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The Holy Donut in Portland, Maine, isn’t just any donut shop. Instead of baking traditional yeast and cake donuts, the shop makes donuts from potatoes.
For Leigh Kellis, owner of The Holy Donut, locating a good donut proved tricky. Long before she opened her first shop, she would regularly search for the pucks of fried dough to satisfy her sweet cravings.
“I was somewhat frustrated that I couldn’t find a donut that met my needs, which was not from a factory or a chain or mass-produced,” she explains. “So I started making them in my kitchen to have more of a wholesome, homemade product, thinking that if I was craving them, maybe other people were, too.”
She started small out of her own kitchen, fueled by her own curiosity about the nostalgic treat. Kellis doesn’t have any official culinary training, but she had been around food and restaurants most of her working life. She started researching how to make her own donuts, poring over cookbooks and recipes. A couple of tweaks later, Kellis discovered that her ultimate product defied the traditional connotations of a donut: along with flour and buttermilk, Kellis includes Maine mashed potatoes.
“A friend said, ‘You like donuts. Try potatoes. Potatoes make everything better.’ I was like, well, that sounds weird, but I’ll give it a shot,” Kellis explains.
Although Maine is typically known for lobster, potatoes have been an inherent part of the state’s history and economy. Irish farmers brought potatoes to Maine in the 18th century, finding that the soil and weather conditions were conducive to growing the crop. In the mid-20th century, Maine was producing more potatoes than any other state in the country.
And so the Maine potato donut was born. Kellis initially launched the donuts in a local coffee shop, selling a dozen a day. The donuts quickly became popular, inciting Kellis to establish a wholesale business. That success prompted her to open her first brick-and-mortar location in Portland, Maine, in 2012. Today, The Holy Donut boasts three locations, 70 employees and bakes about two million donuts a year.
“Everything’s done in the same old-fashioned way by hand,” Kellis says. “Donuts are comforting, and we want people to feel that old-world feeling. There’s something nostalgic about [that].”
To make the donuts, Kellis uses unbleached flour, local buttermilk, New England eggs, and Aroostook County potatoes. The potatoes are boiled, pressed through a ricer, then incorporated into the donut mixture. The dough is rolled out, sliced into rounds, and fried until golden brown. The result is a much heavier and moist donut than the traditional yeast or cake variety, one cloaked in house-made sticky glaze.
“We don’t use yeast at all, so they’re a little denser,” Kellis explains. “Yeast donuts tend to be puffy and sugary, which is not really what I wanted to eat. I wanted something with more substance; you can eat it and feel like you’ve eaten real food.”
The donuts come in a slew of flavors, including vanilla glaze, maple bacon, pomegranate, and Allen’s coffee brandy (a beloved Maine liquor). There are also dark chocolate-based potato donuts, ginger-sugared and ginger-glazed sweet potato donuts, and a breakfast favorite filled donut, bursting with bacon and cheddar.
But at the end of the day, it’s not just about the donuts. The team also does a ton of work to help people in the community. Kellis focuses on donating to programs in Portland to help disadvantaged kids, and she encourages her employees to volunteer at the Iris Network (an organization aiding the visually impaired) across the street and deliver meals on wheels. “It’s not conventional volunteering like cleaning the beach. It’s just helping people,” Kellis says.
Even with the non-traditional donuts and social justice programs, The Holy Donut differentiates itself because at its core, it’s simply a local, mom-and-pop business. After all, Kellis runs The Holy Donut with her father, infusing that warm, familial, approachable feeling into everything they do.
“It’s a family business,” Kellis says. “We have a personal touch that you’re not going to get at Dunkin’ Donuts. We’re a little quirky. That’s what sets us apart.”