Tory O’Haire makes doughnuts — for now — but has his sights set on changing the food culture in Grand Rapids. Photo by Matt Radick
Tory O’Haire grew up on farm-to-table dining, with the whole family involved in the cooking process.
“My trade is mostly farm-to-table before it was cool,” he said. “My family cooked very French, very Mediterranean, very intrinsic.”
O’Haire has brought that feel to Grand Rapids in an unusual form: doughnuts. His Propaganda Doughnuts opened in January at 117 S. Division Ave. and sells doughnuts and European-inspired pastries as fast as he can make them.
The sweets follow O’Haire’s philosophy that any food in moderation is OK, especially when made with local and organic ingredients and lower in sugar and fat than conventional pastries.
“I was raised on the philosophy of making quality foods and to eat conscientiously; no food should be entirely off limits,” he said.
The name, Propaganda, comes from that philosophy, too — or may be, depending on O’Haire’s mood. He said he likes to mold mysteries, and doughnuts and propaganda are two things “that have nothing to do with each other.”
On the other hand, it may be about trying to change people’s opinions about what doughnuts are.
“If doughnuts are something that are the ‘guilty’ thing — if doughnuts are evil, then I’ll open an evil doughnut shop,” he said. “The propaganda is changing the idea that doughnuts are something you’re not allowed to have.”
His passion isn’t just for doughnuts; it’s for good food, in general. The shop gave O’Haire his first chance to expose the community to trendy foods found elsewhere. He has started a company — TradeRoot Ventures — he said he hopes will bring many cultural trends to Grand Rapids.
“Grand Rapids is a great place, but it is cut off from the cultural flow,” he said. “I like to imagine opening that up and allowing the trade ship coming from afar, and saying, ‘Look at all these other things people are doing.’”
O’Haire said Propaganda has allowed him to have a sustainable, low-impact business with a minimal financial commitment. Later this year, he plans to open a “late-night ramen shop” next door to Propaganda Doughnuts. He said he has several more culinary ideas up his sleeve.
“Doughnuts are kind of the jumping-off point,” he said. “Unlike trendy foods like cupcakes and chocolate bars and other pop-up trends across the country, the twist with doughnuts is a sense of timelessness.”
He said most people have had the urge on a Saturday morning to have a doughnut with their cup of coffee, so why not add some gourmet flair to the simple pastry?
“I could make terrible doughnuts, and people would still buy them,”O’Haire said. “But I can layer on the fact that we’re still doing really cool stuff. I can interest people who don’t care that much about doughnuts but like good food. It isn’t just another gas station selling doughnuts.”
Although he said there have been some complaints about the limited hours — 8 a.m. to noon daily, and 8 p.m. to midnight Thursday through Sunday — he has no plans to extend them at this point. O’Haire said he has tracked the walkups during closed hours to make sure he isn’t losing money, and the result, he said, was that he’d lose more money by staying open extra hours.
The momentum for Propaganda Doughnuts started through several “underground”startups O’Haire has worked on. The first was The Starving Artist, a private chef business that allowed him to cook and learn how to run a business. A few years ago, he began the Full Moon Supper Club, a monthly dinner party based on a culinary theme not available at restaurants in Grand Rapids.
He said the supper club can attract more than 30 people a month, often including strangers he’s never met.
“It allowed me not only to practice cooking on a large scale, but networking,” he said. “I have a captive audience of random strangers eating my cooking and talking about ideas and food.”
He said the doughnut shop wasn’t started because of a passion for doughnuts, but a passion for food of a certain caliber and philosophy.
“I want food that makes you feel good, tastes good and is always something interesting,”he said. “I love bringing really Old World techniques or classical approaches that people won’t recognize and say, ‘That’s a cool thing.’”