Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio show number 323, airing for the first time on Sunday, November 26, 2017. Today’s guests are Sal Scaglione and Dana Heacock, owners of Abacus, and Leigh Kellis, owner of The Holy Donut. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the Old Port, 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space, including Ingunn Joergensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy, and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at Artcollectormaine.com.
Lisa Belisle: Sal Scaglione and Dana Heacock are the owners of Abacus Gallery which was started in 1971 as a small shop and now has grown to five locations around Maine. I love your store and thank you for coming in today.
Sal Scaglione: Thanks.
Dana Heacock: Thank you for having us.
Lisa Belisle: On a technicality I guess, you were not born in Maine, your store was not born in Maine, I should say.
Dana Heacock: Only on technicality.
Lisa Belisle: This was in your mother’s garage?
Dana Heacock: Well, not quite. We practically lived there. We’ve rented a little store space in town in Bennington, Vermont that was eight feet wide. It had been a taxi dispatch stand.
Lisa Belisle: How did that happen? What was it about? Why did you decided you wanted to start that initial store back in 1971?
Sal Scaglione: Well, let’s say, I think it was because we were at RISD, Rhode Island School of Design and we had this vision of buying and selling things, always had that longing to do something like that, not knowing much about how to go about doing it. The space that we rented in Bennington just came up. I drove by and thought, Wouldn’t this be great?” Of course, we had practically less than no money and so we cobble together the interior by taking out a staircase, our landlady at that time gave us permission to take down her chicken coop and we used the boards to cover the walls and followed the trucks to the dump that were disposing of two by fours and all sorts of used things and we drag them back to the little space and made shelving and counter and actually got things from our classmates at RISD to sell in consignment back then.
Dana Heacock: We put up posters on canvas advertising that students could give us their work after it was graded and we pay them after we sold it if we sold it. We were truly just kids. I was on the six months done with being a teenager when the store opened.
Lisa Belisle: What did you focus on when you’re at RISD?
Dana Heacock: Sal was in the architecture department and I changed my focus about every semester.
Lisa Belisle: Yours was broadly-based?
Dana Heacock: Yes, it was.
Lisa Belisle: What did you end up doing with your architecture background, Sal?
Sal Scaglione: I never graduated as an architect but that desire was sort of a closet architect. What we’re doing now, we’ve designed and built several other owned houses and the stores that we’re in. We’re using it in that sense. I’m getting to actually do what I thought I was going to do in a different way but very rewarding.
Lisa Belisle: Where are you originally from?
Sal Scaglione: A suburb of Cleveland.
Lisa Belisle: You’re originally, Dana, you’re originally from Vermont?
Dana Heacock: No.
Lisa Belisle: Okay.
Dana Heacock: No, Vermont was just a tiny little piece of my life. I was born about three miles from here in Portland.
Lisa Belisle: At Mercy or Maine Med?
Dana Heacock: In Maine Med which all those years go, it’s called Portland General Hospital.
Lisa Belisle: How did you somehow, I know how you ended up down in Rhode Island but how did you end up in Bennington?
Dana Heacock: My family had moved there from Farmington, Maine back in the 1970s and it was all brand new to me and I love to go back from school and visit just because there was an excitement of a new place. I didn’t know Vermont very well at the time.
Lisa Belisle: How did each of you get interested in art and architecture?
Dana Heacock: For me, I think that’s always been there. When I was probably 13, 14 years old I used to do charcoal drawings of area lighthouse and sold them. My mom was always a big influence on me. She was always painting and exhibiting her paintings in artist shows.
Sal Scaglione: I had probably unusual beginning, I used to lay on my stomach in the living room and pretend I was designing things with undersides of furniture and putting things together and building things mentally and physically with little parts and thinking, “Oh, there must be something wrong with me.” Until I went to RISD where I found all people who thought like I did. I thought, “Okay, this is validation.” That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me and of course that’s where we met. Dana and I had.
Lisa Belisle: When did you first meet?
Sal Scaglione: It was 1969.
Dana Heacock: We’re both from the same small dormitory building on the RISD campus. I’m sure we met within days of school beginning.
Lisa Belisle: That’s a fairly significant chunk of time that you’ve now been together.
Sal Scaglione: Yeah, that’s being kind.
Lisa Belisle: You met before I was born, and I’m somewhat oldish, at the very least, middle aged. Somehow, you’ve been able to not only create a business but grow a business and maintain a good relationship with one another, I’m assuming because you’re still here.
Dana Heacock: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: How were you able to do that?
Dana Heacock: It’s challenging at times, that’s for sure. There’s not a lot of separate time because we work together and live together.
