Long before the Cronut sparked a dessert mashup trend, Psycho Donuts set out to shake up the pastry world.
The two-unit doughnut concept launched in 2009 in Campbell, Calif., as an “asylum for wayward donuts.” Restaurants have a comic mental-hospital theme: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” meets Tim Burton.
Doughnuts are served by “Psycho nurses” wearing white uniforms — and, if they’re in the mood, zombie makeup. Guests are greeted with a square of bubble wrap to pop, which helps with “selection anxiety,” and both locations have a padded cell where they can take photos.
Founder Jordan Zweigoron, "chief psycho," said the response has been tremendous, and the concept is preparing for growth. “I really feel this has legs,” he said.
A third unit is in the works, and Zweigoron has put out a call for franchisees to gauge interest, though the company hasn’t officially launched a franchising program yet.
He declined to reveal sales figures but he said the time is right for Psycho Donuts to move outside its San Francisco Bay-area base, especially given the growing interest in dessert mashups and exotic doughnuts.
The frenzy surrounding products like the Cronut — a cross between a croissant and a doughnut, which was developed in New York by Dominique Ansel Bakery — has “raised the bar” for the dessert world, he said.
“It used to be we’d come up with something simple and people would say, ‘Wow,’” he said. “But now it takes some real ingenuity to make people say, ‘Wow.’”
The core menu, with desserts priced between $1 and $5, is, indeed, a bit crazy.
There’s the Headbanger, a doughnut iced with a frowning face and bleeding raspberry jelly. The Comfortably Numb is a powdered doughnut twisted as if wearing a strait jacket and that promises guests will “find their inner chocolate” if they let go and relax.
The Jasonut is a chocolate raised doughnut filled with “bloody raspberry filling” and decorated with a powdered-sugar hockey mask. And there’s the Dead Elvis, a cream-filled doughnut with bananas, bacon, peanut butter and jelly. (“You’ll think you died on the throne!”)
In 2010, Psycho Donuts brought in baker Ron Levi as “doctor of donut derangement,” who has been developing innovative iterations of the dessert. His hits have included a line of gourmet cocktail doughnuts, such as the Strawberry Margarita filled with tequila cream, Key lime and salt.
Levi also created the Psycho Psushi doughnut: small, rectangular doughnuts dressed like sushi in a bento box with edible Pocky-brand chopsticks.
“We’re always trying to challenge people’s perception of what a doughnut is,” Zweigoron said.
Guests have asked for Cronuts, so Levi responded with another mashup: The Danolli, a cross between a doughnut and a cannoli. A doughnut is filled with impastata pastry cream and rolled in crushed cannoli shells. Each end is dipped in mini semi-sweet chocolate morsels, and a chocolate drizzle is layered on top with a sprinkle of powdered sugar.
Preparing for growth has brought a shift away from what Zweigoron described as being more of a “novelty product” in the first year to a concept that has more depth.
Catering has expanded, and Psycho does a lot of custom work, including doughnut wedding cakes, Spiderman doughnuts for birthday parties, and doughnuts with logos for tech company product launches, Zweigoron said.
Responding to critics
Psycho Donuts’ efforts to push the envelope have sometimes been met with controversy.
In its first year, some mental health advocates who felt the concept perpetuated negative stereotypes criticized the brand.
“People didn’t understand the ironic and somewhat satirical approach we were trying to take,” Zweigoron said. “They thought we were trying to mock people with mental illness, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
At one point, the company made a sizeable donation to a mental health foundation in an attempt to show support, but the money was returned.
Eventually, Zweigoron sat down with critics to discuss their concerns. Mainly, they didn’t like menu references to diagnosable illnesses, he said. In response, the names and descriptions of some menu items were changed. The “Bi Polar” doughnut is now called the “Mood Swing,” for example.
“That whole controversy seems to have died away,” Zweigoron said.
But in June, Psycho Donuts made headlines again after revealing plans to give away a foie-gras-filled doughnut dubbed the Foie Bomb on National Donut Day despite a California state law banning the sale of foie gras.
“Technically it wasn’t illegal because we were giving them away,” Zweigoron said.
At both locations, about 100 guests were lined up at the door at 6 a.m., he said. But activists also showed and PETA threatened a lawsuit that never happened.
The press attention, whether positive or negative, has helped market the brand, Zweigoron said.
“It all helps,” he said. “We’re looking to grow, both in the short term and the long term.”