Mark Isreal used to stay up all night making doughnuts in the basement of his Lower East Side tenement building, and in the morning he’d bike around town delivering orders to local restaurants. In 1994 he opened his first Doughnut Plant storefront on Grand Street, and without really intending to, ushered in a new era in this city for the workaday pastry.
Not that Isreal’s doughnuts aren’t rooted in tradition. In fact, the basic, eggless recipe comes from his grandfather, Herman, who cooked in WWI and ran a bakery in North Carolina in the 1930s. It’s just that Isreal is a relentlessly creative person, always looking for new ways to express his ideas, and he decided early on to only use fresh ingredients for his doughnuts, so the flavors really pop.
No one else was making things like pistachio doughnuts back then, or square doughnuts that ensured you’d get a bit of custard or jelly filling (both housemade, of course) in every bite, or individually torched creme brulée doughnuts. But 26 years and a mini-empire later, it’s safe to say that people were more than ready for Isreal’s innovations.
There were seven Doughnut Plant locations operating across three boroughs when the coronavirus pandemic hit the city, and rather than immediately pivot to take-out only, he decided to shut the whole operation down.
“When we made the call to close in March,” Isreal told Gothamist. “It was for the safety of our staff and our customers.”
But after watching and learning from others, and amping up his own safety and cleaning protocols, Isreal and three of his Doughnut Plants — on the Lower East Side, in Downtown Brooklyn, and in Long Island City — are back in business as of this weekend.
“We are reopening now because enough of our staff felt safe and ready to come back and our customers were asking for us daily and we feel we found a way to safely serve them.” said Isreal. “We also wanted to do our part in helping get New York City back again, too.”
As far as new routines go, Isreal told us that they are taking “all the recommended precautions in the bakery,” with everyone wearing masks, and strict cleaning procedures in place. All employees also received new uniforms, which will be laundered nightly in their newly installed washer and dryer. “And we’re only doing online orders, with no one entering our shops. It’s delivery and contactless pickup only,” he said, adding, “no mask, no service.”
On Friday morning, I went to the Grand Street original to see how it all played out. Standing on the wide sidewalk in front of the shop, well-distanced from other masked-up doughnut fiends,I went online and ordered a half dozen of my favorites from the somewhat abbreviated but still impressively varied menu.
My phone told me my pastries would be ready in 45 minutes, but it really only took about half that time. This is a popular place though, and there’s clearly a ton of pent-up doughnut desire among locals, so if you can order the day before, and secure a pickup time, that’s probably the better plan.
I’m a longtime Doughnut Plant fan so, no surprise, I thought all six of my doughnuts were delicious. The yeasty Valrhona Chocolate and Vanilla Bean, the gloriously gooey Peanut Butter and Strawberry Jam, the crackling Creme Bruleé, the buttery Black and White and tangy Wild Blueberry…all delightful. Pure comfort-food perfection.
Isreal isn’t sure when his other outlets will reopen, but for now he’s just trying to hang in as best he can. “I’ve been living in New York City for 40 years,” he said. “What do I miss? I’m trying to let go of that as things will never be the same because of the pandemic. But that’s always been true of New York. It’s always changing and adapting. We’re in the moment, dealing with the circumstances the best we can. Times of crisis always call for new ways to keep going forward. I love New York City.”
The three open Doughnut Plant shops are located at 379 Grand Street in Manhattan, 245 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, and 31-00 47th Avenue in Queens. Current hours are Wednesday through Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (doughnutplant.com)