Sal Scaglione: All in all, it’s a good thing so we’re still here. In fact, this is how I got to Maine. The first time I came to Maine was an overnight trip. A classmate of ours allowed us to use her boyfriend’s Volkswagen bug to drive up to Maine. Dana said, “You need to see Maine.” It was February, of course the best time to come to Maine for your first time and we drove up in the Volkswagen bug and Dana thought we could stay at his grandparent’s cabin because he thought he knew where the key was but it was boarded up and not happening. We stayed in Volkswagen bug in February, it’s not the easiest thing to do. Of course, they had no heat and we had to drive around. That’s what we did, that was my first trip to Maine and as we left Boothbay Harbor, I said, “Well, I really did love it and I’ll be back again I’m sure.” Here I am.
Lisa Belisle: That is how you started your first Maine store in Boothbay Harbor was because you had a family connection up in that area?
Dana Heacock: Our little store in Vermont was not on a road to success. It was very small scale like kids with a lemonade stand. I knew from growing up and summering at Ocean Point that Boothbay Harbor was the one place I knew that there were lots and lots of people. At that time, it just seemed to make a lot of sense to be located there.
Sal Scaglione: We each did other jobs to support the store when we started in Bennington. Honestly, it was not viable. We did all sorts of things from house cleaning to we’ve worked for a concert flutist who had a repair shop and we made pads for him. We sprung concert flutes. We did anything. Anything to survive, that’s what we did.
Lisa Belisle: How many years did you need to keep having these dual careers?
Dana Heacock: Because we started so small, it took a number of years. I think it was in the 7th year that we had the store that we’re able to move to a bigger location in Boothbay Harbor. At that point, everything began to change. It began to grow quickly.
Lisa Belisle: Having been inside Abacus, I’ve noticed there’s quite a variety of different things that you offer. Very small, very beautiful things, artwork, how do you curate the things that come in to the store?
Dana Heacock: I suppose one thing they have in common is they’re just things that we think are really cool. Some of those things are 10 or 15 or $20 and some of them are much more expensive. I want the stores to be an environment where anybody can come in and enjoy it. I don’t want it to be up on a pedestal, it’s supposed to be fun.
Lisa Belisle: I think you’ve accomplished that because I’ll go into one of your stores in Kennebunkport or Boothbay Harbor or here in Portland and I’ll notice you have some very affordable things by the cash register, you’ll have some jewelry. I think I bought a bracelet when I was in Ogunquit once. Then you have some larger items that people buy presumably for things like weddings and the birth of babies. It just makes art more accessible it seems. Was that a goal?
Dana Heacock: Yes, yes.
Sal Scaglione: Definitely.
Dana Heacock: Absolutely. I think we want everyone to be able to come in and enjoy even if they’re not buying, to enjoy the whole experience. Then, if somebody chooses to buy, we like the idea of having something in wide, wide price range so everyone can take something home.
Lisa Belisle: You have lovely prints and calendars that are associated with your store. How did those come to be?
Sal Scaglione: That is Dana’s artwork. We publish a calendar that we’ve been publishing for decades. We sell it in our stores and we actually sell it around the country also. It’s the Dana Heacock calendar and that has been the springboard for fine art prints, giclée prints on watercolor paper or on canvas available in all kinds of sizes from 6 by 6s up to very large canvases. That’s been very successful. He’s the artist for that.
Lisa Belisle: How far in advance do you create your … Are they paintings that are made into …
Dana Heacock: The originals are paintings. I start working about a year ahead of when a calendar is printed but that calendar is already a year ahead because it’s being sold. Now I’m working on 2019.
Lisa Belisle: There seems to be a theme that goes along with these calendars. Is that something that is intentional?
Dana Heacock: They’re supposed to evoke a feeling of the month without being overly literal about it.
Lisa Belisle: If you’ve been doing this for decades, how do you continue to swap it up? I mean, we all think of February as being hearts and candies and flowers but you can, I’m assuming you’d want to do something different every year. How do you figure that out?
Dana Heacock: I try to collect images wherever I go. Sometimes I’ll just see something and it just speaks to me as a calendar poster. I try to save it as a digital photo image so I can work from it later in my studio.
Lisa Belisle: I have always loved calendars and I love the type of calendar that you create so I get one every year but when you started this, we were less in a digital age and we’ve evolved into this really digital age and yet I still am drawn to your calendars and I’m guessing other people are because they’re sold across the country. Does that surprise you?
Dana Heacock: No, I think as the world moves more and more into a very techy place, I think people are always craving things that have a human connection.
Sal Scaglione: I think they buy them, they want them in their homes. They’re a piece of art first, and they are calendar, second. It’s not the kind of thing that you gotten from the insurance company where you’re going to put the little notes for the appointments and write in them. I think people want this little piece of art and it’s great because they change the art every month because of what it is so they’re changing the art and they look forward to the next month.
Lisa Belisle: It’s funny because my grandmother who lives in Cape Porpoise, I started buying her these calendars and one year I was a little late in actually giving her a Christmas gift which is always a calendar, she’s like, “Oh, I’m so relieved because every year I look forward to getting this calendar,” as I guess this piece of art that you’re describing. It actually has become an important ritual and an important thing between the two of us. I wonder how many other people out there have that same emotional response to this.
Dana Heacock: We get a lot of similar feedback from people.
