wise. But as far as visuals, I’m a small business, I do all of my content creation, I handle my social media account. When we are usually mocking up weekend specials on Wednesdays and I take all photos and videos and I do all that on Wednesdays to post at five o’clock, so that at five o’clock on Wednesday what’s coming this weekend, if something isn’t looking beautiful, we will make a change because it does need to catch someone’s attention just to get them to even dig further to find out, “Hey, what is this and what is the flavor?” So visuals are definitely 100% in the forefront, but it also has to taste good.
Leslie Polizzotto: My shop is a very visual shop. It’s got street art on the walls. It’s kind of a concept of Paris Art Salon meets Lower East Side New York. It’s graffiti with gilded frames around them. We have chandeliers, kind of the whole premise that we’re taking a doughnut you could buy on a street vendor and we’re elevating it to be glamorous and beautiful. So that’s kind of the whole concept of The Doughnut Project.
Danielle Wiley: What do you do to take advantage of the content, like the user generated content that you get? So when people come into the shop and they post their photos and they share it out, I’m assuming you kind of help amplify that to push it further.
Leslie Polizzotto: I do. I usually repost every story that’s done if it looks nice. If sometimes people they’ve traveled with it and it looks like it was thrown on the ground and stomped and then they take a picture of it, I’m like, “Oh, that’s not very appealing. But 90%-“
Danielle Wiley: We’ve seen the same thing even when we’re paying influencers to create content.
Leslie Polizzotto: 90% is good.
Danielle Wiley: We were working on a campaign recently and someone sent in photo, it was for a baked goods product that you make at home, and they burnt it and then they submitted the content and we were like, “No, you can’t post it.”
Leslie Polizzotto: Yeah, exactly. No, yeah, I mean, we get a lot of professional influencer people who are on TikTok and all of the above. They have very sophisticated way to create content and it’s always beautiful. But your average customer is just someone that wants to post what food item they’ve eaten on Instagram for their own personal, for whatever. And we will repost most stories when they look nice. I respond to all comments and all DMs. So there is engagement from the brand with whoever does post and tag us.
Danielle Wiley: That’s a ton of work.
Leslie Polizzotto: It is. It’s a lot.
Danielle Wiley: It’s a lot.
Leslie Polizzotto: But I mean, people have said, “Why don’t you farm that out? Why don’t you have someone come do it?” But my business is so in real time, it’s not like I have pictures for a doughnut for a month from now. It is on the calendar and we know it and we’re starting to test it, but I probably don’t have that content. It’s just easier for me to do it than to wait around for someone to show up and do it. I know what needs to be done and it can be done very quickly. And so I just tend to do it myself.
Danielle Wiley: Spoken like a true type A woman.
Leslie Polizzotto: Yeah, 100%.
Danielle Wiley: Do you have a lot of influencers coming in and trying to get free doughnuts or barter? How do you handle that?
Leslie Polizzotto: Yes. We-
Danielle Wiley: I know a lot of small business owners really struggle. Or even big large business owners struggle with that. It can be overwhelming.
Leslie Polizzotto: I have people from all over the world, “I’m going to be in New York this week, when can I schedule a time to come to your shop?” And so some of it’s very high level. And then some of it’s just someone who’s trying to start a foodie blog and they have hardly any followers and they’re asking me for free product. I mean, sometimes I will give somebody a free doughnut, but I tend to just try to work with people who have established influencer brands. It’s not always the person with 100,000 followers. A lot of people with 10,000 to 15,000 followers have a lot more engagement with their followers and really can generate a lot of publicity for you. And so I tend to work with certain people that I know are great people and have great followers, but I mean, I encourage anybody who wants to come in and take… I mean, you could come in and buy a doughnut and generate tons of content and tag us and we can retag you and help you. So I do that as well.
Danielle Wiley: Yeah. Awesome. So I could talk about doughnuts for another hour, but I feel like we should talk about some of the meatier stuff. I’d love to talk to you just about in general about switching careers in midlife. So I think it’s tempting for a lot of people as they approach a different stage of their life and are looking back and seeing what’s ahead and wondering if this is all there is, and do they feel fulfilled. I mean, I don’t think that’s uncommon, but it can feel impossible. It can feel scary if you have a family, as you know, talked about your husband. It’s not just your own life really. You don’t necessarily have full control over your own life because other people are depending on you and you’ve set up this whole family structure that maybe depends on the income that you’re bringing in.
