Federal Donuts: A hole lot more?

The new seasoning blends for the Sansom Street chicken and doughnuts are, even a month after opening, in the midst of endless tweaks.
The new seasoning blends for the Sansom Street chicken and doughnuts are, even a month after opening, in the midst of endless tweaks.
Posted: November 01, 2012

No one can accuse Michael Solomonov of lacking vision for the future of Federal Donuts, the quirky fried chicken and doughnut concept he and his partners just expanded to a second location in Center City with a debut - with live webcam streaming of the line - that has at times bordered on foodie hysteria.

"I just want to get big enough," says the chef, who also co-owns Zahav, "where we can have delivery guys in chicken suits scooting around town on mopeds fueled by recycled fryer oil. How awesome would that be?"

That screwball fantasy speaks to the unconventional approach that has more or less defined and guided the rise of the unlikely success that is Federal Donuts. A mashup of seemingly random draws - cheffy takes on fried chicken dusted with everything from za'atar to buttermilk ranch powder, crazy doughnuts glazed in Creamsicle icing or tossed in exotic "Apollonia" sugar, plus serious coffee - it was launched on a whim by five partners a year ago in a previously obscure little South Philly storefront at the corner of Second and Manton Streets.

But to those who have seen that original 300-square-foot kitchen take off, inspiring pilgrimages to Pennsport by everyone from devoted locals (egged on, no doubt, by partner Felicia D'Ambrosio's masterful Twitter feed @FederalDonuts counting down remaining birds) to a hit parade of national press, the opening of the Sansom Street location heralds the beginning of an intriguing new chapter.

The expansion (both in hours and production) has removed the element of scarcity that was always part of the allure, although an entirely different menu of new flavors for Sansom Street adds another clever wrinkle to keep both stores relevant. But more to the point, is this the beginning of a FedNuts empire bent on world chicken-and-doughnut domination as America's next great chain?

"We've all felt that possibly we have something that really has magic to it," said co-owner Bob Logue, who also owns Bodhi Coffee with Federal Donuts partner Tom Henneman. "We haven't formally game-planned what our next move is going to be, but we're confident there will be one."

Co-owner Steven Cook (also Solomonov's partner in Zahav, Percy Street Barbecue, and soon-to-open Citron and Rose) concedes that the next phase has begun: "In my mind, we need to show we can open at least two a year. Maybe we'll have 10 by 2015?"

In a culinary landscape that has seen "vanity shacks" become the national rage, as high-end restaurateurs give stylized updates to comfort foods ranging from burgers (Shake Shack, Bobby's Burger Palace) to chicken wings (Andy Ricker's Pok Pok Wing), tacos (Jose Garces' Guapos truck), and designer doughnuts (Portland, Ore.'s Voodoo; Chicago's Doughnut Vault), the notion isn't far-fetched.

"It's so idiosyncratic. I can't think of another chicken and doughnut place in America," says Ed Levine, founder of the national food website Serious Eats. "But if I had a dollar for every chef who wanted to design a replicable concept, I'd be a wealthy man. If I had a dollar for every one of those that was successful, I'd have about $5. It's so hard."

Merely mastering consistency in what is still essentially an artisan product provides its own challenge.

"The doughnut batter is different every day - I live in fear of that," says Steven Cook. "There's nowhere to hide when you have a bad doughnut."

Cook isn't joking. The freshly fried doughnuts tossed in strawberry-fennel sugar on my first visit to the new location were heavy and leaden.

"It could have been 10 possible different things: the oil level, the batter's not the right temperature, or it wasn't well-mixed," he said. "Diagnosing that is hard."

The new seasoning blends for Sansom Street's chicken and doughnuts are also, even a month after opening, in the midst of endless tweaks. More cardamom and "mocha" chocolate were added to the Turkish coffee sugar-dusted fresh doughnuts since my visit, when, coincidentally, I noted (to myself) that the coffee's bitter notes were too pronounced. All the chicken dry-spice blends were borderline too salty, although the BBQ-like Cowboy Coffee and Shabazzi, a cilantro-sumac-green chile blend reminiscent of spicy green Israeli schug, have potential to be new classics. The dill-pickle chicken glaze needed more cling and assertive vinegary tang.

The fresh-fried doughnuts were perfectly light on my second visit. The more elaborate, preglazed "fancy" doughnuts, though, were already in fine form from the start, my colorful assortment box vivid with icing whimsies including spicy peanut butter striped with reduced Concord grape, brown butter molasses studded with toasted pecan nuggets, intense mint chocolate and a bacon dripping-maple glaze that tasted like the doughnut version of a lumberjack's pancake breakfast.

But Federal Donuts' biggest challenge in stepping up to mainstream success, Levine says, may be the very essence of its popularity among local adventure eaters: Its chef-driven eccentric flavors, from coconut-curried chicken to pomegranate-Nutella doughnuts, are anything but mainstream.

"The flavors are challenging, which is laudable," Levine says. "But it's exactly what the Shake Shack is not. There's nothing challenging about the Shake Shack, which connects to people in an emotionally resonant way. I'd argue that za'atar-flavored fried chicken is not something which many people are connected to. Its appeal is not universal."

Indeed, the mood of my three visits varied drastically depending upon my companions. My wife, who tends toward traditional classics, found little on this menu to embrace, shuddering at the intrusion of passion fruit in the teriyaki glaze. My friend the Latin music producer lit up the moment he heard the soundtrack of Fela's funky African brass bouncing off the gold-painted ceiling, which set the tone for both his appreciation of the "unconventional" flavors, and his verdict on the moist meat and shatteringly crisp Korean-style chicken crust: "Unbelievable."

For my neighbor who lives in a gluten-free home, our chicken-and-doughnut feast at the South Philly original was quite simply: "Best. Lunch. Ever!"

The insistence on separate flavors at the different locations only raises the difficulty factor of replicating the concept further. Cook, who keeps a file on his phone of daydreamed doughnut possibilities, concedes it's unlikely they could sustain that level of compulsive creativity through 10 stores.

It was more a "preemptive response," he said, to anyone who might accuse these accomplished restaurateurs of "selling out."

The irony, though, isn't lost on Cook that after a decade devoted to the exacting details of fine dining (landing one of Philly's few four-bell ratings at the Israeli jewel Zahav), this oddball chicken-and-doughnut nook has potential to go big-time: "This might be what puts my kids through college."

"We make so many deliberate decisions all the time, but this [venture] was so random," Solomonov agrees. "That's what's so funny. We make a lot of people happy here because it's fun and completely silly."

The delivery guys in chicken suits on biofueled mopeds cannot be far behind.


Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.

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