Corey Smale, the smooth-talking co-founder of Strange Donuts, a brand-new craft donut shop in Maplewood, will readily admit to you, “I have no baking background. I barely know how to make donuts, for real.” That’s where the team he has assembled swoops in for the save. The shop boasts an array of flavors of donuts, or “dones,” (pronounced d-OH-ne) as they call them, from classic glazed and long johns to the inexplicably bizarre: chicken and waffle, creme brulee, blueberry cheesecake, gooey butter cake, carrot cake, maple bacon, and even a pizza donut co-created with Pi Pizza. To come up with the eclectic recipes, one imagines a science lab where Smale and his team are at work in the bowels of the shop, roiling away amidst the quaint, unsuspecting commercial district of Maplewood.
St. Louis can’t get enough of their wild creations: you’ll find “done” believers from all over the city decked out in Strange Donuts attire and lines extending well out the door during business hours. “GREATEST DONUT SHOP OF ALL TIME” and “EVERYTHING IS AMAZING,” actually in all caps, are commonplace amidst the Facebook comments section, as well as day-to-day problems. “Get up here if you’re hungry! New Years dones goin’ quick!” Smale posted New Years Day. “I’m so hungry but I can’t get up,” a done-lover responded.
Smale has a deep, melodious voice and the poised swagger of a fresh-faced college student, fudging his grammar and throwing in a few “ain’t’s” when he gets comfortable. It’s been a big year for him: he opened Strange Donuts, left his job at marketing agency H&L Partners, got married, and bought a house. “I think that’s it,” he says, racking his brain for any other life-changing milestones he may have missed. His wife helps out with Strange Donuts from time to time, but not to excess. They have their reasons. “I don’t want to work together–not in a shop like that. It’s just too crazy in there. I’m almost in a different mindset when we’re grinding. There’s 50 people out the door, the phone ain’t working, we’re out of boxes, we ran out of milk … it’s hectic. I don’t want to put that strain on our relationship.”
By day, Smale lives Strange Donuts: the business is infused with his presence. “There’s a lot of myself involved. It’s a very personal thing, but I think people feel more connected with that at times,” says Smale. “We always say, ‘Stay strange,’ or whatever. To me that feels just like, ‘Be natural. Just be yourself.’ Everybody is weird. What’s weird to me are people who are not weird. I’m like, ‘Well … what are you doing?’” “Strange” means more than just wacky and peculiar. It’s an ability to be oneself amidst a cultural climate that often tempts with materiality and carefully constructed fantasies–things that are shiny and new, but ultimately empty. At its core, strangeness means authenticity to Smale. “That is something I don’t think you can even buy. I’ve worked in that industry, I’ve seen people pay lots and lots of money for something like that, to have some people dedicated to that voice. But unless you are that voice, how can you be it? I’m not going to be super sales-y about this. I’m not going to put our brand in your face, with deals and gimmicks. I’m just not interested in that. We focus on being authentic and real.”
After high school, Smale attended community college classes and later transferred to UMSL, where he majored in communications. He then moved to Chicago and worked at Commonground Marketing, an agency that had him working on campaigns for Coca Cola and on the road with Lupe Fiasco. Upon moving back to St. Louis, he worked for two other agencies and started his own before starting Strange Donuts. “I had my own agency– I call it an agency, but it was a room in my apartment at the time,” Smale says, laughing. “I’ve been fired, which is a humbling thing. I think everybody should go through that. To be fired is like, ‘We don’t want you to come here anymore.’ I was younger, I was more wild. I was restless about some shit.”
He also ran a now-defunct small business with his wife in which they baked homemade dog food and sold it online. “People will still call me about it. My number is still on the 37th page of Google for people looking for dog food. They find me,” says Smale, laughing. “It wasn’t really stressful because no one ordered them. I couldn’t market that shit because I was making that shit. That ain’t gonna work. But at the time I just needed something. It kept me inspired and creative. It was fine. I mostly just got high and made dog biscuits everyday.” Smale pauses, remembering something. “I have to email myself really quick,” he says, apologetically. “Just to remind myself–I’m not going to lose thought at all–I don’t want to be rude, I think this is rude. Let’s keep going. I feel like I’m being pretty honest.”