Danielle Wiley: I mean, obviously everyone’s home situation and financial situation is different, but maybe just in terms of the psychological piece of it or having, presuming that you have the financial wherewithal to make the leap, what advice would you have for getting past that scary piece of it and just being able to take that leap?
Leslie Polizzotto: Well, yeah, I mean, switching careers is tricky, especially when you’re switching from a steady paycheck with a company to starting your own business. And quite frankly, it’s not for everyone. If you like working and leaving and not thinking about the work you just did until the next day, starting your own business or switching things up is not for you. Because specifically when you start a business, every day of your life you’re thinking about it. So it’s not a 9:00 to 5:00, it’s pretty much integrated into your life. But I’ve always had the motto it’s never too late to change your career path. I actually didn’t even start going to college until I was 29, community college and I transferred into UCLA and I graduated at 36. I went to law school at 37. I started my own business at 46. So there’s no rules that say-
Danielle Wiley: Rules don’t apply to you.
Leslie Polizzotto: No, they don’t apply to me. I tend to make very large, big changes. For one thing, I think there’s three key things for people that are trying to make a change or started their own business. And I hear it all the time. I have finance people come in and they’re like, “Oh, I wish I could start a bakery.” People that are in high stress professional careers, I think, love the idea of escaping and just taking… They think it’s more simple, but quite honestly, my business is just as stressful and hard as when I was an attorney, weirdly.
Leslie Polizzotto: But I think first you have to really love the concept or the product or the new career that you’re going into because like I mentioned, it’s pretty much integrated into your life and it’s going to be all you think about for a very, very long time. Second, I think it’s really good to partner with people who have skills that you don’t have. Initially, the partner that I worked with who left three years ago had hospitality experience. I was in fine dine, fancy persons coming into the restaurant, but I didn’t understand the other side of hospitality. I’m so glad that I worked with someone who knew that side because I might know how to do all the business stuff, but he knew how you treat customers and that kind of stuff. So it’s good to partner with people who have skills that you don’t have.
Danielle Wiley: Right.
Leslie Polizzotto: And then lastly, I would say if you’re going to make a change or try to start a business, you have to have support of your spouse and your family or friends, because for me, I gave up an income and you have to be able to financially do it. And then you need people to vent to because it’s very difficult making huge career changes. It’s nice to have people supporting you and encouraging you that you’re doing the right thing because it’s definitely a challenge. Sometimes you’re like, “What? What have I done?” I mean, I used to drive a fancy car and work in an office and have a secretary, and then I was washing dishes and sweeping the floor and pulling espresso shots. And I was like, sometimes you’re like, “What? What’s happened?” I love it and I can control it. And so there’s no going back to working for someone else. So I would say those three things, just make sure you can do it financially, you have support of friends and family, and make sure you really like what you’re diving into because it’s going to consume you for a very long time.
Danielle Wiley: One of the things I have found super helpful just in owning my business and the stress that comes along with that is having support groups that are separate from my family friends, and separate from my business partners. Because those two groups have ulterior motives, right? My business partners want every decision that gets made to benefit the company. My husband wants every decision that gets made to benefit our family. And sometimes one or the other of those might not be the right… There are other factors, right? You can’t make every choice based on a biased perspective. So joining other group groups with other CEOs, even in other industries, and just communicating with other business owners and having places to go and to vent and people to hold me accountable who don’t really have zero skin in the game of what I’m doing has been so helpful to me.
Leslie Polizzotto: Right. Right. Yes, I’ve kind of built a little network of female people in the business that are in bakery business. I’ve had actually made some friends with female doughnut shop owners who are in other states and come to New York and visit my shop and I visited their shop. And so it’s nice to swap stories and vent and how do you handle this and get feedback. I’m really good friends with Jinny, who has a doughnut shop in Frisco, Texas called Detour Doughnuts, and she comes to New York a lot and we go out to lunch and we powwow. We talk about everything.
Danielle Wiley: It’s amazing.
Leslie Polizzotto: It’s really nice to compare notes and find out. It kind of helps you realize that you’re not alone and that other people are going through the same thing you’re going through and they have the same issues. And so it’s nice to have comradery in your peer group. So yeah, I definitely agree that is essential as well.
