Can a doughnut shop help shape the future of Grand Rapids’ food?
There’s a major reason Grand Rapids is an up-and-coming city.
Well, really, there are several reasons. One being the massive groundwork laid during the past few decades and the current execution of such development. But then there are the young generations.
Many young professionals leave their hometowns, tempted by the allure of big cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Eventually they might return to their hometowns, and continue their professional lives.
In many upstart cities, young professionals are the catalyst. The ones who see they can make a difference in city by doing something unique, instead of being lost in the noise of the big cities and living a fairly pedantic life.
The potential in cities like Grand Rapids is limitless, and many economic development professionals view the city at the same point as Austin, Texas, or Portland, Oregon, 25 or so years ago.
That culture certainly is very much similar. And that’s what drew Tory O’Haire back to his hometown of Grand Rapids. In his early 30s, he traveled and seen plenty of the world. And for awhile, he was tempted by the culture of places like Portland. But then he realized, why not help Grand Rapids get to that point.
He saw a lack of creative culinary outlets and decided to make a run of it.
“If I move to Portland, Austin or anywhere else, that would be great fun, but I would be one of 3,000 other talented individuals doing a variation of the same thing,” O’Haire said. “But on the other hand, if I stay here, I’m one of 10, 12, 15 people who knows what they’re doing and have the drive and to do something cool and would be able to steer the ship in a different direction.”
He started underground, as a personal chef, consultant and an assortment of other freelance cooking jobs. Eventually, he started a project called The Full Moon Supper Club, which meets once a month and provides a full dinner of a cuisine not available in Grand Rapids.
He took an unusual route to take his culinary skills to the public: doughnuts.
He opened Propaganda Doughnuts on Division Avenue last year, in the middle of a street that in the mid-90s, most people were afraid to walk down. Now, it’s a burgeoning art scene that is on the rise.
O’Haire explained his passion doesn’t lie in doughnuts, but food. It was merely an easily accepted item that hasn’t been fully capitalized upon in this market.
“My life is about good food and having a solid culinary vision,” he said. “There is nothing donut related downtown.”
There are other donut shops in town, obviously. But they mostly use mixes and high fat oils. O’Haire uses almost exclusively French techniques, with local ingredients and low saturated fat and transfat-free oils, resulting in lower calorie and lighter pastries.
A lot of his doughnuts appear odd, or fancy. He didn’t set out to do “weird” doughnuts, just to make good food people appreciate.
“What’s most important for me is food that makes you feel good,” he said. I’m not a culinary modernist. Modernism, and hyper-creative cooking pulls people away, saying, ‘This is neat, but I’m still hungry.’ It’s creativity for the sake of creativity not for the fact it’s actually good.
“I love bringing really old world techniques or classical approaches that people wouldn’t recognize them, but it’s a cool thing. Plus, it’s just good.”
He picked doughnuts because it’s a timeless food. People will always have an occasional weekend craving for a doughnut. While he’s at it, he’s also trying to help change the idea of a doughnut as the pastry with a red X through it in infomercials.
But more is coming soon, “the jumping off point” for several more endeavors.
Later this year, a late-night ramen shop will open in the shop space next to Propaganda. From there, it’ll be a picking and choosing of what to do next, the first that came to his mind in our conversation in April: an English Breakfast spot.
For now, he’ll continue making doughnuts for the city’s coffee drinkers.