Hearing people talk about food as a reward or mood-adjuster is pretty common in the insights work we do. The food-emotion connection starts early. Scrape your knee falling off your bike? Have a cookie. It’s no wonder many look to food for a temporary emotional boost.
Thanks to the new stampede of CBD-infused products, food is about to really deliver on changing the way someone feels. This year’s Expo West saw nearly 200 booths with CBD offerings. Ben & Jerry’s has announced plans for a CBD-infused ice cream. However, they’ve run into a snag. Hemp-derived CBD is not yet legal in all 50 states (a major barrier for retailers and manufacturers who are used to interstate distribution. Another snag is that claims are not approved yet by the FDA so it’s all subjective and anecdotal till then).
In the meantime, CBD-infused products are starting to show up in states where it is legal, such as Oregon. One of the first breakthrough food items might surprise you. It’s not a tonic, beverage, or a bar. It’s much better than that. It’s a donut. And not just any donut, it’s a Blue Star Donut, one of the leaders in the donut renaissance of the past decade.
CEO and Co-Founder Katie Poppe took some time to answer a few of our questions about how this CBD donut came to be as well as some lessons learned. (Interview has been lightly edited for clarity)
RV: You made some news recently with the launch of the “CBD Donut.” What is the back story behind that item? Where did the idea come from? How long did it take to develop?
KP: You know, this is a great example story of serendipity and local support. We had been toying with the idea of a CBD donut for some time - we have folks inside the company that are big advocates, and it’s a new element that the whole industry is excited to experiment with. So back in November 2018, Senator Wyden called up and said he remembered me from a roundtable I did with him a few years ago (women in business and their access to capital), and asked to come over and check out our new Flagship location, and check in with me to see what we’re up to. How awesome is that?? So he came around and toured our facility, and we had a great chat. He mostly asked what we were struggling with, and how he could help. Now THAT is a representative, folks! Almost as an afterthought on his way out, I mentioned that, oh yeah, we also wanted to do a CBD donut, but weren’t sure what the legal lay of the land would be like. His eyes just lit up, and he explained that he was a co-author of the Farm Bill (federal legalization of agricultural hemp growing) and it looked like it was going to pass. He goes, “And when it does, I want to be there to take the FIRST BITE of your CBD donut! On camera!” I laughed it off, but later that afternoon his people called and were like “Yeah he’s serious. He’s been talking about it all day. When can we schedule it.” So at that point it was like…I guess we better make one! We had about two months to pull it together.
RV: What was the most challenging part of developing and launching this donut?
KP: Initially the biggest challenge was in the concept execution - yes we know we want CBD, but how much? What should it taste like? What’s the method of delivery? And how do we make it up to our standards? Because you know the first one has to be indisputably delicious. The realities of sourcing hemp-derived CBD and it’s various delivery mechanisms (oil-soluble, water-soluble, isolate powder, etc.), all of these things were considered and Stephanie (Chef) was experimenting with them culinarily to see what we can make that tastes awesome but can also be scaled for a huge kitchen operation - consistently. The next challenge was to find a high-quality product partner that can keep up with our volume, aligns with our values, and is local.
RV: How did development of this product compare to the development of other flavors or types of donuts?
KP: For this type of donut, the fact that we only had two months to nail it was extremely fast, mostly because we are searching out and establishing an ingredient partner and supply chain that does not readily exist. For the most part, all of our other ingredients have very well-established supply chains and distribution. We get our flour from this farm, we get our fruit preserves and herbs from that farm, the systems are already in place. So when Chef comes up with a new flavor, it’s much easier to execute quickly. There was also the question of robust staff education and training, and planning thorough customer communication. And creating security protocols around a very expensive base ingredient!
RV: What sort of reaction did you expect from your customers? How did that compare to the reality after launch?
KP: Honestly the biggest risk was the customer reception. We spent a lot of time internally debating whether or not this product was aligned with our company and customer values - even though our MO is “Donuts for Grownups”, we are very family-friendly and the last thing we want to do is offend people or give them reason to not trust us. We made sure to bring in experts to educate us and had rigorous staff training so they were comfortable and clear on the facts. We also wanted to make sure our customers understood that we were experimenting with it because the Farm Bill passed, how historic that was, and what it meant for the ag and food industries. We tied it to a charitable cause to drive home the point that we’re not trying to capitalize off a trend, it’s just a celebration and an experiment. And you know what? Our customers LOVED it! They loved the flavor we came up with, and appreciated our thoughtful approach. It was interesting to see the conversation develop online, as a few haters inevitably came out but the customers were very quick to engage with support. It rapidly became our best-selling donut; the first few weeks we were selling out of them by 9 or 10am. I’m sure having a Senator and Congressman present for the launch didn’t hurt, either ;)
RV: How could someone think about incorporating this product into their CBD routine?