Danielle Wiley: I thought you were going to talk about this when you were talking about financial people, because I think I always assume financial people with nay-saying. But just curious to know how you handle the naysayers because I feel like… I mean, this kind of gets down to everyone having their own kind of secret motive. But with every big move that I make, certainly there’s always someone who feels the need to share their perspective on that or their opinion whether it’s solicited or wanted or not. And just wondering, I mean, I can imagine going from law to doughnuts, there had to have been some people who wanted to share their thoughts on how crazy that was and why you shouldn’t do it.
Leslie Polizzotto: Well, yeah, I mean, I think a lot of people were like, “What is she doing now?” Kind of, “This is nuts.” You went through all that law school, taking the bar, it’s just not easy to become a lawyer. If it was, everyone would be one because you make good money and it’s a professional career and it’s very difficult to become one. But actually the naysayers were more, when we were trying to rally up people to invest, they were like, “Well, there’s doughnut shops already in New York City. How are you going to make any money? How is this going to work? Why doughnuts? They’re everywhere.” So I’d say it’s 50… Well, maybe even 80% being naive and thinking, “Oh no, we’re going to make this work.” I mean, I never quit, type A, do whatever it takes kind of person. And I was like, “This isn’t going to fail. There’s no way. I’m going to make it work.” But there were people who thought the concept wouldn’t work.
Leslie Polizzotto: I was committed to the concept. There’s nobody in New York or anywhere doing doughnuts with beat and ricotta or olive oil and black pepper. There’s nobody doing this. So we’re kind of opening a new market. It’s more adult. It’s a doughnut that aren’t so sweet, the flavors work. New York is all about food. It’s a food capital over the world, and this makes sense here. You kind of have to believe in your concept. And again, I think it was a little bit being naive. 85% of food businesses fail in the first year in New York. So the fact that I’ve been open for seven and a half years is something’s right. And so I think I do tend to take what people say to heart, but I think I was so just really behind the concept and naive that I believed we were going to be successful. So I to tended to just ignore them.
Leslie Polizzotto: It was funny when we were renovating the shop, this old man poked his head into where we are and said, “Nothing ever works here.”
Danielle Wiley: [inaudible].
Leslie Polizzotto: And we were like, “Thank you.” I mean, it was that kind of stuff and you’re just like, “Oh, well, don’t listen to that person.” And here I am seven years later, who knows where that old man is? But it’s nice to have staying power in a city where people typically don’t make it.
Danielle Wiley: Yeah. No, it’s tough. So speaking of tough, you mentioned COVID earlier. I don’t know that there’s a business around that didn’t have some kind of impact from the pandemic. How did it change things for The Doughnut Project?
Leslie Polizzotto: I’ll be completely honest, it saved my business. Literally 100% I would’ve probably closed down if it wasn’t for the pandemic. Before the pandemic, I had two locations. I had the original location in the West Village where the doughnuts are made. And I had a second location up near Central Park where it was a small, tiny little shop where we would drive the doughnuts in a van up two or three times a day. It was a nightmare. I mean, literally a nightmare. It was super expensive,
Leslie Polizzotto: The rent, the employees were hard to manage. It was just a nightmare. So before the pandemic, two locations opened every day, nine hours a day, 25 employees, was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, made not one penny. After the pandemic, I closed down the second location, reduced the hours to five days a week, five hours a day at the original location, had to lay off a lot of people and just kept couple professional pastry chefs who were really good. We stayed open. We had people from all over driving in to get doughnuts just for some sense of normalcy. They would come in, they would have it ready. They would pre-order, we would have it bagged up. They would come in, they would grab it, and they would leave. People were so happy that we were open and we had this unique treat that could bring some happiness into their life because New York was the epicenter of COVID. It was horrendous here. I mean, there was no one on the streets. It was insane.
Leslie Polizzotto: And so we just stayed open. And slowly but surely, I just started making money, becoming profitable and paid off my debt. I’ve paid off all my investors. I’ve completely turned my business around because I’ve learned that less is more. I don’t have to be open like Dunkin’ Donuts 24 hours a day because I’m not Dunkin’ Donuts. I’m a boutique doughnut shop. I always say we are like Prada, we’re not H&M. We are a very high end concept that you have to plan to get. If you want doughnuts at 10 o’clock at night, well, you’re not going to get them from me. You can get them from 9:00 AM until 2:00 PM and that’s it. And it works. Wildly, it works.