Sal Scaglione: He’s being humble.
Dana Heacock: I find it especially rewarding, I’ve had a number of medical institutions choose my artwork to use to decorate lobbies and treatment rooms. A number of them are in Maine so my artwork is out there in front of a lot of people because of those places.
Lisa Belisle: One of the things about being in the arts is that there is the need to support artists, I mean, you can’t have art and be a working artist without somebody to actually buy your work. It feels to me like one of the things you’re doing is making it possible for people to continue to work as artist by having their pieces in your store.
Dana Heacock: I know from talking to a lot of the people we buy from that Abacus is the number one account for some of these people anywhere which is rewarding but also a little bit scary.
Lisa Belisle: That’s some pressure on you I would think.
Sal Scaglione: Yes, just a little bit of pressure.
Lisa Belisle: Yes.
Sal Scaglione: It is, it really is rewarding to know that you’re helping people. That’s part of their living and makes us feel good to know I would buy from literally hundreds of sources. It’s good to know that people appreciate, people are making things appreciate a place to be able to sell to and be part of their lives.
Lisa Belisle: How did it come to be called Abacus?
Sal Scaglione: It’s a little bit of a funny story. When we were trying to name our first store back in Bennington, Vermont, of course you go through all the same things, you’re [toring 00:18:18] with names. We liked the idea of the texture and the visuals of an abacus and we joked about it because it began with an A then a B and I said we can always be first in the phone book. Of course now we don’t even have phone books. What’s more ironic is back then when we had our little store we didn’t even have a phone. If anyone had to call us, there was a phone booth outside of our door and we gave people that number and people walking by would hear the phone ring answered and somebody would say, “You see that little door over there? Could you go in and ask the two guys if they could come out to the phone?” That was our first phone. We didn’t really have a listing back then either.
Lisa Belisle: It seems as though having talked to people who own their own businesses, there’s often not much of a downtime. You don’t get to go to work at nine and leave at five. You are often-
Sal Scaglione: That’s the downside, you definitely need to love what you do.
Lisa Belisle: How do you make that work after decades of doing this?
Sal Scaglione: It’s a question we’re still asking.
Dana Heacock: You take the little moments, if there’s an hour here, two hours there.
Sal Scaglione: You need to see the work not as a work. When you’re working for yourself, what we do feels like this wonderful life-long hobby.
Dana Heacock: We also look at all of our stores … I enjoy working in them. I love being out there with the people because sometimes you get a little bit behind the scenes. You’re taken away from what it is that you used to do at the beginning so I love being in the store. They’re like our living rooms. It’s like having five living rooms and you get to meet all these wonderful people and some had become life-long friends.
Lisa Belisle: Do each of your stores have a different style or a different feel to them? I mean, if you talk about them being like your living room, I’ve been in I want to say at least three of them. They have a similarity but do they feel different to you?
Dana Heacock: They do, sometimes I think that grows out of the building or the space that they’re located in. It gives them part of the feeling that they have.
Lisa Belisle: If you are describing the stores that you have in each of the various places, what comes up for you? Actually, now I’m thinking about it, I’ve been in the Freeport store too. You have Boothbay Harbor, Kennebunkport, Portland, Freeport, and Ogunquit.
Dana Heacock: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been in all of your stores actually so I have a sense of what each of them feels like. What do they feel like to each of you?
Dana Heacock: Boothbay always feels like going home because we spent so many years there in the early days just the two of us running the shop and because it’s in a building that at one time was a house and has separate rooms. There are four or five different rooms that comprise the store, customers call us this too that they think it just feels homey.
Sal Scaglione: The store in Boothbay actually, the first space we were in when we rented the space before we own the building. It is what is now the print room where we show a lot of Dana’s work and a few other things in there. That was the first store in Boothbay Harbor, very small, it’s about 500 square feet. We actually lived in the back of it in about a 150 square feet. Back then that’s where we, if you can call it living in there but that’s where we slept. It was the minimal stock room and everything and we used to take our showers down at the Tugboat Inn. I had to pay showers because we didn’t have those facilities in our building. Every morning we take our quarters and go down and that’s where we went. If the water was cold, it didn’t matter because we only allotted one quarter for the day, that was it.
Lisa Belisle: That’s very impressive.
Sal Scaglione: Very humble beginnings.
Lisa Belisle: I guess so. What was the next store after that?
Dana Heacock: Portland.
Lisa Belisle: When you think about that store, how does that feel to you? How would you describe it?
Dana Heacock: It just feels like Portland because it’s red brick which speaks of Portland to me.
Sal Scaglione: It seemed a very different side of what we did for Boothbay Harbor because it was in the city so it felt much more urban and it was another adventure, another challenge for us.
Lisa Belisle: The next store?
