This sign hanging next to the employee schedule at Voodoo Doughnut is probably a joke, but I'm not quite sure. Working at this bright-pink tourist trap in Old Town seemed like it would be fun, but now I'm wondering. It's late June and the shop is 95 degrees because management believes air conditioning disturbs the magic of the dough. Voodoo does not offer training classes or videos for newly hired doughnuteers—just an old-fashioned pep talk in a back hallway crowded with bikes and empty milk crates.
"This job is hard," says my new boss, Wayne, as he delivers mine. "It's going to sound like I'm yelling at you right now, but every new person hears this. This job is fun, but it's also dangerous. You'll meet a lot of new friends here—people start bands, meet their boyfriends or girlfriends here, have parties, whatever. It's a good old time. Do whatever you want on your own time, but you are here to work. Do not show up to work drunk or stoned—ever. You can slip and fall and burn your face in the fryer."
I hung up my backpack in a cramped hallway, noticing yet another pink sign.
"DO NOT PUT YOUR DRINKS ON THE BENCH—THIS IS WHERE MY BUTT GOES."
After working at Voodoo Doughnut for three months, I learned that Wayne was right: It's hard. It's not hard because the employees are stoned deadbeats, but because there's pressure on the crew working the register to take in $5,000 in an eight-hour shift selling a product that costs an average of $2, much of it purchased by confused tourists who just survived a gauntlet of aggressive panhandlers. That girl with the septum piercing may look like she's too cool to care while working the register. But if she doesn't take in $1,000 during the first four hours of her Friday-afternoon shift, there's a decent chance she won't be here Saturday.
To folks on the other side of the register, Voodoo Doughnut looks like bedlam. The music is loud, the employees are terminally hip, and the lobby is decorated with satanic bric-a-brac and stained-glass portraits of owners Tres Shannon and Kenneth "Cat Daddy" Pogson.
But everything at Voodoo is deliberate, right down to the strategies for getting customers out the door fast, the secret ways cashiers push certain doughnuts on the unsuspecting, and that counting room in the back with piles of cash.
Voodoo already has two busy locations in Portland and another in Eugene. This week, Voodoo hosts a grand-opening party for its first out-of-state store, in Denver. Austin, Texas, is rumored to be next. Pogson told the Portland Business Journal last June that Voodoo plans to expand into 10 to 20 stores across the country.
Don't be distracted by the crushed-velvet portrait of
rapper Rick Ross Isaac Hayes or the ear-splitting death metal—Voodoo is perhaps the most ruthlessly efficient business in Portland. Somewhere, there's probably a pink spreadsheet showing a 10-percent increase in productivity as "Maneater" plays in the kitchen.
"I don't really like doughnuts," a tan guy with spiky hair and a neon-green Nike shirt says to me.
"You'd like five doughnuts?" I shout back at him. Metallica is cranked to 11. I really can't hear shit.
The secret to Voodoo's success is that even tourists who hate doughnuts have to go there—they heard about it from Anthony Bourdain, Jay Leno or Time magazine. Maybe they saw a couple get married there on TV, or heard about how the Food and Drug Administration ordered the shop to stop topping doughnuts with NyQuil and Pepto-Bismol. However it happened, a bacon maple bar is now an essential gold coin for anyone who wants to claim they saw Portland. Not getting one would be like leaving Las Vegas without throwing a nickel in the slots.
"I said I don't really like doughnuts!" the man says. "I'm in town for the Hood to Coast Relay and all my friends at Nike told me I had to come here! I only want one—which should I get?"
This is it, I thought. Today is the day I get canned because I have to spend 10 minutes helping this guy decide on the color of sprinkles on his cake doughnut. There's no way I'll drop enough cash from my till at lunchtime not to get fired—it just happened to the friendly goth kid hired at the same time as me. The goth kid was nice, but he was slow. The day manager intercepted him in the back room before his scheduled shift. There were no goodbyes.
"My girlfriend just texted me to get her something gluten-free, but I'm out of cash. Do you take American Express?" Nike guy asks—oblivious to the "CASH ONLY" signs. I watch the new guy at the next register ring up $30 in bacon maple bars for a portly couple in matching Oakland Raiders jerseys. If I don't keep things moving, the kid they're training by my side could be my replacement. He's a tall, skinny kid wearing a beanie—just like me.
