Mark Trombino: Drive Like Jelly to Donut Friend
Los Angeles musician and engineer/producer Mark Trombino earned his props as the drummer behind San Diego rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut Drive Like Jehu before he produced an array of punk-pop gems for groups including Blink-182, Jimmy Eat World and others.
For several years, Trombino had a non-music concept in mind. “A couple of years ago, it was sort of like I was at a crossroads,” he explains. “I could either build a recording studio or I could try something completely different. And I decided to go for it and do something different.”
Trombino is in the final preparatory stages of Donut Friend, the specialty donut shop he’s opening in LA’s Highland Park neighborhood.
I have to commend you on the Donut Friend menu, especially the Signature Combinations. That was a stroke of great wordplay. It reminds me of making up fictitious band names. But in this case, you already had band names and you just tweaked them a little bit.
Yeah, that was fun. That was me and a friend just kind of bullshitting in a bar. He came up with the first one, which was “Jimmy Eat Swirl.” That just led to this whole torrent of ridiculous names.
In addition to the ones that I have (on the menu), I have probably just as many names ready that I don’t actually have donuts for. That’s kind of fun – that’s going to give me an opportunity to have some specials or seasonal things. And I think some of the ones that I don’t have donuts for are even funnier than the ones that are actually there. I’m so lucky I stumbled upon that, and I was really nervous about it at first. It’s like a fine line – it could have been super cheesy or super fun – but people seem to like it. The response is pretty positive. I think it’s kind of flattering to have a donut named after your band.
You don’t look like a guy who pounds donuts every day. How do you stay fit?
Well, I don’t pound donuts daily – I guess that’s how [how I stay fit] for the most part. Everybody loves donuts, but it’s not like I’m obsessed with donuts. I just had a really cool idea for a donut shop. I was kicking around the idea for almost four years before I actually started doing something with it. I just felt like I had to do it. It was so good and I didn’t want to see anybody else do it. I just wanted to see this idea come to light.
Artisan foods in general – and desserts such as cupcakes and ice cream, in particular – have really been experiencing a boom in the past five years. Do you feel like you’re starting Donut Friend at a fortuitous time?
I definitely think it’s the right time. Donuts seem to be an up-and-coming thing. For as long as cupcakes have been popular, people have been, like, “What’s the next cupcake?” And I’m not gonna say that donuts will be it, but I see gourmet donut shops opening up all over, all the time, and it certainly seems to be something that’s kind of trending. That’s another reason why I wanted to get Donut Friend out there because I felt like I had this idea way before I heard anybody talking about donuts.
What are your top three American donut shops?
My favorite, without a doubt, is Dynamo in San Francisco. When I first started this thing, and even before I started it, I tried to visit every gourmet donut shop – and old-school shops, too – every respected, great donut shop I could find. Dynamo, to me, was the clear winner, as far as being my favorite place. They have definitely elevated the donut. I’m not “foodie” enough to really describe it, but to me they’re unlike anything else.
I also like Donut Man, down here in LA. It’s just a normal donut shack; LA is littered with donut shops. Donut Man’s actually the seed that started Donut Friend. I think they’re one of the best in LA, and they do fresh fruit inside their donuts, which is what gave me the idea for Donut Friend.
I plan to differentiate myself from places in LA, because I think a lot of them are all the same. It’s essentially the same donut, aside from a few places that are doing something new, or making them from scratch, and I will be one of them.
The third one would be Top Pot in Seattle. I also think they are different – they’re making donuts from scratch. They’re unique. There’s nothing fancy about them, but they’re classic.
A lot of your Signature Combination donuts start with a Bismarck, then add on. Is this a favorite type of donut of yours from childhood?
Not really. It’s just practical. Without a hole, it’s more like a bun. The combinations that are Bismarcks are the ones that have the fillings. The idea for Donut Friend is you take a jelly doughnut and remove the syrupy, gross filling, replacing it with fresh fruit and real pastry cream. The Bismarck is just a natural vehicle for the fillings. But the beauty of the concept is you can do it with any kind of donut. It says Bismarck on the menu, but if you want to do it with a chocolate cake donut, we’ll do it with a chocolate cake donut because everything is made to order.
You’ve got this “Build Your Own Donut” option on the menu, and I don’t think people are used to seeing that at a donut shop. Will that be a challenge?
I think there is going to be a little bit of a learning curve to it. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I’ve talked to restaurant consultants, and their first thing is, “You’ve got to have pre-made donuts. That’s what people expect. They come into a donut shop, they want a dozen donuts and they don’t want to wait.” And I’m, like, “Mmm … no.” That’s not the concept. The concept is flipping this in reverse. It’s not “come in and pick the donuts we serve you,” it’s “come in and order the donuts you want.” I’m going to make it easy on people by having Signature Combinations, so if you want to just order from the menu it’ll take 10 seconds for us to make a donut for you as opposed to just putting one in a box that’s been sitting there for three hours. Essentially, people are going to walk through the door and there will be a display case with the Signature Combinations – one of each kind sitting there on the shelf so people can see what these things look like. So you can, in a way, walk in and say, “I’ll have one of those and one of those and one of those,” like you can in any donut shop and then we’ll make it for you. But primarily, the feature of Donut Friend will be a countertop with all the fresh fruit and creams and jams – preserves and compotes and stuff like that. I mean, that’s the star of this thing.
The Signature Combinations get a little crazy. I imagine that most people are just gonna want a simple jelly donut, with some really rad, locally made jam in it–a simple donut with a simple jam. I imagine simple donuts are still gonna be the biggest sellers.