Dana Heacock: The next one was Freeport. I think at the time we opened the store in Freeport we felt that two stores was just about all we could handle. We’ve been on a trip to the Pacific Northwest and fell in love with some of the island communities in Puget Sound and like often happens when we travel, we start imagining, “What would it be like if we had a store out here?” Because we were already thinking about it, when we return to Maine we found the for sale sign on the little building and I think we’re already primed mentally. We both just like to build things. I think that’s a primary impetus for doing anything. We like to build things and that building was a sad little building with a lot of potential.
Lisa Belisle: Then, what came next? Was it Ogunquit or Kennebunkport?
Dana Heacock: Kennebunkport.
Lisa Belisle: Kennebunkport, tell me about that.
Sal Scaglione: The original one was a little bit smaller. We’re in the same space now and we had the need to expand and the restaurant next door fortunately was going to be for sale, in the same building. We bought the restaurant, sold off all the equipment and expanded the store into what that one is now. It’s I don’t know how many thousand square feet but it’s fairly large and it’s worked out very well.
Lisa Belisle: Ogunquit is your baby?
Dana Heacock: It is.
Sal Scaglione: Ogunquit is the new, if new, I say new. We bought that building about ten years ago. It was I happen to be delivering something down south of there and I drove pass through town and saw the for sale sign on it that used to be Joe Allen’s restaurant from New York. We used to eat there out on their deck and I saw the sign. I pulled in the parking lot and called Dana immediately and I said, “Guess what?” He said, “I don’t know, it’s going to be very expensive.”
Dana Heacock: We had looked in Ogunquit over the years a number of times and the problem is that being the little beach town that it is, a lot of the retail store spaces that were for rent were just way too small to do what we wanted to do. When this building came up it felt like this is the one chance to come in here and do a large store.
Sal Scaglione: We repeated buying a restaurant, we bought it, the whole thing, lock, stock, and barrel, sold off all the equipment and then proceeded to completely gutted, changed the entire building. Taking out floors and actually lowering part of the floor in one of the areas and just went for it, just said okay we’re going to just do this. Of course, a lot of people thought it was a little sketchy being on the other side of the street and we said, “Well, we’ll take our chances. I think it will work.”
Dana Heacock: It’s been fun being in Ogunquit because now it feels like we’re the anchor store right in the center of town wherein a town like Freeport with 300 national retailers we still feel like the two little kids playing store.
Sal Scaglione: About two years ago we did something that we had in the back of our minds when we bought the building and we added a couple thousand square feet. We added what looks like another building to the end of this building and it gave us a little bit different space. It’s a modern, little industrial, cement floor, it has a mezzanine and it feels good. Now the building looks like three separate little buildings that we’ve remodeled, redone, and moved our store into it. We’re very happy with it. It’s been very successful.
Lisa Belisle: Now it seems like the paving project down there has come to an end so that must be a relief for you.
Sal Scaglione: Yes, it is over. It is definitely over and we’re all happy.
Lisa Belisle: Anymore stores that you have in your thoughts, in your minds? It seems like if something comes up then …
Dana Heacock: We’ll never say never but I think we have our hands full.
Lisa Belisle: What about you, Sal? Would you agree with that?
Sal Scaglione: I would have to agree with that, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: I appreciate your coming in today and talking with me. It’s interesting because as you’re talking I feel like my mom would always do things based on her children and I told you that I have nine younger brothers and sisters. I feel like it’s almost as if you can hear you’re talking about your five children that you’re dating them according to what stage you were in your life and artistically so that’s an interesting conversation for me to have.
Sal Scaglione: It is, it is how we think of it and then we have of course a wonderful crew everywhere. They’ve become part of the family, they’re all part of the family. That’s another rewarding part of having the stores, getting to know all of them.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Sal Scaglione and Dana Heacock who are the owners of Abacus Gallery which was started in 1971 as a small shop in a different state but soon followed by five stores here in the state of Maine. I really appreciate you taking time out of your very, very busy schedules to come in and talk to me today and also appreciate the fact that you’re bringing art to people like me and others throughout the state and really around the world. Thank you.
Sal Scaglione: We’re glad that you like what we do.
Dana Heacock: Thank you.
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Lisa Belisle: Leigh Kellis is the owner of Holy Donut. This past year, she was selected as U.S. Small Business Administration’s Maine’s Small Business Person of the Year. Congratulations.
Leigh Kellis: Thank you very much.
Lisa Belisle: Thanks for coming in because you are incredibly busy.
Leigh Kellis: We’re pretty busy. Three shops keeps us fairly busy, yes.
Lisa Belisle: Did you know that when you launched your first store that donuts were going to be such a big deal?
Leigh Kellis: Not entirely. I knew that donuts were a big deal which is why I was craving them and eating them in my life so badly but that was a personal craving. About six and a half years ago where I just needed to eat them and couldn’t find them in the form that I wanted them which was in a wholesome kind of more healthier-ish way. I didn’t know they’d be a big deal in terms of employing so many people and giving us the opportunity to build three shops and counting.
Lisa Belisle: What was it six years ago that had you saying, “I really need to eat some donuts, some good quality donuts”?
