My buddy Hornish will not stop about Cardigan Donuts.
I constantly see shots on his Snapchat of Cardigan Donuts being held aloft, accompanied by summations of just how good those donuts were. In two separate Facebook message threads, he has text-walled about Cardigan Donuts. Most recently, an eclair filled with raspberry jam on one end and lemon curd on the other was deemed “the best I’ve ever had.”
He’s not the only one, it seems. It was just last week Cardigan Donuts was named Best Donuts this year by City Pages. MSN asked readers if Cardigan’s French crullers are the best donuts in the state. Travel and Leisure wasn’t quite so open-ended, and you’re just over 600 words away from this poor lummox trying to assemble just praise for their salted cookie dough donuts and coffee cake donuts.
The team behind Cardigan Donuts has made quite the impression, indeed – but if you’d have asked anyone about them even three years ago, most people would have said, “Who?”
AN IDEA ESCALATES
On a Saturday morning, your steps into the Minneapolis skyway through the 7th Street entrance will be loud and their echoes long. You might wonder, shouldn’t the skyway be a little more lively than this? Or is it like that bar near your workplace, where you’ll stop for a post-shifty and groan about the day’s irritations but you’d never hang out there otherwise because it’s too much of a work thing now?
Cardigan Donuts co-owner Justin Bedford had walked these halls for a number of years prior to his donut shop’s inception, having previously worked in the financial sector. He moved to the Twin Cities from Iowa City with his wife in 2005 and worked for a firm in Minneapolis. He’d dreamt of one day running a small business, and in 2010 he and fellow Cardigan co-owner Jeff Bull found their North Loop neighborhood lacking when it came to good donuts.
Bedford and Bull started carving out a business plan, but the backdrop eventually shifted to the skyway. Bedford paid close attention to how people use it: why they went to certain shops, why they chose certain restaurants, how they moved through the skyway. The business plan was finished in 2015, and Bedford was at a crossroads – or, perhaps more appropriately, intersecting hallways.
“I either have to commit myself to a corporate career or commit myself to this donut shop.” he says. “It’s hard to be passionate about corporate finance when all I’m thinking all the time about donuts.”
Bedford’s play: execute the plan until he couldn’t go any further. Maybe he’d execute until he couldn’t find a location, or execute until he couldn’t find any financing, or just execute until he lost interest. Thing was, the stopping point never came.
“I just kept putting one foot in front of the other,” he says, “and over the course of two years, everything came together.”
Can you believe he connected with now-Cardigan head baker Dan Rosene through Craigslist? Maybe you can – Bedford says this isn’t uncommon. With eight years of baking experience, a culinary degree, and some line work in the fine dining game, Rosene brought a background very much like the one Bedford sought.
They first met in 2015, and how did that go?
“Within 30 seconds,” says Bedford, “I knew he was the guy.”
Rosene worked on test recipes at home for the next two years while Bedford secured equipment and a location. An empty space on the second floor of the City Center was chosen as the future Cardigan Donuts, and Bedford says it was bare when he first stepped into it: concrete floor, raw drywall, and a conspicuous lack of ceiling. He worked with a local firm, Smart Associates, on the design. A look into Cardigan’s front windows now reveals a couch-like bench along one wall, a fake fireplace, a few seated tables, a few standing tables, and all the donuts.
On May 17, 2017, Cardigan Donuts opened their doors. Bedford says the shop didn’t look much different that day than it does on the day we chat – “14 feet of donuts in a display no one had seen before,” he recalls. The big difference was, that day, a line of people had stretched all the way to the UPS Store a couple of doors down. That day, Cardigan opened with 2,500 donuts – and that day, Cardigan was out of donuts by 2 p.m. The next day, it was the very same.
“I think we started at like midnight [baking],” he says. “We just hustled.”
That’s what I tell Hornish via Facebook Messenger immediately after I finish a salted cookie dough donut. The dough is unbelievably soft, bits of sea salt are embedded into a rich chocolate frosting, and a creamy cookie dough interior puts thoughts in my head like “dessert mashed potatoes” and “Is this the best donut I’ve ever had in my life?”
I’m not being hyperbolic. That really crossed my mind. This donut left me in quite a stupor.
After I tell him HOLY SH*T and text him a picture of the salted cookie dough donut, he fires back asking if I’ve tried the blueberry peach cobbler donut. It’s an all-star, he says, an eclair filled in a similar fashion to the lemon raspberry but with peach and blueberry jams. The jams used by Cardigan Donuts are made in-house, by the way.
Bedford’s favorite donuts are the glazed, raised donuts. He eats one every morning, because he enjoys them but also because one bite of those donuts can tell him a lot about the day’s production.
“About half of our donuts come from our raised dough,” he explains. “The raised, glazed donut is the most naked donut [we make]. It’s a good judge of the quality of everything else.”
Rosene and his team make a French cruller that’s cloud-soft with a light, sweet glaze. The maple bourbon fritters are confoundingly good. A lifetime of grocery store variety packs have left me with a fear of being stuck with a fritter, but stick me with one of these maple bourbon fritters any day. My ride-or-die at Cardian Donuts is undoubtedly the coffee cake donut, with perfect dough and a creamy frosting infused with Blackeye Coffee. If I’m getting a dozen of one donut, it’s that one.
Bedford says they skew more toward adult sensibilities at Cardigan. Just like he’s learned how people move through the skyway, he knows who moves through the skyway.
“If we were in the suburbs, we would have way more donuts and concepts that appeal to children,” he says. “Here, Monday-Friday, it’s all business people. They’re very mature, [and] they’ve abused their palate, so we have to work with very subtle and balanced flavors.”
About 60-75 percent of their donut sales are classic donuts, says Bedbord, but their Inspired Donuts offer them a sort of creative space. Yeah, they’re $3.50 or more, but try the blueberry peach cobbler sometime. Try the salted cookie dough donut sometime. Just trust me.
“We don’t try to please everyone all the time,” says Bedford. “[The inspired donuts] are the ones that get the buzz. It also gets to showcase what we’re capable of. We don’t decorate donuts; we execute culinary concepts.”
Now let me tell you what I’m capable of. On my first visit, I ate four donuts, one fritter, and drank three cups of coffee. I paid only $10.95 for all that. It’s part of Cardigan Donuts’ Saturday promotion: all-you-can-eat donuts and a bottomless cup of coffee for $10.95.
Bedford says the idea was a way to create more buzz about the shop and widen their fan base beyond just the work-week downtown crowd. Before they introduced the brunch, they weren’t open on Saturdays.
“People who want to come in here on Saturdays are people who can’t come here during the week because they live far away, or they don’t have parking,” he says. “Opening up on Saturdays was a way to serve those customers. Giving them a brunch, all you can eat kind of situation, is a way for them to make up lost time. It’s just fun.”