Over the summer, Voodoo hires new employees in waves. In June, they hired seven of us from a group of applicants that packed the New Market Theater building lobby with pink applications in hand. At least three were gone by August. If this Nike guy doesn't buy a damned doughnut, it will be four.
"You can't leave without buying our most famous doughnut, the bacon maple bar," I tell him, praying I'll get a large family of rotund tourists from Dallas next. We're always hoping to spot XXL Cowboys jerseys, as visiting Texans tend to gorge themselves on fritters and the hemorrhoid pillow-sized Tex-Ass, Voodoo's most expensive offerings. The Tex-Ass, which is the size of six regular doughnuts, is free if you finish it within 80 seconds. I've only seen one person do it without puking into the white bucket we provide them. The other 100 or so had to fork over $5.25.
To fill the pink boxes littered throughout Old Town and being carried in security queues at PDX, it takes a small army of people.
Flour, yeast and other staples arrive in nondescript bags via BakeMark USA, a restaurant wholesaler based in Southern California. A tandem of "yeasters" follows strict guidelines—written on pink paper that's haphazardly taped to the wall—to determine how much yeast to roll out and when. After the dough rises, it goes to a fryer charged with mixing batter for cake doughnuts, and ensuring enough bacon is fried and ready to adorn Voodoo's top-selling confection.
Racks of plain doughnuts sit until a team of two or three decorators turn them into Old Dirty Bastards and Grape Apes. Employees don't learn this until they've mastered register and janitor shifts. After that, they learn to make the doughnuts.
I capped out at decorator, never rising to yeaster or fryer, positions where you can either disfigure yourself or ruin an entire batch of dough. There's also a prep shift that does nothing but scoop frosting from one bin into another, crush Chick-O-Stick bars for a doughnut no one ever buys and mix 15 shades of red icing for the deco team's piping bags.
Finally, doughnuts are sold by a register jockey who tries to stuff cash into the drawer fast enough not to get fired.
Not one of those jobs is particularly undesirable. Voodoo's worst shift, by far, is the janitor, who spends eight hours washing and rewashing the same trash can-sized mixing bowl, mopping the grease-slick floors and wrangling an endless barrage of garbage.
But it gets worse. According to yet another piece of pink paper, it's the janitor's job to retrieve any pink box visible from the under the neon Voodoo Doll sign hanging in front of the store—problematic, since people who buy a dozen doughnuts at 4 am rarely know how to properly dispose of their trash. Janitors spend their nights jogging across Southwest 3rd Avenue to pick up stray boxes dumped behind Dante's.
The night-shift janitor is also the person most likely to have run-ins with the assorted drunks, hobos, trustafarians and meth-heads who loiter about the area that Voodoo's owners refer to as "the crotch of Portland."
As usual, the bag tears open.
"That's what y'all get!" she cackles as the bag vomits its contents across the sidewalk. "You should be donatin' that shit to charity, but oohhhhh no! You gotta be tellin' Jesus that his people ain't good enough for y'alls fancy, fancy doughnuts!"
I try to be nice. "If you'd like to play Robin Hood and distribute the wealth amongst your friends here, be my guest," I say. "There's plenty for all!"
"Fuck you!" she snaps at me. "You will die alone! Ya hear me? Then you can have all the goddamn doughnuts you want!"
She spins around, wobbles off her high heels and trips into the solar-powered trash compactor no one seems to want to put their garbage into. I sigh and go back to picking up trash. For this, I'm paid $10 an hour plus health and dental benefits and a share of the tips, which works out to about another $2 an hour.
Most restaurants strive to maximize profits by upselling patrons on mozzarella sticks to wring an extra dollar or two out of their wallets. The assumption is that paying customers are a finite resource. This is not the case at Voodoo Doughnut. When there's no shortage of people willing to fork over cash for your product, the point of sale becomes the bottleneck. Sales are dictated by how many people you can shoo out the door—not in.
This creates an odd dynamic. Unlike every other service-industry or retail job I've had—20 or so in my 30 years—at Voodoo you're allowed, even encouraged, to be abrupt with the customers. There are few regulars at Voodoo. Most need to be hustled through the sideshow so another mark can hand over a $20 from the lobby ATM. This is why Voodoo workers appear to be surly. If we smile, customers take their time.