Leigh Kellis: It’s just a craving, I think we all have cravings and I know I do and I just wanted comfort food and I couldn’t find a donut that wasn’t mass produced or from a factory. I was just disenchanted with that and discouraged so I decided to start making my own.
Lisa Belisle: You’re known for having donuts that lots of different people with dietary issues can eat. You have gluten-free donuts, you have I believe vegan donuts. That’s not something that every donut shop is thinking about.
Leigh Kellis: No, and somehow it just evolved that way. If I were to do it all all over again I would have never seen it in incarnation as it is now but it just slowly blossomed. I started with one recipe which is just the Maine potato donut and then I just started saying, hey, I had all these energy at the beginning to do it all and make up recipes and sit in the kitchen and experiment. I have none of that energy now, zero. I do not experiment anymore but for the first few years I just had unlimited amounts of donut energy.
Lisa Belisle: Why go with the Maine potato donut?
Leigh Kellis: That was a suggestion from a friend in town here who owns a well-known pizza place. He said, “Hey, you should use potatoes. It makes everything better.” I said, “Okay,” I really wasn’t sure what the outcome would be but I started experimenting and when I tasted it I said yes, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for. Moist and yummy and delicious and wholesome. I just said, I think this is sellable.
Lisa Belisle: Did it surprise you at the time that there was such a thing as a Maine potato donut?
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, I mean the potato donut thing was not necessarily specific to Maine but then once I started putting all the pieces together as a sellable marketable product, we’re in Maine, it’s the land of the potatoes. We need a donut shop, home run. This could work, this could be a good business model.
Lisa Belisle: I remember the first time I had a potato donut, it was in the county so that’s where you get a lot of potatoes. It was probably the most delicious thing I had ever had because it was fresh out of the fryer which of course makes it not super healthy but there was something about it that tasted really different than your average let’s say Dunkin’ Donut.
Leigh Kellis: Totally.
Lisa Belisle: Not to disparage Dunkin’ Donuts but just the taste, it had a really different and more of a solidity to it I think.
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, it’s a little denser, it a little more velvety and that it’s not just mixed with water. A lot of places just how it use a mix and add water but ours are just yummy.
Lisa Belisle: Where did this interest in experimenting with cooking come from? Is this something that you had always had?
Leigh Kellis: No, I launched into this with no business experience and no baking experience. It’s just as a passion for food, that’s all. I just think food is a really important part of life and it adds a lot to your day. I think eating well is pretty much, it should be priority and it is for me and I think it should be for most people because it’s an opportunity to have some enjoyment three times a day so why not maximize it.
Lisa Belisle: You grew up in Portland and went to Deering High School. What were things like as, I want to say child but as a high school student? What did you have in your mind that you might want to do for a job?
Leigh Kellis: The only thing I ever cared about was music. I love to sing, I used to play piano. I’ve been creatively distracted for the past six years but I always thought that my mission in life was to be involved in music. I had no other real concept of what else to do. I’ve never been career-driven or minded. The donut thing was perfect because it was extremely creative and extremely experimental and that’s my comfort zone is doing things that are completely unstructured which the business was at first. I didn’t have a solid business plan, I just leapt. I took a leap, started making donuts, said, “Okay, I’m going to figure this out, bring them to people and share them and hopefully start selling them.”
Lisa Belisle: Is that what happened that you brought the donuts to people and they said, “Wow, these are really good? I need two dozen more of these.”
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, I just brought them to Coffee By Design one dozen and she said, “We’ll sell them.” That was on Washington Ave and every day I brought her a dozen and I just said, “Okay, they’re buying them. Somebody’s buying them,” that’s giving me confirmation this could be a business concept. Then it started to blossom from there, one dozen and two dozen and I hit the pavement trying to sell more of them. That was about 40 dozen a week for the first several months.
Lisa Belisle: All of them yourself? You were cooking all of these yourself?
Leigh Kellis: Yup, for a time with little forks.
Lisa Belisle: Wow, that’s a lot of work.
Leigh Kellis: It was a ton of work so I started really early in the morning and then it’s when my dad jumped in a few months in and said, “You just can’t afford to hire anybody so I’m going to help you at 6 AM every day.” He started helping me every day for months as a volunteer at 6 AM to get the business going.
Lisa Belisle: What was your dad’s background?
Leigh Kellis: He’s a serial entrepreneur. He had done many different concept business ideas and he happen to had just retired from the insurance business. He’s like, “I need something to do, I’ll be there at 6 AM every day.” He came to deliver my donuts every day at 6 AM.
Lisa Belisle: In part, this was perfect for him because as an entrepreneur, you do end up doing whatever you need to do.
Leigh Kellis: Exactly.
Lisa Belisle: You don’t say, “This is not my job.” Everything is your job if it’s your business.
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, he thought the donut business seemed like a fun thing to do so he said, “Hey, I’m in. Let’s do it. Let’s go for it.”
Lisa Belisle: What was that like to have the chance to work so closely with your father because not all of us have that opportunity?
