How Duck Donuts went from unknown start-up to an East Coast essential that includes a prime location on Newark’s Main Street
When Robin Griffith got the call from Russ DiGilio about opening a donut shop together in the Outer Banks, he paused.
“He said ‘donuts’ and I put the phone away from my ear and thought, ‘Donuts—do I wanna do donuts?’ I’ve done everything in food service but donuts,” Griffith laughs, while recalling that conversation of 12 years ago.
Both Delaware County, Pa. natives, DiGilio and Griffith met in 1992 while working in the assisted-living business; DiGilio owned and operated several facilities nationally and Griffith owned a consulting company, working primarily in food service.
In 2005, DiGilio found the inspiration to venture in a new direction while vacationing in the Outer Banks with friends and family during Memorial Day weekend.
“We were reminiscing about boardwalk-style, hole-in-the- wall-type donuts that are made to order,” DiGilio says. “We realized that there were no donut shops at all in the Outer Banks at that time. So, we thought it would be fun to see if we could make a go with this.”
From there, DiGilio says he and his wife worked to flesh out vital details, eventually deciding to name the company after the nearby town of Duck, N.C. ?
But as they were piecing together the fundamentals of the business, DiGilio says he realized he needed some help.
“I am not a foodie,” he says, explaining why Griffith came to mind. “Robin worked for me and my management company—he was responsible for dining services for our seniors. So, I called him one day.”
After Griffith agreed to come aboard, the two partnered and got right to work on building the business from the ground up, then moved on to establishing recipes.
“I, being the foodie, ordered in products from manufacturers,” Griffith says, describing the varieties of mixes, icings and other ingredients needed to experiment.
Since the business was still in its early stages, Griffith had to improvise and use the kitchen in his home in Fair Hill, Md.
“At that point, I was operating at the office in my home. So I’d have 50 pounds of mix and 20- and 40-pound tubs of icing being delivered to my door,” he says, noting that he even bought a donut fryer.
The experimentation soon moved to their first store in Kitty Hawk, where DiGilio and a few staff members they had hired were also testing recipes.
“My wife kicked me and the operation out of the house because I had the whole place smelling like donuts,” Griffith says.
After months of recipe trials and research, they settled on what would become their characteristic formula of made-to-order vanilla cake donuts, deep-fried and topped with various drizzles and dips—a process patrons are encouraged to watch.
By 2007, they opened their first two stores in Kitty Hawk and Duck, to very little fanfare.
“It was very slow. We didn’t make a dime for over two years,” Griffith says. “But I smelled it coming,” he says, without noting the pun.
Success did come—but not without a little work. Some patrons had to be persuaded.
“They’d walk in and they’d look for traditional rack donuts and we didn’t have any,” says Griffith.
“Sometimes, they’d stand around and start to walk out and we’d have to catch them and convince them to come back.”
Griffith says that, after trying a donut, “They’d walk out the door, make a left or a right, and we would sit there and count until the door flew open again.”
And the doors kept flying open.
Within a few years, Duck Donuts began to grow in popularity, ultimately earning what both Griffith and DiGilio describe as a “cult following” in the Outer Banks, then spreading throughout the East Coast and prompting the opening of their first franchise in Williamsburg, Va., in 2013.
Today, there are more than 100 Duck Donuts in more than 15 states—reaching as far west as Texas, as far south as Florida and as far north as New York.
Among those locations is Griffith’s own franchise in Newark, which he opened in July of 2015 after its predecessor, the Melt Down, folded months before.
As a former Newark resident, Griffith knew that this real estate was not only prime, it was coveted. For more than four decades, the building was also home to the Post House—a northern Delaware staple.
“I actually ate in the Post House the day before it closed and it was really sad,” he says. “I had gone and sat at that counter, on those stools, numerous times.”
Once the space freed, Griffith made his move. “I just had a desire to, if the opportunity came up, to place one here where I lived,” he says. “I still, to this day, enjoy standing behind the counter in the Newark store and taking orders, talking to customers about how they found out about our concept.”
Today the building houses the only Duck Donuts in the state, serving customizable donuts coated, topped and drizzled in maple icing, bacon pieces, hot fudge and more.
The store also boasts new collaborations with Breyers ice cream on donut sundaes and unique creations like the OBX Breakfast Sandwich Donut—bacon, egg and cheese between two donuts, topped with maple drizzle and chopped bacon.
In 2015, while DiGilio opened corporate offices in Mechanicsburg, Pa., Griffith retired as the franchise’s president to devote full time to the Newark location.
Now, 10 years after breaking ground on their first store in 2007, DiGilio and Griffith are proud of what they have achieved and optimistic about the future.
“From day one, we said that this should be a fun thing—both for the people who come to the store and for us,” Griffith says. “From day one, it has been fun.”