KP: CBD is kind of like caffeine or alcohol, everybody responds differently. We have about 10mg of CBD per donut, which doesn’t sound like a lot, however because we use CBD isolate powder in our recipe, I find the effects to be much stronger, especially if eaten on an empty stomach. I have back problems - if I’m having a bad back day and don’t want to take advil or tylenol, I’ll have one for breakfast with some black coffee, or an afternoon snack. It makes for a nice dessert, too.
RV: Will this item be showing up on the menu down in LA anytime soon?
KP: You know, we would love for this to be on the LA menu, but right now the authorities are pretty wary about these products crossing state lines (which is why we can’t sell it at our airport location). California is still figuring out some things, but ultimately, we hope to find the same quality product partner that we can source from locally there, as well. We get tons of requests for it.
RV: What do you know now about working with CBD or selling a CBD item that you wished you had known when you started developing the product?
KP: At the moment there’s a big CBD rush, so finding a partner that can reliably keep product in stock is a challenge. And as a recent news investigation pointed out, not all CBD is equal. We’re really proud that our CBD came out verified as-claimed by independent lab testing (we had no idea they were doing that!). I’m also glad that we put so much work into learning and training on the facts, as there is still a lot of confusion and misconception between CBD and THC.
RV: I noticed some proceeds are being donated to one of your farmers impacted by the recent wildfires. Tell me more about that? How are they doing with recovery?
KP: The flour we use is from Shepherd’s Grain, a conglomerate of local farms that all practice sustainable, no-till farming methods. We can actually scan a code on a flour bag in our kitchen and find out exactly which farm the flour came from! One of those farms is Emerson Dell, owned by David and Margaret Brewer. In July 2018, the Substation Wildfire burned 80,000 acres in North-Central Oregon, destroying a bumper crop of wheat across several countries just as harvest began. Unfortunately, the Brewers lost all of their winter wheat - some of which ends up in our donuts - plus their pasture, and some outbuildings. They are just the nicest people, and we’ve been looking for a way to do something for them. This donut felt like a good opportunity to tie it all together and pay it forward.
RV: The resurgence of the donut across the country has been remarkable the past 5-10 years. To what do you attribute its renewed popularity?
KP: Honestly I think it was just overdue! Seven years ago we started doing gourmet donuts as an indulgence, just to see how awesome we could make it. I had NO idea how hard it was to make donuts from scratch, especially on a bigger scale. Now I know why other places are so industrialized! But I think people are discovering how satisfying it is to make something tangible with your hands, to see the immediate results of making something that makes people happy. It feels like an honest day’s work, you know? And the spread of visual media has helped tremendously. Who doesn’t love a sexy donut picture?
RV: What is your all-time favorite donut? What is your current go-to donut from the Blue Star line-up?
KP: Oh man, my all-time favorite is a tie between the lemon curd and the apple fritter. Those were some of the early-day recipes we nailed and never looked back. I still love hovering behind the prep folks and watching it all being made. My current go-to is the CBD (it’s basically gourmet nutella), or the seasonal Raspberry-Rose-Pistachio if I’m feeling sassy, or the Orange Olive Oil, with hot black coffee.
RV: What will you and Blue Star be doing for National Donut Day, June 7, 2019?
KP: Every year for National Donut Day, we pick a theme and do a special donut. Last year our theme was “Science is Awesome,” and we made a donut science video with local YouTube star Crazy Aunt Lindsey. Our special donut was made with culinary "pop rocks,” and we tied in a donation to the Saturday Academy (a local nonprofit that does STEM programs for children). This year, our theme is “Art Rules!” - we're working with a bunch of local artists to do a live donut art project. We will tie in a donation to the Children's Healing Art Project (they do art programs at Doernbecher's Children's Hospital). As for the special donut - well, I’m not at liberty to talk about that quite yet…stay tuned! ;)
RV: Those are all my questions! Thank you again for your time.
What have your experiences been working with CBD? Got questions about the consumer, your concepts, or want to talk about just how quickly everything is moving?
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s start a conversation.
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