Through the roller coaster ride of experiences that have been his entrepreneurial journey, Smale has acquired some sage perceptions, which he has earned from his failures and the knowledge that came with them. Starting off, a young man full of ideas and ego, he had no fear. Years ago, Smale and one of his friends, Michael Gutelli, founded The Giant Steps, a creative thought collective based out of Chicago. They created a guerilla marketing campaign for Cap’n Crunch called “Where’s the Cap’n,” as the iconic hero of sweetened corn and oat-based cereal inexplicably had no social media presence in the 21st century. Without any sort of permission, Smale and Gutelli created a Facebook, Twitter, and website for Cap’n Crunch. It gained notoriety for their agency and press on Ad Age, MSNBC and TechCrunch, but ultimately didn’t win them any business.
“I’m not afraid to lose anymore. I know that … It’s not really about hitting home runs. It’s about swinging the bat real hard and giving it everything you’ve got. You’ll hit one out– I feel like we’re hitting one out right now. This one [Strange Donuts] is in the air where they’re like, ‘It’s going!’ But to get there, you have to strike out, for sure. You have to take chances. I’m glad that I learned from those failures.” He also realized he would need to learn how to rely on other people if he truly wanted to build something larger than himself. “To do something that is bigger than you, you’re going to need more people. You’re going to need help. I’ve tried to do businesses on my own–like, ‘I got this. I’m going to cover all aspects of it.’ And they just didn’t work. It was just too much.” This time around, Smale is relying on the team he has built, and it’s working. “It’s very cool: building a team of people who are powerful and who I want to feel powerful.”
He came up with the idea for Strange Donuts one night while frequenting a late-night donut shop with Tyler Fenwick, his original co-founder and friend since childhood. “I’d seen what had been done with donuts in other cities, just like what had been done with cupcakes and beer and chocolate and pie, and all kinds of craft food things. It had not been done with donuts in St. Louis yet. So I was like, ‘We could do that! But also do the really classic stuff.’” Smale and Fenwick, both originally from Festus, Missouri, have known each other since they were teenagers. Back then, opening an eclectic donut shop was the furthest thing from their minds. “I used to play music. I love music; punk bands,” he says. “We were like 15 and angry and everything. I think that was a creative outlet. We made our own fliers, our own P.A., our own band. It was DIY; we did everything ourselves and that was rad. Strange Donuts is like that. It’s fun.”
They teamed up with Sweet Will of Sweet William’s Custom Cakes (they just call him Sweet Will) and made some test batches to experiment. Their first event saw 300 people come out for games, beer and free donut holes. “I’d go to that. Let’s do stuff we want to do,” Smale said. “As we grow, that’s a part of our spirit.” At that point they didn’t have a kitchen yet, so they hijacked Sweet Will’s girlfriend’s parent’s kitchen. “We made like 900 of them … Their house smelled like donuts for like 3 weeks,” says Smale. “We quickly realized that’s not going to work.” While they didn’t have a kitchen, a vital local connection wound up panning out for the team.
“We got a call from a friend at Monarch–Jeff Orbin, he’s the owner there,” says Smale. “He was like, ‘If there’s anything I can do for you guys, let me know.’” Smale and his partners had just acquired their space in Maplewood on Sutton, but they didn’t have a place to bake yet. In the beginning phases of the business, the team had around 10 events between April and the opening in October of 2013, and Orbin let them bake out of Monarch for free. “Just that connection alone was very powerful in that moment. We’re super thankful for Jeff. This community is very strong,” says Smale.
The end of the summer came around, and Smale still didn’t know how or when the shop would open. “Then Jason [Bockman], he comes into the fold. He has a very successful entrepreneurial background. He’s really humble, and he knows a lot about business … He was like, ‘Let me do this part for you.’ And it was like, ‘Cool.’” With the addition of Bockman, two months later they were open and ready for business. “Every weekend has been our biggest weekend,” says Smale. “My only fear of life is that I’ll get really bored. You know? I fear that. I’d rather be overwhelmed than underwhelmed.”
“I see a lot of really interesting people that are like 50 … I’m like, ‘I wonder how you get to be that old and interesting.’ I think it’s you have to keep being weird and interesting every year before that.” But for now, Smale is staying in the moment, clutching a set of keys to the shop. “I won’t say, ‘No’ to anyone for an interview. If it’s like, a kid with like a notebook, I’ll be like, ‘Let’s do this. Cool. You’re interested in what I’m doing.”
For more information about Strange Donuts, visit www.facebook.com/strangedonuts