Leigh Kellis: It was interesting. At 6 AM every day, not always the chattiest time of day for me but in retrospect, I really appreciate his help. It was absolutely unusual, uncommon, and incredible that he showed up to help me every single day at 6 AM for seven months until he helped me open the shop and then he continued to show up every day at 6 AM for years.
Lisa Belisle: That’s a lot of love for a daughter.
Leigh Kellis: I know. He was a very good example of a dad who shows up and helps. Didn’t miss a day.
Lisa Belisle: In all those years.
Leigh Kellis: For years.
Lisa Belisle: Was this also a good example for the people that you brought in to start helping you in your stores?
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, it started out really small. We had just one or two employees at first in addition to my dad and I and it grew pretty quickly. We started to feel that we couldn’t keep up with the demand. It was just me cooking donuts, frying donuts. My dad doing everything else, running the counter, mopping the floors, washing the dishes, buying supplies. We just had to slowly accumulate employees and fortunately we learned as we went because the growth requires, it was a huge learning curve but it was steady enough that we were able to keep up with it. Now we’re at 80 employees and three stores and seven days a week business and it’s a lot but thank God there’s so many wonderful, qualified and competent people involved that it makes it work.
Lisa Belisle: Where was your first store?
Leigh Kellis: Park Ave, right over by the Sea Dogs Stadium. It’s a little old convenience store that was my dad and I just gutted and scrubbed and painted and winged it.
Lisa Belisle: That’s the one that has the big paintings of donuts on the side?
Leigh Kellis: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Then your next store was that Exchange Street?
Leigh Kellis: Yup.
Lisa Belisle: That must have been a big step because that’s right in the heart of the Old Port and I’m guessing that the cost of opening that type of store would be quite a bit higher than-
Leigh Kellis: It was insane, yes. This business has really been founded on many leaps of faith. It really, really, really has and they keep working. It’s a testament to doing something with passion and faith which sometimes runs a little low on times I get a little nervous about how big it’s gotten and keeping track of everything. My brother-in-law who’s my business partner, yes we just talked about, he said, “Faith over fear. Faith over fear,” that’s our mantra all the time because in small business there’s always fear. There’s always fear of competition, there’s always fear of things just falling apart. It’s hard to keep things going and still have integrity and run a business according to our values and keep paychecks clear. There’s a lot of details but faith over fear is definitely our mantra.
Lisa Belisle: Did you have a sense that faith was important when you’re younger?
Leigh Kellis: No. I don’t think I ever had a great foundation. My parents are very deep introspective people but we didn’t have an actual structured foundation at all but as I get older I realized it’s important to choose positivity or you can call it faith or you can call it all kinds of things. Trust that what you’re doing is what you’re meant to be doing and I do believe this is what I’m meant to be doing so that’s a big part of feeling faith of keeping it going and seeing what the next step is if we grow or if we don’t grow, trusting that whatever happens next is what is meant to be.
Lisa Belisle: What is it that has you convinced that this is what you’re meant to be doing?
Leigh Kellis: I love feeding people. I love that people come in and they leave happy. The comments we get on Facebook and on our website that they had such a good experience and that they were treated nicely and that they love the donuts, all of that stuff just I love that. It makes me feel encouraged. That it adds a little something to somebody’s day in a world that sometimes doesn’t feel so awesome and positive so a donut shop should be a little moment, a break where you go, “Okay, things are good, we’re good. It smells good in here, the music is good,” that’s the whole point.
Lisa Belisle: It’s also donuts are the thing that many people start their days with, that’s something that people celebrate with. There’s an interesting intersection with the positivity in people’s lives, really.
Leigh Kellis: Absolutely and the nostalgia. People say constantly, “This reminds of my grandmother, that makes me happy,” and I have a positive memory with my grandmother and I just think, “Yes,” exactly, that’s what makes me feel like this is the right thing to do.
Lisa Belisle: Is it interesting to you that we have such a focus in one sort of part of our brains on health and fitness and no white sugar or no white flour, no white potatoes, no carbs and yet you have lines outside your doors and sometimes it’s the same people.
Leigh Kellis: Totally. It’s very interesting and I think it’s completely, it makes sense because we know we all want deliciousness every single person. We all try to be good and we try to be regimented and it’s just everybody deep down just wants enjoyment. The good news is we use good ingredients and unbleached flour and local pureed berries and roasted sweet potatoes and lemons and all that stuff. It’s kind of like yes it’s a donut but it’s not that bad. It’s kind of like giving people permission to indulge a little bit.
Lisa Belisle: Well, and really if people are eating small amounts of desserts, it’s not. I think the bigger problem is that people want to deprive themselves of everything and then they get so that they need to have too much or they need to just go way beyond just a normal amount of donut eating I guess or pastry eating.
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, absolutely, America is totally dysfunctional with food. It’s a fact. We’re all confused, “Are we supposed to eat this gluten free, not gluten free, vegan? What am I supposed to eat?” and I don’t have the answer exactly except eat what you like, stop when you’re full, move on.
