A few weeks ago, when Charlottesville was rated among the “50 Best Places to Launch a Small Business,” little did we know that “Small” meant tiny—as in a 6′ x 10′ mobile donut truck. The editors of Money magazine gave Charlottesville’s small business climate props in part because of the presence of UVA’s Darden School of Business. And it turns out it’s not just biotech and software entrepreneurs with their sights set on oversubscribed IPOs that are tapping into the talent at our neighborhood B-school. Restaurantarama has learned that even Carpe Donut—a “microenterprise,” as owner Matt Rohdie refers to his two-year-old street vending and catering operation—stands to benefit from the business brains hanging around Darden.
“About six months ago, we tipped over to the point where we can make this business sustainable over time,” says Rohdie, who explains that Carpe Donut began with a $7,000 investment in a commercial donut maker that he and his wife, Jen, and kids initially would set up under a tent at festivals to peddle their from-scratch, almost entirely organic, apple-cider-based donuts. Since those early days, Carpe Donut has settled into its little red mobile unit and grown into three lines of business: 1. the street vending operation, including his regular Downtown Wednesday gig in the Wachovia parking lot where you can get a freshly-made donut with a cup of coffee or hot cider for $3; 2. special events such as Fridays After Five at the Pavilion; and 3. what Rohdie calls “microcatering,” where he charges a flat fee to show up and serve unlimited coffee and donuts for private parties. The latter has experienced the strongest growth over the last year.
“We’ve catered 25 events this year, including 14 weddings,” says Rohdie. He already has several weddings on the books for next year. “Donuts are the new cupcakes,” he says.
In the mobile unit, which Rohdie plumbed and wired himself, he’s able to churn out two donuts every six seconds if he had to, plus locally-roasted coffee, mulled apple-cider and Italian hot chocolate. He also can offer other small breakfast items such as scrambled eggs during his catering gigs, and because he’s such an efficient one-man operation, Rohdie says he can charge a fraction of what a typical catering outfit would for the same service.
With the small-scale systems he’s created, his focus on whole, local and organic ingredients (e.g., most of his eggs are from Polyface and his cider from a Front Royal farm) and his commitment to being a family-run business, Rohdie thinks he’s on to a franchise-able product or one ripe for a partner. “It doesn’t even have to be donuts. I could see a Carpe Taco. But it has to be owner-operated.”
It was during a Darden event he catered that Rohdie got the idea to seek student assistance with his growth plans. He put up a flyer on the student bulletin board, and two first-year Dardenites have already volunteered to help him develop his strategy.
In addition to street vending and catering, Carpe Donut has started wholesaling to other retailers, including Trailside Coffee in Crozet and Blue Moon Diner.
Music w/ a side of mac and cheese
As of last week, the old Gravity Lounge spot, which has already been hopping with music events under its new ownership and name—The Southern Café & Music Hall—officially is serving lunch five days a week, 11am-3pm, as well as a late night menu during events and Sunday brunch. The woman behind the kitchen operation is co-owner Lauren McRaven, founder of the Flat Take-Away Creperie.