Corey Smale rarely drinks coffee, but somehow maintains enough energy to run a local donut shop that has spawned three locations in just over a year of business. Along with his business partner, Jason Bockman, he has also started a new nonprofit initiative called Strange Cares, partnered with the Rams, and is preparing to open a fourth location in Columbia, Missouri. Today, Smale is at Brennan’s in the Central West End, a classy cigar club with doors that open through fingerprint recognition. Strange Donuts has erected its third location here, which Smale has dubbed the Strange Donuts Trap Kitchen. In an upstairs office space, Smale grabs a glass of water and sits down. “As long as we’re not mean-spirited or hateful, which isn’t us, people are going to love it, I’m starting to realize,” he says.
“I like to think Strange Donuts isn’t just a donut shop, it’s people doing what they want and making a living doing it–which isn’t easy to do right now. We’re very, very fortunate. This shit can get really tricky.” He wears camo pants that wrap around his ankles with elastic brightly colored striped socks. A bit of his brown hair pokes out from beneath a baseball cap, which he has put on backwards, and his fingers constantly skim the screen of his iPhone. “Donuts pay the bills. People spend the extra money that they have on our product, or our brand–which is what keeps this whole thing going. It all starts at, ‘That’ll be three dollars and 46 cents, Sir.’ … For real, it’s hard to be in a business. It’s hard to make it.” Smale mentions his friends at Home Wine Kitchen, an upscale restaurant in Maplewood, who have to close down the establishment at the end of the month. “It’s not easy.”
Strange first opened its doors with a location in Maplewood back in October of 2013. Lines stretched around the block, as customers lined up on the pavement and transformed the quiet business district on Sutton into an energetic sanctuary for donut disciples. Smale and Bockman then opened a second location in Kirkwood in October of 2014. The Brennan’s location came next, and soon they’ll be opening a fourth storefront in Columbia, Missouri which they will share with Seoul Taco, Smale’s favorite restaurant–second only to Pastaria in Clayton, where you can find him almost every night of the week. But as far as employees go, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, for a variety of reasons. “We’ve lost a few people over the year,” he says. “When Jason and I put this thing together, it was right for the time. But I don’t think it was set up to have three stores.”
“I’m more impressed by our customers than us,” says Smale. “They’re the ones who have carried it. If you look on Instagram at the hashtag #strangedonuts, there’s probably like 3,000 posts at this point. I don’t use that hashtag, but other people do, and they take it somewhere else.” Smale has transformed the common concept of a morning pastry shop into a cool, edgy lifestyle. He throws parties alongside local craft brewers, gives away merchandise embellished with their logo (a cartoonish illustration of a blue donut), and has a fleet of young employees who abide by Smale’s doctrine of cool: be yourself. There’s little division between the brand and Smale’s own persona. “We’re going to be who we are … it’s just us. It’s our friends,” he says of the brand. “I’ve seen other brands do stuff similarly. It just won’t work unless you’re being yourself. We’re just us. We’re just doing our thing–the second you start skewing from that, it’s going to start looking weird.”
In the beginning, Smale used to bake donuts himself and spend 12 hours a day at the shop, six days a week. Now, Strange has 23 full-time bakers and 12 part-timers who run the front of the shop. “I said it all along when I started Strange: it’s going to take more than me. And now it’s really time for me to own up to that,” he says.
Their newest venture, Strange Cares, is a new 501c(3) nonprofit which will benefit Girls on the Run, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the Children’s Heart Foundation. Smale plans to host events with Strange Donuts and use the funds to benefit the nonprofit, which is run by a volunteer board so the organization incurs no administrative costs. “To have this business that’s a platform to where we can have a voice to support things that I’m personally interested in–that’s really cool. We can do some real good with it at this point,” he says.
Walking downstairs from the office, Smale re-enters the store below. He momentarily disappears into the back and talks to the employee he’s hired to run the front of house, a local musician in his mid-twenties who has selected a playlist of bass-bumping rap music. Smale bobs his head up and down in positive acknowledgement. He then politely bids everyone farewell–he has an errand to run, but first he disappears back into the kitchen in a cloud of flour and powdered sugar.