In a city where most folks are hyper-aware of locally sourced whatnots, farm-fresh this-and-that, and organic fill-in-the-blanks, it's no wonder that a simple luxury like doughnuts can be such anxiety relief to those who just want something to remind them of the comforts of a junk food-filled era gone by (also known as most of our childhoods).
Mark Klebeck understands. He's largely responsible for bringing back the splendor of our forgotten youth in the form of fried dough--a warm reminder that yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But this new incarnate provides boxes of assorted Top Pot doughnuts while wearing Converse and black-rimmed glasses.
It's been a big year for Klebeck. Not only did he compete in the Food Network Challenge back in April (re-airing this Saturday), but he launched a new doughnut trailer in Renton and is coming out with a new cookbook this fall. He also plans to get a liquor license soon so he can start offering beer and wine at his Fifth Avenue location in Belltown.
In part one of this week's Grillaxin, Klebeck talks about the food he ate growing up in Lakewood with four sisters and three brothers, the only job he's ever been fired from, and why he didn't tell Howard Schultz what kind of beans he uses in his Top Pot coffee ... after the jump!
SW: Did you have a sweet tooth growing up?
Klebeck: I had my sweet tooth, but we were military brats so my mom would go to the commissary [at McChord] every two weeks to get one box of cereal each and that was supposed to last us for two weeks. Between my brother and I, those boxes would be gone in a day.
What kind of cereal?
Cap'n Crunch. But my favorites were either Quisp or Quake. Quisp was like little flying saucers. Actually, I think it was the same cereal, just different shapes. That's how they got around it.
Yeah, everything. I remember the commercial for Otter Pops in 1969 when I was in kindergarten and singing the jingle all the time. We were pretty poor and so we didn't have the luxury of going out and having access to these things, so when I did, I was always drawn to it. So when it came to doughnuts, there was this one place at the Tacoma Mall called the Golden Oven and so we'd always go in and get a twist or like a raised ring, which was my favorite, or jelly-filled. And then there was another place called House of Donuts in Lakewood that's still there. It looks like a little ski lodge with a really steep roof. It looks like something out of Fiddler on the Roof.
What did food mean to you growing up?
I don't think people understand. Back then, there weren't all these FDA guidelines or anything, it was just kind of like, "Where's my bag of Fritos?" And it was always a brown bag lunch or a moldy tin lunch pail with the thermos or the vending machines that had milk for a nickel and you either got plain or chocolate, and chocolate was always sold out. I always hated that.
What got you interested in doughnuts?
The money. Strictly the money. I sold out. No, I don't know. It wasn't anything that I think, even looking back, that I would have imagined I would be into. My background was always construction design with my brother Michael because we enjoyed it. With doughnuts, it was more or less we didn't know what we were doing and jumping into it we knew how to build design spaces and thought, "How hard can it be to do something with doughnuts?" The same way Michael is approaching gin (Ed. Note: Michael Klebeck owns Sun Liquor Distillery). He had no background in it whatsoever, but he enjoys it. Food is such a neat thing and the fact that you can take that experience of what you had growing up and then put your own spin on it and put something out there that's just different and be innovative--there's no rules.
The hand-forged thing is something that I think is really neat and I think it has a lot of appeal. Rather than the junky, kind of fast-food approach where you walk into a place where it's just all plastic seating and bad fluorescent lighting everywhere and people who just don't care--they're just putting out racks and racks (of doughnuts)--the appeal is the one-off: it's the custom doughnut and having fun with it. It's just balance. But that balance is having something that's neat and if you're going to go for it, do it right. Have a great doughnut. Don't go for the 29-cent deal.
What jobs did you have before you opened your first Top Pot nearly 10 years ago?
I was a barista in 1988 at the Double Rainbow in Los Angeles. I sold jeans at Mr. Rags in Lakewood. I almost got beat up by a G.I. because I was outfitting him in some jeans and I didn't realize I was fitting him into women's jeans. It wasn't until he had me get him the next size up that he pulls this flap out of the pocket with a big pink heart on it. That job didn't last long. I worked at 7-Eleven as a stock boy. I was one of the opening people at the Queen Mary tea room. I worked at Benjamin's on Lake Union. I worked at the Lake Union Cafe as a waiter. That was my first job. I worked at Arnies on north Lake Union. I worked at Palomino and then my last job was at Palisade in 1994.
Do you get tired of jobs easily or did you just get fired a lot?
I've only been fired from one job - Nordstrom catering - because I slept in a little late one morning. I was out late with my brother the night before. [Top Pot] is the longest job I've ever had. I wouldn't say I was the ideal employee, but the thing is, even working in the restaurants, you wait on some really great people and some really bad people. As much as that was kind of a transitional career for me, the one thing I took from it was the people skills and trying to impress upon your own staff how you want them to treat customers. We always try to give them the goods to take care of customers and hopefully for every one bad apple that comes through the line there are 50 of them that are really nice. I can relate. I'm very empathetic to that experience.
Oh, definitely the design. I remember once I sat down with Howard Schultz and he was asking what beans we use in our coffee and I was like, "I don't know. South American?" But you can ask me about the cabinets what grade of birch it is and I can tell you everything down to the varnish and sanding steps. It's almost like Wade [Weigel] who opened Rudy's. The guy has never cut hair in his life. Here, it's the same thing. I fry doughnuts and I've made doughnuts from scratch because I had to learn, but I think there are people who can go both ways--they can be very involved day-to-day with the ingredients and actually be a baker and be successful, and then people whose strengths lie in other places and that's where I've always felt my brother and I were, just really kind of overseeing the brand and kind of developing it.
Did you go to school for design?
My last classes, when I didn't know what the hell I was doing with my life, were at the University of Washington. It took me eight years to get an associate degree from North Seattle [Community College] and so finally my advisor one day said, "You know, you're only 10 credits away from being able to get your A.A. degree." So, I got into the UW and I got good grades but I was floating between an English major and a general studies major. My last quarter I was at the UW I had a women's studies class, a history of jazz class and communications. I still have 20 credits to graduate from there and I never went back. Same thing with Michael's art photography major--design was not in his background. It's one of those things where Michael and I just started discovering how things go together and you just start jumping into it.
What would your last meal be?
Machiavelli's filet mignon, medium rare, with roasted garlic and roasted vegetables on the side with a side of gnocchi gorgonzola. Yes, you can get it with gorgonzola if you request it! And then toasted pine nuts on that.