Lisa Belisle: I think that’s probably a pretty good way to look at it.
Leigh Kellis: It’s kind of the only way at this point because all the craziness and the diet and the deprivation does not really work that well in the big picture.
Lisa Belisle: No, that’s true. You have a lot of different types of donuts, you were just talking about pureed berries and lemons. Did you yourself come up with each of these individual recipes?
Leigh Kellis: Most of them. I just kind of added to the offerings, things that I was craving, “Oh pomegranate sounds good, let’s figure that out. Maple, let’s figure that out. Let’s figure out pureed blueberries on a donut.” I didn’t invent these concepts but just we tried a lot of things that didn’t work but the ones that did work were things that I thought the general public would just love. We have Allen’s Coffee Brandy is just a funny one. I thought of sitting at a bar one night, I thought, “Oh it’s the perfect main booze, let’s throw it on a donut,” and people love it.
Lisa Belisle: Isn’t that like one of the top selling liquors in the state of Maine?
Leigh Kellis: Definitely, maybe not in Portland but I think everywhere else. People I think consume many gallons of Allen’s Coffee Brandy.
Lisa Belisle: What are the most popular donuts that you sell?
Leigh Kellis: We sell a lot of the chocolate sea salt which I can see why. I think salt and chocolates are really good combo, it’s a little unusual. Yeah, I would say that’s the top, the Cannolis are pretty good with the ricotta filling. Yeah, people just love donuts.
Lisa Belisle: What are your favorites?
Leigh Kellis: I like the sweet potato, I think it’s interesting, I’ve never seen that anywhere else, I think it’s really good with ginger glaze.
Lisa Belisle: What types of stories have your heard around your donuts when people put something up on Facebook like make a comment about how this reminds them of their grandparents? What types of things have stayed with you?
Leigh Kellis: A lot of people have said that they had an association with our shop and they would come in with their dad and their older parent and enjoy a lemon donut for example every Sunday and then all of a sudden their dad died. I’ve heard these stories many times and so they said they still are able to connect with that feeling by coming into the shop and having something in their honor of somebody who’s passed and I’ve heard that multiple times. It’s totally heartwarming that people can … I think our shop appeals to all ages which is what I like. We have a total vary demographic, we get kids, we get tons of older people who just come in and sit in the afternoon with their friends and donuts and coffee appeals to all ages. I don’t think we’re too trendy that we’re excluding the older population, I absolutely love that to see them coming in because some places here in town are a little too hipster and trendy that older people would never go. We’re kind of right in the middle, in other words it makes me happy that people can share the experience no matter what their age.
Lisa Belisle: I’m kind of fascinated by the idea of baked goods, impart because I have a child who’s 16, she’s my youngest and she works at a coffee shop and she has this really significant interest in baked goods which I think is kind of a … It’s not necessarily what I would expect of what we call the younger generation because they’re supposed to be known as these digital natives and everything is all about YouTube and social media. I actually think that there’s this important tangibility that people are seeking and I think they’re seeking it from a younger age. Is that something that you’ve noticed as well?
Leigh Kellis: Well, I’d like to think that younger people are still human and interested in the arts and food and using their hands in creating things. I too, I get really nervous, my daughter is 14 and she’s starting to actually lose interest in social media which is a huge turning point. Yeah, like I said I was nervous for a while that she wouldn’t really have a concept or grasp of the real world because there’s so much on the screen. I think we should give these kids a little credit and hope that there’s still interest in creating things in old world crafts I’m hoping but I think it’s a really good thing to cultivate and nurture in them for sure.
Lisa Belisle: Has your daughter spend any time working in any of your stores or working on donuts in general?
Leigh Kellis: She has. She spends most of her time in the ocean surfing but when given the opportunity she loves to glaze donuts.
Lisa Belisle: That’s something that’s very tangible then.
Leigh Kellis: Yes, sometimes she resists it and she’s, “I don’t want to be in the business,” I said, “Well, it’s an opportunity and it’s a job and you might want to at least participate a little bit at this point.” I may force her to work the counter one day a week soon. I think it would be really good for her.
Lisa Belisle: It’s not the first time I’ve heard this from someone who has a child who’s a teenager who has a small business. There is something really important about being part of the business in those small part that keeps the family going, really, and that’s something that we used to have, we used to have small farms where everybody go involve from really young ages but we don’t have this much anymore.
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, and I definitely don’t want her to be spoiled and think that she doesn’t have to work. I think pretty soon I probably will implement that, she just turned 14 so she can do a worker’s permit to get the concept of working and participating in the family business which, yes, is a special thing nowadays. It’s not that common to have a family business where you can really participate and make money and have fun and work hard and contribute. Yeah, I think it’s a really valuable lesson.
Lisa Belisle: How about dealing with the public? Is that something that she had a chance to do having this association with Holy Donut?
Leigh Kellis: Not really, I think she needs a little more practice. I think this would be good for her, she’s sometimes a little reserved. Yeah, it’s definitely very public dealing with a line of people at times and you have to smile the whole time and beyond. It’s not easy.
