Parts Town interviews Lee Donuts owner Jim Stoecker
What’s the most popular item on your menu?
Is there one item people order more than others?
Probably the long johns.
To what do you attribute your success?
We still make donuts in the overnight (hours). We’re old school—we’ll start anywhere from 9 p.m.-midnight. The donuts are much more fresh (than other donut shops).
You were in the Chicago Tribune earlier this year, talking about how road construction sabotaged business where you are (Libertyville, IL).
I bought the shop three months ago, February 1. I knew what was going on, so it was expected, but I guess I didn’t realize how bad it was. I had to roll with the punches.
It’s only been a few short months since you took over—was that the toughest challenge you faced?
Learning how to make the donuts, and how to make them consistently, was the biggest challenge. The previous owner … made donuts here for 18 years, 364 nights a year, believe it or not, and he really didn’t have anything written down. So, me and the two guys I hired basically had to learn everything, sort of like tribal lore: we had to watch him do it, we had to write it down, we had to try it, and then he worked with us for a whole month … but then after he left, we did have some challenges with consistency.
Did the customers notice?
Oh, yes. Yes. We had some problems where we weren’t making very good donuts for a while. Very inconsistent, and some of the harder ones to make. So, yes, I think we did upset some customers, and probably lost some. I’m hoping, though, they’ll give us a chance and come back, because we’re pretty good and consistent now.
It was a friendly deal; the man was happy to help us, but unfortunately he went to Australia for two months to visit his mother and his siblings. So he won’t be back until sometime this month; he’s going to come back and check on us and hopefully fix anything that we still haven’t got back on track, although we think we’ve got pretty much everything back on track. For a little while there, we were having some problems.
A lot of focus right now is on the concept of gourmet donuts. If you drive into the Loop (downtown Chicago), different “high end” donut places seem to be popping up more frequently. It’s a thing now…
I think it’s an interesting phenomenon. I mean, donuts make people happy. People walk in, they see the donuts, and they smile; it’s almost like they can’t help themselves. When we have leftovers at the end of the day, I take them to area businesses and drop them off, and when somebody realizes you’re handing them a box of free donuts, they just can’t help but smile. It’s not the healthiest food in the world–everything in moderation–but it does make people happy, and I think it makes people think of their youth. It’s comfort food.
Obviously some creative people have taken it to the next level, or maybe the next two levels, and are doing some interesting, creative things. We hope to do some of that in the future; I’m doing a few innovative things here, so far. Right now, we’re just focusing on making the same great donuts they’ve had here for 25 years, and have developed a following.
Since you’ve only been running Lee Donuts for three months, what advice would you give to someone who wants to buy or start up a restaurant? Is there a translatable piece of advice you can share?
Well, I’ve never been brave enough to start something from scratch. This is actually the second restaurant I bought—I also own an Italian restaurant in Highwood (IL) that I’ve owned for six years. Taking over an existing restaurant that has a following is tough enough, but I think the reason 90 percent of new restaurants fail is because to start something from new, to try to get people to change their purchasing habits, it’s very, very difficult. Even though I think I have some ideas, that maybe I could start something from scratch, I’m more comfortable with the notion that at least you start with some customers, try to keep them, and then build from there. I successfully did it with my Italian restaurant, and I’m trying to do that here.
What role does social media play in your efforts?
Well, I do have Facebook pages. I can’t say that I know how to use them as effectively as I should. I do use email. In my other business, I have a 1900 person email list that allows me to communicate very effectively with my loyal customer base. I use Constant Contact, and now they have a feature where when I send out an email, I can also post it on Facebook, which is pretty nice. I really don’t know how much better that gets the word out, but it seems to do something.
124 Peterson Rd, Libertyville, IL 60048