I learned on my first day that graciousness is terribly inefficient. Early in my shift, I waited on an elderly woman from Indiana. She admired my patience and pleasant demeanor. I was proud of keeping my cool and helping her decide on a blueberry cake doughnut, which set her back $1.
My manager pulled me aside during my lunch break—I never saw Pogson at the shop, and saw Shannon only before or after his Monday night Karaoke From Hell gigs at Dante's—to show me a printed report for my till.
"Great job, buddy," he said. "I can see you're good with customers, which is awesome. But I need you to step it up. See Janni over here? She's a pro. She was dropping $1,000 by lunch at the end of her first week. No pressure, but, ya know, we really need you to get to that level. OK? OK!â
He rubbed my shoulders and ran back to the deco station. The guy next to him was taking his time decorating a tray of Voodoo Doll doughnuts to look like Harry Potter characters.
Within a week, I was much faster. And I started to enjoy screwing with the customers.
"Hi," squeaked a girl wearing a crucifix and a shirt that proclaimed her the maid of honor. "I'd like, uh, erm...the C and B?" She tried not to make eye contact while asking for a giant cream-filled doughnut shaped like a penis.
"Oh," I replied haughtily. "You mean the Cock and Balls? The doughnut that's shaped like a giant penis? Let me check and see if I can satisfy your appetite for that item—it sure is popular tonight!"
If we run out of Cock and Balls—which happens a lot on Friday nights—the customer will look at me like I just kicked a puppy. Even after I explain that it's just a phallic version of the Portland Cream, the damage is done. I've ruined their night. Off to the all-male revue they go with heavy hearts and a bag of Triple Chocolate Penetration doughnuts they'll probably give to a homeless person in a sleeping bag on the Burnside Bridge.
But the strategy to get people out the door—while maximizing the cash they leave behind—is even more intricate. The random Voodoo Dozen is priced cheaper than a regular dozen so cashiers can sidestep the customer's time-consuming indecision and get rid of soon-to-be-stale doughnuts.
And how do they know which doughnuts are nearly going bad? Ever notice the paper under the Memphis Mafia fritter on the speed racks is white while the paper under the Gay Bar is brown? They're color-coded by shift, so cashiers know which doughnuts are oldest. When you order a Voodoo Dozen at midnight, you're getting something off the white paper—made by the day shift that clocked out around 8 pm.
Pro tip: If you want the freshest doughnut at 9 am, get something that's on brown paper. If you want the freshest doughnut at 9 pm, get something on white paper.
"What the fuck, bro?" one of them yells at me.
"Yeah, dude," says a shirtless kid with dreadlocks who appears to be their leader. "We take care of shit on our own out here. Street justice, bro. That kid was just bein' a clown. We would've straightened him out right then and there. We don't need the cops."
The cops found the kid, cuffed him and called me to confirm his identity. I asked what would happen. "Well," a bike cop replied. "He's a minor, so we're trying to get a hold of his mom. He'll probably end up in juvenile detention for a few days. Who knows after that."
I spent the next two weeks looking over my shoulder, convinced "street justice" was coming for me—this was in July, just after a 70-year-old employee of the neighboring Portland Outdoor Store was assaulted with a skateboard.
I have since found a new gig at a coffeehouse in Laurelhurst with better pay, better hours and clientele who only get upset when the last slice of quiche disappears. There are no panhandlers and I get free food of sustenance. The only downside is I am required to be polite, no matter how long customers take to decide between a croissant and a bagel.
Meanwhile, back in the "Entertainment District," the Voodoo circus is still in full swing. This is what happens when one of the city's largest cash-only businesses sits in the seediest neighborhood in town. Because panhandlers know everyone stuck in Voodoo's slow-moving line has a pocketful of cash, they stalk the naive tourists like a pack of wolves. It's not uncommon to see a combination of buskers, druggies with makeshift signs and ungrateful kids from the suburbs all trying to give patrons the shakedown.
What the hobos don't get, the store does.
On a sunny Saturday, Voodoo rakes in piles of cash—literally. With four registers each taking in at least $1,000 in small bills on a busy shift, you have a mountain of greenbacks. I once creaked opened a door to find a team of managers feeding tall stacks of rumpled bills into a wheezing bill-counting machine. It looked like a scene from Scarface, but without the cocaine and machine guns.
"No one would believe this," I thought to myself.
"Close the door!" someone yelled.
I closed the door. Someone should post another pink sign.