Leslie Polizzotto: So the pandemic literally made me pivot into a different type of model because in New York, you think you have to have a location on the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, downtown, over here. But New York is a tiny, tiny island. People think it’s this huge place, but it’s not. There’s millions and millions of people here, but it’s a very small footprint. It’s just not necessary for me to pay double rent. It’s just not. There’s no reason for me to have locations in anywhere else than I do because people will come to me. So the pandemic was a huge savior for me and I sometimes feel guilty about it because so many businesses closed, but for some reason, it worked for my business and we just pivoted and it made us more successful.
Danielle Wiley: I don’t know that I’ve ever been through a tough time. I mean, my company’s been around for just about 12 years now, and I don’t know that we’ve ever been through a tough time where we didn’t come out of it in some way better than we were before because-
Leslie Polizzotto: Well, you learn lessons.
Danielle Wiley: … you have to reexamine things.
Leslie Polizzotto: Yes.
Danielle Wiley: You look at everything. You figure out where you’re duplicating efforts and double spending or-
Leslie Polizzotto: Right. Efficiencies.
Danielle Wiley: … those hard time, yeah.
Leslie Polizzotto: Oh yeah, totally. I mean, my expenses are ingredients, labor and rents, those are my top expenses. With labor, I learned that if I work with professional pastry chefs, this is their career, this is what they want to do, and I pay them very well. We all work together as a team. We’re all the A team, there’s no B team. There’s not somebody working today or tomorrow that none of the other people… We’re all together all the time. We all have Mondays and Tuesdays off. It’s very regimented. They take it serious and they support the brand versus having a lot of employees that are just maybe going to stay for six months and then go find some other job. So I found investing in professionals and paying them well and treating them well is the way to go. I’d rather pay fewer people more money than have a lot of people who are less quality. So that’s what’s worked for me.
Danielle Wiley: That’s a hard lesson for business owners to learn, but I mean, I feel like nine times out of 10, once you do that, you realize the truth of it.
Leslie Polizzotto: I mean, me and my three female pastry chefs, we do the output that I probably used to pay 10 people to do.
Danielle Wiley: Yeah, I can believe it.
Leslie Polizzotto: No joke. So that happens because of the pandemic. Just, “Oh, I’ll get a better equipment. I’ll do this. I’ll make some improvements.” I took advantage of PPP loans and made some upgrades to my business, the equipment, and made my business more efficient. It runs like a well oiled machine now. Therefore, I can make money off of it. That’s the point when you have a business, is you have to be profitable, or otherwise it doesn’t really make sense. So the pandemic helped me figure out how to be profitable.
Danielle Wiley: Fascinating. So we kind of got more into the weekend specials, but you mentioned collaborations earlier, and I wanted to touch on that because in the influencer marketing industry, collaborations is the big buzzword that you see around everywhere. I would love to understand how you take advantage of… I mean, I feel like it’s kind of big, even in the music industry collabs are everything.
Leslie Polizzotto: Right.
Danielle Wiley: How does it work in doughnuts?
Leslie Polizzotto: Well, this is crazy, but I always like to say we invented collaborations because I’ve been doing collaborations since June of 2016. We started partnering with alcohol brands because we were started to get press and known that we’ve created doughnuts with cocktail glazes. And so Angry Orchard, which is a hard cider, reached out to us and we did a huge collaboration with them. I’ve worked with all alcohol brands. I’ve worked with National, I’ve worked with Hormel, Skippy, HI-CHEW, Belvedere Vodka. I’ve worked with Estee Lauder cosmetics. You name it, I’ve worked with them. We just became known for doing collaborations. My collaborations, they’re kind of different levels. I work with local businesses and restaurants where this weekend we’re doing a doughnut inspired by a new spring dessert menu item at a restaurant that’s in the West Village. And so we’re creating a doughnut using all of the ingredients that they’re using in their dessert. And so that’s just a way for us to promote their restaurant. It’s just fun. We always are looking for creative ideas every weekend. When you change every weekend, you need to have a source for those doughnuts.
Leslie Polizzotto: So the collaborations has been a way for us to always have something new. And then when I partner with bigger brands like HI-CHEW Candy or Hormel, or Skippy Peanut Butter, who sponsors my peanut butter and jelly doughnut by the way, they actually provide the peanut butter for that. I also work with Brooklyn Gin, who provides me with the gin.
Danielle Wiley: Wow.
