Shawn Wampole jokes that he made a lateral move from his former career as a police officer to his new life as co-owner of the Donut Experiment.
Several years ago, he and his wife, Cecilia, brought their kids on vacation to Anna Maria Island. They were living in the Philadelphia area at the time and had visited a lot of northeast beach towns, where there was always a local doughnut shop. “And we couldn't believe there wasn't a doughnut shop here,” he says.
The couple went back home and, somewhat in jest, said they should open one on Anna Maria Island. Before they knew it, they'd sold their home, quit their jobs and liquidated as many assets as they could to turn their doughnut dream into a reality.
They opened their business in December 2012. By spring, there were lines out the door for their made-to-order cake doughnuts, which each purchaser customizes by choosing from five icings and toppings ranging from chocolate sprinkles to bacon.
“People grew up with doughnuts that were made at the doughnut shop, and that's not the way it is anymore,” says Shawn Wampole. “I think the fact that they can get a doughnut they can actually watch being made is what they remember and what they like. And it's a better doughnut than something that's been frozen and sitting around.”
Now the Donut Experiment is building on its Anna Maria success and getting into franchising — a whole new business, with new challenges. Spreading the brand nationwide wasn't part of the couple's original plan. But after receiving inquiries from people interested in bringing a Donut Experiment to their hometown, the Wampoles saw an opportunity.
The first franchise opened in Greenville, S.C., followed by locations in Siesta Key and Cocoa Beach. Five more should be open by fall, in Illinois, Ohio, Cape Cod, Clearwater Beach and another not-yet-named Tampa Bay area location.
“We went into it with the mindset that we're just going to let things grow organically,” says Shawn Wampole. “I'm not a salesman. It's more us just trying to find the right fit for us, the right people in the right locations.”
The couple focused on clarity and ease when creating a training program for franchisees to help ensure the business they built is the business that gets brought to other cities and towns. That's a key strategy many other franchise-based businesses follow.
“We stress to our franchisees that consistency across the board is good for all of us,” says Cecilia Wampole. “The experience we want our customer to have should be the same here, in Greenville, in Siesta Key. And we try not to overcomplicate things. That's why we stick with doughnuts. We're not doing breakfast sandwiches and all these other things.”
The Wampoles had no previous experience in food service before opening the original shop. The venture was completely self-funded, and by taking a bare-bones approach the first year, they avoided debt. Setting up the shop on Anna Maria's revitalized Pine Avenue also proved a good move.
The couple declines to share sales or revenue figures. “But I will say that the profit margins are good in doughnuts,” says Shawn Wampole. “It's a cheap product to make, and your biggest expense is labor. Obviously the numbers work, or we wouldn't be selling franchises.”
The Donut Experiment is actually the shop's second name. The Wampoles originally called it Anna Maria Donuts. But when they decided to franchise they needed a name that would be easier to trademark and mean something to people not familiar with the Manatee County island.
Lots of brainstorming sessions led to their new moniker. “At the end of the day this whole thing has been an experiment,” says Cecilia Wampole. “We had no idea if it would work, but it has and still is.”