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Small Business Spotlight, Small Business Week 2017

National Small Business Week Winner: The Holy Donut

Kabbage spoke with the Small Business Administration’s Maine Small Business Winner, Leigh Kellis of The Holy Donut, on where they started, how far they’ve come and how they’ve achieved success.  

What is The Holy Donut?

It’s a pretty old-fashioned, typical, straight forward donut shop. No frills, really, except that we use really high-quality ingredients, and we’ve got kind of a quirky atmosphere. It is family owned by five of us. All the recipes are ones that I came up with in my kitchen! It started really small, and now we have 70 employees and three locations. A friend who is in the restaurant business threw out the idea to use Maine potatoes before I had even thought of starting the business. They just said, “You should start a donut shop and use potatoes!” And it just resonated and I thought, it was very intriguing, for one. Potatoes definitely make things taste better. And then secondly, we’re the land of potatoes here in Maine so I thought it would be a cool connection to tie in a very abundant, readily available ingredient here in our state and make it into something unconventional!

What made you realize this is what you wanted to invest yourself in?

As soon as my friend recommended using potatoes, it literally was a lightbulb moment, and I never once for one second doubted that … my mission in life was to bring this kind of pleasurable experience to the community, which was eating this really yummy food. I just really felt as though we needed that comfort in our society basically. The idea of a donut shop is very comforting and welcoming. That really began as the mission, and I never looked back!

For anyone starting a small business you have to ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It has to become your life’s work…something you’re willing to risk everything to do.” 

What obstacles, if any, have you had to overcome in regards to your small business, and how have you maintained your determination during them?

We’ve been fortunate to have really good reception from the local community. To be honest, I haven’t felt a whole lot of discouragement, except that running a business is just physically tiring. It’s a very early morning. I did a lot of 5 ams making all the donuts for the first two years. That was really tiring, but it didn’t stop me. I kept my eye on the prize which was to make a successful shop and business. We [now] have a really great team that help is super helpful in making our day to day easier!

Was there anyone in particular who created a huge impact in helping you and your small business get to where it is today?

When I started, I was by myself, and my dad jumped in for free for a couple years and kind of did everything with me as a volunteer because, you know, he wanted to be a good dad. Then my brother-in-law jumped on board a couple years in too because he’s a really smart business guy, and he said, “Y’know- we can really make this thing a hit!” So he jumped in as the business mastermind. So it was my dad, my brother-in-law, and myself, and we were kind of the trio at that point that really got this thing cranking!

What marketing advice would you give to someone just starting their business?

Our traffic is a 100 percent organic and requires almost no effort. I post everything, and I just do things that excite me … and it just seems to resonate because it’s authentic. It’s really just kind of my voice and my passion for donuts, and my passion for life and things that I think are beautiful in donut form. There’s so much negativity in the world and like, who can’t get excited about a donut? They just bring pure joy!

What resources have been at the forefront in helping you run your business?

I work with a business coach who really helps me look at the deeper layers of running a business, which is not really about dollars and products, but more about your belief system and what you think every day and what you feel about yourself and your success. I do a lot of excavating of those thought processes and try to stay really positive and focused on what I’m doing and why. It’s not just about money and donuts. It’s about what I’m contributing to the world, which is a positive experience for people when they want to go out with their family or friends and sit in one of our shops and listen to good music and eat donuts and be treated well by our employees.

Another resource that has really helped me is this book called The E-Myth by Michael E. Gerber. This was the most life-changing book I’ve ever read. It’s about the whole process of starting a business and what it’s supposed to do for you. Most entrepreneurs hover and micromanage, and this is something I still struggle with because you’re technically supposed to start a business and then let it take on a life of its own. It’s not in the best interest of the business to hover like that and it explains all of this in the book. Reading that was very freeing for me.

“I always say to people that when you start a business, being psyched about the product is 90 percent of it … then chances are other people are about to be psyched about [it]!” 

In what ways do you give back to your community? 

There are three ways we give back to the community. First, I actually started a program that gives our employees paid time off when they help others in the community. This is probably the one thing I’m the proudest of in regards to the business. The description is on our website under the “Giving” page. It’s called the “give-o-meter.” If somebody in my staff goes out and [volunteers], then for every hour they do that, we give them an hour of paid time off. I think that was one of the most critical qualifications as to why we were given the SBA award. I think the donut shop growth was one thing, but I believe that the giving back to the community in this kind of way was more notable and that’s kind of what I’m most psyched about.

Second, we donate all of our extra products at the end of the day if we don’t sell out. Lastly, we donate as much money as we can every year to one organization in particular that we think is really good at the aspect of human kindness and giving back to the community. This year, the organization that we’ve gone with is the Portland Wheelers.

If you were starting your business over today, what is one thing you would have done differently?

It was a pretty clear transition point in starting to ask for help in the beginning. At the start of the business it was just me, and I thought I was supposed to know everything and do everything, which I’ve found to be a very common mistake in starting a business. People don’t reach out enough in this society. I had reached a point where I just felt like I really didn’t know anything and the business was ticking along and growing, but I didn’t feel confident in my business ownership skills. I reached out to SCORE for a mentorship and another business coach and started reading books and just asking people for guidance. I found that to be really helpful. For anyone starting a business, I would say ask for help early on because people love to talk and they love to share their knowledge, and we’re usually too shy to ask for it, which is a huge mistake.

Do you have one particularly popular item among your customer base?

I would say it’s our dark chocolate sea salt donut. It is so delicious! We sell more of those than anything else I would say. I had one myself yesterday, and it was pretty awesome!

Grown from a craving for satisfying, yet healthy, comfort food, The Holy Donut makes delicious, artisanal donuts made from fresh Maine potatoes. Since 2011, The Holy Donut has made fresh donuts from scratch, using as many local ingredients as possible. Choose from 16 flavors daily!

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Kabbage Team

Kabbage is here not only to provide access to the small business funding you need, but to also help you grow your business through free marketing tips, webinars, tools and more. Is there something you'd like us to cover or want to get your small business featured on our blog? Send us a note at