Leslie Polizzotto: I do a Brooklyn Gin Cocktail glazed doughnut that’s always on my menu. So I’ve actually turned it into more than just collaborations. I’ve turned some things into ongoing partnerships. But when you work with a large brand, they have PR teams and they have money. And so they will do media drops. So when we create the doughnut, we’ll send doughnuts to all of these daytime TV shows or food blogs or Timeout magazine or Food & Wine or whatever. We’ll send packages. And sometimes they’ll do custom boxes, they’ll do custom bags, they get press in articles, online magazines and stuff. So by partnering with these brands, I get to use their PR team and get all this press.
Danielle Wiley: For free.
Leslie Polizzotto: And I haven’t paid for it.
Danielle Wiley: That’s amazing. My brain’s like going a hundred mile. I’m like, “How do I…”
Leslie Polizzotto: No, I know. It’s amazing. And then the local restaurants, it’s a completely different collaboration.
Danielle Wiley: Right.
Leslie Polizzotto: It’s just us working together. But every so often I do work with larger brands where it turns into a media which we send it to influencers, and then they post about it. And then it just gains steam and traction. The more posts there are about it, the more stories there are about it, the more articles that are put out there, then it just generates more interest in that doughnut and that doughnut will be just huge, huge weekend special. So collaborations are very important to my business. Not only do I get free PR, but it gives me new doughnut ideas for every weekend.
Danielle Wiley: I love it. I love it. And so before we get to the final question, I had to touch on the fact that you have an all female team. So do we. And just was curious, was this deliberate? What do you see as the benefits of it? Tell me more.
Leslie Polizzotto: Initially, it wasn’t deliberate because my business partner who left three years ago, he moved back during the pandemic because his family was in Seattle and he just had to go back. And so I just kept doing it by myself. I had two female pastry chefs that were working and we just were really doing well. I’ve hired more pastry chefs. I don’t say only women apply. I mean, that’s illegal. But nine times out of 10, most professional pastry chefs are female. Quite frankly, it’s allowed us to have a very friendly comradery. The team is very small. I’ve had a lot of men work in the shop. At least from my experience, any guys that have worked for us prior to the pandemic, they tend to not to take direction or be told what to do by a female. And so I’ve found we seem to work together better when it’s all girls and we’re working towards the same goal.
Leslie Polizzotto: I feel like girls work harder. I don’t know. It’s worked well. And so I’m kind of happy with having all female. But if some awesome male pastry chef wanted to work with us, of course, I would say yes. But it just so happens that all the good people I’ve had the opportunity to meet have been female.
Danielle Wiley: Yeah, it’s kind of been the same. It happened kind of accidentally for us as well. And same as you. We don’t specifically say female only and we are not opposed to it, but we very rarely get a resume from a guy.
Leslie Polizzotto: Right. Female owner, female head pastry chef, and so guys tend to think they know more than the women and they usually don’t. So it’s really good. It’s very easygoing and relaxing. We hustle. I mean, we’re only open five hours. Obviously we’re working there for hours before we open and we have to work a little bit after we close because we have to clean and prepare for the next day, but it’s hustle time. I mean, our weekends, because of the specials, it’s like Friday night dinner at the most popular restaurant. It’s hustle. It’s hustle, hustle, hustle. I just think some guys just aren’t. They want to break. I don’t know. I just feel like girls are hard workers.
Danielle Wiley: I think women too, there’s a different level of multitasking.
Leslie Polizzotto: Yes, I agree. I’ve been asked before, “Why do you think women are better business owners?” And I’m like, “Because we’re used to wearing all kinds of hats. We’re used to doing 15 things at once and taking care of 15 different areas of a business.” It’s just very similar. I mean, women tend to be able to multitask really well and handle things and are much more structured and planning and calendaring things. I don’t know. We have so many things going on, so many balls in the air and wear many hats. That’s perfect for a business owner because you have to know how to do everything. I mean, there’s no job description, there’s no boxes to check off. There’s no annual reviews where you’re told how well you’re doing. When you have your business, every day there’s new challenges, new opportunities. You have to figure it out. And so women are really good at that.
Danielle Wiley: I mean, I think I’ve always been pretty good at that as a woman. And then when I became a mom, there was a whole other level of it.
Leslie Polizzotto: Oh, yeah. [inaudible 00:37:34].
Danielle Wiley: I’d be at work and someone would come and cry and I’m like, “Oh, you’re going to cry? Nice try. Do you want a bandaid or an ice pack? Get out.”