Lisa Belisle: No, it’s not easy and having been in only two of your stores, I think your third is in Scarborough is that right?
Leigh Kellis: Correct.
Lisa Belisle: I haven’t been to that one yet, I’ve been to the other two stores and they’re busy, they’re very, very busy. The people who are behind the counter are constant motion, always very pleasant but there’s a system in place. I always feel a little nervous, “I better know what the donuts are that I want before I get up to the front.”
Leigh Kellis: It is really nerve-racking.
Lisa Belisle: It is very nerve-racking because you see the donuts, the quantities are going down and you’re hoping you’re going to get the one you want. The people are really professional and really pleasant and both of, actually all three of my kids have worked in the service industry at one time or another. I think that that’s so important that even under stress you’d be able to interact with other humans that aren’t necessarily your teammates at school or your classmates at school.
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, it’s an incredible life skill that it’s hard to hone in on that and really be friendly and positive and professional person after person after person. It’s not for everybody. On occasion, I hear feedback and people say, “I came into your store and the person was rude,” I’d say, “We really, really, really try to have people be consistently friendly and smiling,” but people have their moments on occasion.
Lisa Belisle: Yes, we’re all human.
Leigh Kellis: Yes, not that that’s an excuse but there are moments where someone may not be smiling for that ten second window and someone has a bad experience. Yeah, we’re not perfect but we try, we try to be nice.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, you want to have when you have your donut you want to have that positive association with your donut.
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, like with any food in the service industry you just want it to feel pleasant.
Lisa Belisle: You have you said 80 employees?
Leigh Kellis: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: That’s a lot of people to be responsible for.
Leigh Kellis: It is and we have a good network, my brother-in-law is my right hand man and he pretty much manages all of those people. It’s not my forte.
Lisa Belisle: What you consider your forte to be?
Leigh Kellis: At this point I do our social media, I think about donut flavors and I am a single mom and I kind of think about the business and what we’re doing and planning and strategizing but hands on, not at all. I used to make all the donuts myself and it just really totally evolved away from that. I do miss it, I like making donuts but we had to phase out of that to help the business grow and stabilize which I did learn from reading many business books that the best thing to do is to back away which is hard. It’s the hardest part of running a business is letting go of it so that it can be on its own and run itself. That was good wisdom I learned in Michael E. Gerber book.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, I would think that it would hard to do because this is your baby.
Leigh Kellis: It’s like with your children. It’s exactly the same. At some point you have to let them find their way to sustain themselves and exist in the world without you. It’s just the perfect metaphor, it’s very hard but it’s very necessary.
Lisa Belisle: I know that you recently lost your father and at a relatively young age I think.
Leigh Kellis: He was 68 and I think in the big scheme of things it was probably too young. Yes.
Lisa Belisle: As part of this business moving forward without him, the idea that somehow he’s still there?
Leigh Kellis: Yes, believe it or not, I feel him just as strongly now as ever.
Lisa Belisle: Does he help lead any of your decisions or does he help provide advice?
Leigh Kellis: It’s been two weeks but his energy is really strong and his wisdom was really good. I actually feel very comforted by his presence in the cosmos right now and I feel it that’s the kind of person I am. I’m totally open and I’m totally receptive and I’ve been communicating with him. I feel actually very comforted by potentially tapping into his guidance and protection as we move forward with the business. I know he was psyched about the business, he loved it, he was so proud to be a part of it and to watch it grow and to make sure his kids were good. My sister, my brother-in-law and I now pretty much run it and I think my dad is very comforted knowing that the business is doing well and that we all have a job and a place to put our energy and our investments. Yeah, I’m definitely feeling his presence still.
Lisa Belisle: Why did you call your business The Holy Donut?
Leigh Kellis: It was really just a pun, it was not religious or deeply meaningful in any way. I just thought it was kind of funny.
Lisa Belisle: Because of the hole?
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, the donut hole that’s all but then the potato is the holy crop of Maine sort of, it’s such an important part of our economy. I thought it made sense and I think donuts are fairly divine and or sacred as a food so for all of these reasons I just thought it was the perfect name.
Lisa Belisle: Now, I can’t wait to go back to Scarborough and go to that third store and have another one of your donuts. I’ll probably bring my 16-year old or one of my older kids when they’re back from school. I’ve been speaking with Leigh Kellis who is the owner of Holy Donut. This past year she was elected a U.S. Small Business Administration’s Maine Small Business Person of the Year. Congratulations, and thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to come in today.
Leigh Kellis: Thank you very much. My pleasure.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio show number 323. Our guest have included Sal Scaglione and Dana Heacock and Leigh Kellis. For more information on our guests and extended interviews visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Doctor Lisa and see our Love Maine Radio for those on Instagram. We love to hear from you so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, I hope that you have enjoyed our show. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producers are Paul Koenig and Brittany Cost. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine or any of the guest featured here today please visit us at lovemaineradio.com. (music)