We are delighted to chat with Leslie Polizzotto, a successful Attorney turned Co-Owner of The Doughnut Project, on leaving 9-5 to become an entrepreneur and creating an inspiring new career (no.3) by choosing a business you love.
“When you love what you do, you happily make it part of your everyday life!”
And who doesn’t love doughnuts?
Before diving into this unique interview with multi-talented Leslie, we have to warn you: this post contains dangerously mouth-watering images (Instagram: @thedoughnutproject).
Leslie lives in New York City with her husband Gino. She partnered up with Troy Neal to co-found The Doughnut Project, a hand-crafted, gourmet doughnut shop in NYC that takes inspiration from food and cocktails for its unique flavors and designs.
Your multi-passionate career journey is an inspiration. Straight out of high school you worked for a global construction management company for 18 years before working for 4 years as a litigator in a large firm. Tell us how you got from corporate work to now owning a food and catering business?
After 2 years of bi-costal relationship with my (now) husband, I moved to LA to be with him, finish my undergraduate degree and attend Pepperdine University School of Law. In 2012, we decided to move to NYC where I intended to continue practicing law. I took the NY Bar exam and passed it! However, the firm I was working for in LA did not have an associate position at the time in their NYC office, so I took the opportunity to explore other options.
I met my business partner Troy on one of the many trips back to NYC. He worked at Eataly, and when he told me he wanted to open a doughnut shop, I got excited and I showed him pictures of doughnuts that made me really happy when someone brought them to work.
I decided to help him make the shop a reality. We worked on a business plan, raised capital (in addition to our own) from friends and family and opened The Doughnut Project in October 2015.
I only became passionate about food when I began practicing law. People thought I was insane to leave my legal career to open a doughnut shop, but it came down to timing and having the support of my husband. As an entrepreneur for a long time, he recognized I would be good at it too.
It takes a nano second on your Instagram page to see why The Doughnut Project is so popular. Yet your business offers much more than just lip-smacking doughnuts. What else is at the core of your success?
We sell more than high-quality doughnuts. Our business is rooted in offering great hospitality too. We like to think of a visit to our shops as an “experience”. We play music tailored to the crowd, from Frank Sinatra to Justin Bieber, have a fun movie on TV and colorful street art on our walls. Our aim is to encourage conversation, engage with our guests and make them feel welcome.
Our Instagram attracts global followers and we welcome guests to our shops from all over the world. We look for everyone to have such a fun experience they want to share it. It is rewarding when people visit by recommendation. We’ve also become a “must visit” every time global customers return to NYC!
From 9-5 to business owner. Has becoming an entrepreneur changed you?
Becoming an entrepreneur has changed me a lot and for the better, of course! I have much more confidence in myself and to literally do whatever it takes to get the job done.
I have done it all. Drive our van through Manhattan when drivers didn’t show up, deliver huge boxes of doughnuts through tight office security, wash dishes, pull espresso shots, make and glaze doughnuts, mop the floors, etc. I have never been a quitter, and my entrepreneurial journey has proven it. I could never go back to working for someone else.
My husband was right…I am good at this!
How do you stay grounded and manage your work / life balance?
My business is fully integrated into my personal life. I’m happy to work no matter what day it is. I do this by choice because I love what I do and I am motivated to make it a success.
Technically, I take weekends off but I also find time to manage some work too before heading to a work-out class. I firmly believe my fitness is key to my success. As an entrepreneur you depend on people because you alone cannot do everything. I find this difficult at times as I prefer doing things myself. Working out refills my need for control and accomplishment. I always feel ready to tackle anything after I work out.
My weekdays start around 6am. I work for few hours at my home office then catch a class before heading to each shop. Integrating my business and personal life keeps me caught up, on top of things and less stressed.
When you have a business that you love, you want to work on it. It is not a 9-5 job where you count the hours until you can go home.
Starting up is never easy and NYC is probably one of the toughest places in which to succeed. Did you ever worry about things not working out?
Of course! It was scary in the beginning and before we received any press, the shop was very quiet. When we opened, we had already been paying rent for two months without revenue. Shop renovations took 6 months instead of 3. Money was tight and there were many days I felt unsure it would work out.
We carried on working hard and never gave up. And for that, we seemed to be rewarded. With every low point, something positive would present itself.
Is there an achievement or a contribution you are most proud of?
I am most proud of our collaborations. We work with many local, national and international brands, creating unique, one-of-a-kind doughnuts for a limited time and limited supply. These creations are extremely popular. People love getting the latest and most unique doughnuts in NYC.
We also create doughnuts for events or product launches. We’ve worked with Valspar, Scribd, Estée Lauder, Cartoon Network, Marvel and Crayola among others. These collaborations provide great revenues to the shops, and increase awareness of our brand thanks to the PR Teams working on the events.
I’m sure your incredible and hard-working journey has taught you a lot. Any tips you can share with our readers who are just starting out?
I have three tips that have been crucial to my success as an entrepreneur.
- Love the concept, idea, and product that your business is about. Starting a business is an everyday endeavor which becomes a part of your life. You hardly turn off, so ensure you really like what your business is about.
- Partner with people who complement the skills you have and do not. That makes for a more well-rounded team who all bring something to the table. Troy and I share the same work ethics and have fun working together. Complementing each other helps us both grow professionally: I contribute more structure and he influences me to be more flexible and not take everything too seriously.
- Surround yourself with support. Without positivity and encouragement, you’re likely to add stress and pressure to an already overwhelming situation. My husband is a sounding board who listens to my successes, as well as complaints and worries. With a source of “therapy” to release negative feelings, you can move on to more positive solutions.
You mention your husband being one of your biggest supporters. If you asked him to describe you in three words, what would he say about you?
Gino is indeed my biggest supporter and a great mentor. He would say that I am tenacious, disciplined and creative.
He has witnessed how when I set a goal, I do not give up until I achieve it.
I am also very disciplined. Preparing for each of the CA and NY Bar exams required studying 10 hours daily for two months. I also religiously work out 6-7 days a week. It can be a hurricane rain storm outside on a Sunday morning, and I will still go to my 8:30am class.
About creativity, he is always impressed with how I make the most out of resources. I create opportunities using free resources such as social media to add value to our business.
I take inspiration from many female leaders in the food world too. Specifically: Candace Nelson (Sprinkles) and Christina Tosi (Milk Bar); for their ability to maintain business success while flourishing in other areas such as television.
Success stories like yours are very inspiring. What’s next for The Doughnut Project?
Troy and I work hard every day in our shops, but our motto for 2019 is: “Work ON the Business, rather than IN the business!”
“If we keep doing the daily tasks, there is no time to build the future of the brand.”
We have therefore invested in quality people we can trust and provide appropriate training to execute daily operations. We let go of the idea of growing on our own and are working with professionals to scale the business and expand our products.
We’re looking to expand to other states and enter the consumer product goods market. We are also playing with new ideas, including making a show about our shop. Filming is fun and projects like these make me love my work even more.
Thank you for sharing your journey with Bossbabe. How can readers step into The Doughnut Project experience?
If readers are in NYC, they can visit one of our shops at 10 Morton Street (West Village) and 912 7th Avenue (near Central Park).