Leslie Polizzotto: Yeah. Yeah. It’s like problem solving. I mean, we just know how to problem solve because there’s, “Oh, this is not working,” and “Oh, I need to get out of the door,” and “Oh, I need to drop you off here,” and “Oh, you needed money for this.” I mean, there’s so many things going on in the life of a woman every day, and that’s exactly what the qualities you need to have to run a business because there’s always something that’s going to go wrong or not as you planned. I mean, we’ve been open seven and a half years and I’ve recently gone through a lot of equipment issues recently because they’ve seen the end of their life. And it’s like everything kind of happens at once and you’re like, “Oh my God.” But you just do it, you take care of it, and you move on. I mean, women are strong and we can handle anything, so that works for me.
Danielle Wiley: Yeah. On that note, what woman had the biggest influence on you and your life and career? Just to give a shout-out to another woman out there.
Leslie Polizzotto: This is horrible. It’s actually I don’t have a woman that’s had a huge impact on my life, unfortunately. I am not very close to my family. I was the first to go to college and the first to do a lot of things. And so I’m an anomaly from my family. And so there’s no one there that really pushed me to do any of the goals I’ve achieved. It’s all been kind of me just doing it.
Leslie Polizzotto: Honestly, the person who has impacted my life the most has been my husband. We’ve been together 22 years, so he’s been with me all through my education, all through, “Oh, I’ve finally graduated college, now I want to go to law school.” I mean, what husband would be like, “Sure, go for it”? He is been so encouraging to me. And then he encouraged me to start my own business. He’s like, “You can handle this. You’re so good at this stuff. You have all the skills. You’ll be a great business owner.” I guess he’s given me the confidence that most women, we always don’t think we can do stuff, but we actually can. And it’s nice, my spouse has literally been the biggest impact on my life. I mean, he’s a man. So unfortunately, my answer is not answering your question.
Danielle Wiley: That’s okay.
Leslie Polizzotto: There’s not been a woman that’s really impacted me tremendously. It’s been my husband, quite frankly.
Danielle Wiley: I had a similar conversation the other day because there are women who have influenced me for sure, but not necessarily at work. I was talking to someone the other day that I never really had a great… I actually interviewed someone last week who was, I think, the only great female boss I ever had. I didn’t really have a lot of female mentors at work who helped me and inspired me and supported me and wanted me to do better. I think it can be really, really tricky in the business world in general to find, sadly. I think it’s-
Leslie Polizzotto: I know. And I mean-
Danielle Wiley: … a bummer and I’m hoping I’m creating a different environment here, but yeah.
Leslie Polizzotto: I think nowadays there’s more females. But I’m 55 years old, so when I was starting out working, this was a long time ago, there wasn’t a lot of women in high level positions. When I was an attorney, I worked for a male equity partner. He was one of the top equity partners and he was notoriously hard and mean and very rigid, and we just meshed. He expected the best and you gave him the best. He kind of instilled that expecting people to do good and to achieve a lot. And so my mantra is I expect a lot of my employees because I’ve always given 120% and I want everybody else around me to give 120%. So unfortunately, the people I’ve worked for have usually been male, but they can still instill some good values into you. I mean, of course there’s women that I look up to. I think Dolly Parton’s the coolest woman in the world, but I don’t know her.
Danielle Wiley: I love her. I have artwork. I have Dolly Parton artwork looking over my desk.
Leslie Polizzotto: Yeah. There’s like the three people you want to have dinner with or you would love alive or dead. She’s definitely one of the women I think I look up to because she came from nothing and she’s so wonderful and has done so much. So there’s definitely women like that that I look up to. But impacting me and my life, it’s been my husband. He’s my best friend and he’s always encouraged me to do whatever I want. And so I’m very lucky.
Danielle Wiley: Love it. Love it. Well, this was amazing and thank you so much. So I was in New York last week.
Leslie Polizzotto: I know.
Danielle Wiley: And I’m now kicking myself that I didn’t hop down to the West Village for a doughnut, but next… I’m from New York so I’m there a lot, so next time for sure.
Leslie Polizzotto: Well, please do. Please come down. It’ll blow your mind. It really will. It’s a lot of fun.
Danielle Wiley: Yeah. Well, thank you again. This was terrific.
Leslie Polizzotto: Thank you.
Danielle Wiley: Thank you for listening. Don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. Please check back next Monday for a new episode featuring marketing conversations through the lens of influence. I am your host, Danielle Wiley, and this is The Art of Sway.