Discovering High-End Donuts at San Diego’s Donut Bar
San Diego is the seventh largest city in the country and has 70 miles of coastline encrusting a land of rich heritage, a gorgeous year-round moderate climate, and world-renowned dining, culture, and attractions. The downtown area hosts districts such as Gaslamp, the Embarcadero and Little Italy. Downtown San Diego mixes the old, representing possibly 20,000 years since natives inhabited the land and more than 450 years since Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into the bay, with the new of night clubs, restaurants, and galleries.
On a recent jaunt down south with the kids, I had my eye on an old-turned-new hotel and a rising star among the culinary dashboard of the downtown area. With only twenty-four hours and some rewards points, we ventured into the deep of downtown San Diego.
The Courtyard by Marriott on Broadway Street occupies the San Diego Trust and Savings Bank building built in the 1920s. This amazing building has been converted to a hotel while saving some of the most iconic artifacts from the bank: the grand foyer, brass gates and window bars, rounded doorway frames, the vault doors, and even the high glass-topped tables patrons used to fill out deposit forms. It seems as if ghosts of bankers’ past haunt the halls of the guest floors with their marble-and-carpet-lined floors, brass and glass mail shoots, and polished wooden doors and frames. The guestrooms exude modern décor but are still true to their conservative roots: the ’20s influence on modern Art Deco. I love repurposed buildings whose origins permeate the modern use. It felt like a bargain using 25,000 Marriott rewards points (or $119 per night).
The focus of this visit was to interview the owner of the eight-month-old Donut Bar, the only donut bakery in downtown San Diego. On B Street, just around the corner from the Marriott, I arrived at 7:30 a.m., half an hour from opening time and prior to the line of anxious donut eaters forming in front of the bakery. Santiago Campa welcomed me into the modest storefront. The 2,000 donuts they make daily—four times what most donut stores sell per day—cover the display counter and speed-rack that tempts the guests waiting outside. Chef Campa, along with his “partner in life and business,” Wendy Bartels, opened the store after visiting donut shops in California, speaking to owners about “the biz,” and discovering an untapped market for high-end donut bakeries.
We are “honest to the donut,” Campa told me. He also commented that in a bad economy, in a good one, and to celebrate, people eat donuts. In the eight months since they opened, they have spent nothing on marketing. With organic methods—people enjoying the treats and wanting to spread the world—Donut Bar posts about selling out daily to the 8,400 people who have “liked” the store on Facebook. Campa has even lectured about marketing for Bake Mart, the baking industry’s go-to for baking supplies and information. It is nice to see a small business in the food and restaurant industry become successful.
Using high-quality ingredients, it takes six decorators all night to create the beautiful donuts they sell for $2 to $4 each. With flavors such as lemon chiffon, crème brûlée, strawberry cream cheese, chocolate peanut butter cup, apple orchard, red velvet, winter pineapple, maple bacon, mud pie, and vegan espresso, and themes such as Santa, Grinch, and Tiffany box, at Donut Bar, there is something for everyone. Of all the donuts that sell, perhaps the hottest are called cronuts (deep-fried croissant dough), usually stuffed and topped with glaze or frosting.
How many times have I tasted desserts that look beautiful but are bland or tasteless? This is not the case at Donut Bar. The donuts I tried were light yet rich. They were not greasy like ones of the past. The frostings tasted fresh and homemade with essences of real ingredients, such as vanilla, chocolate, and maple. Towering and symmetrical, the cronuts exceeded expectations with layer upon layer of buttery paper-thin sheets of dough encased in a crunchy, sweet crust then enrobed in a delicious glaze.
The donuts at Donut Bar are beautiful; there’s no fake-orange glaze with chocolate-like jimmies on top or glazed ones for which you could ring out the grease. Each donut is carefully fried and cooled then decorated as though each was as important as the next. One does not go in to buy just one donut here; visitors choose a dozen (or two) just to try the unique flavors or share with close friends and family.
Donut Bar does not compete with the Dunkin’s of the world. It is more like what Sprinkles did for cupcakes.
Although offers by investors and business owners to expand come frequently, Campa is content with his business at this point. He is not looking to expand although he is open to the idea of a Donut Bar popping up in a town near you.
Now that I have tasted the best, it would be difficult to go to San Diego and not stop at the Donut Bar. I would pick up a bunch or so to share with … well, maybe just for me!