Doughnut Dreams

By Kathleen Seaman

Nightlight Donuts makes the transition from food truck to brick-and-mortar

If you’re going to open a doughnut shop, you might think you’d need to know how to make doughnuts. You’d be wrong. At least if you’re Wacoan twins Jackson and Eric Wren.

While living in New York City, the Wren brothers fell in love with a particular croissant-style doughnut sold in their neighborhood. When they decided to move back home, they were inspired to open a shop of their own in Waco. Not ones to let a little thing like the lack of a recipe stop them, the Wrens enlisted the help of a croissant expert in New York, via a Craigslist ad, and worked with him to develop their secret recipe. In 2018, they opened the Nightlight Donuts food truck to great success, winning Waco’s Best Doughnuts three years in a row.

Even though they started with a food truck, a storefront has always been their goal, and this October, they got to see that dream come to fruition. Amid ongoing construction and staff training, Wacoan’s Kathleen Seaman spoke with Jackson about the wonderful support they’ve received from the community, how the pandemic temporarily stalled their operations and the surprising deliciousness of a maple bacon doughnut.

Nightlight Donuts & Coffee is located at 6500 Woodway Drive, and the grand opening was October 23.

WACOAN: What led you to start a doughnut food truck?

Wren: We graduated from Baylor in 2015, and we started a business while at Baylor called Dapper Bear [Clothiers]. It was a collegiate apparel company. We did that for [another] two years after we graduated and sold it and wondered, ‘What are we going to do?’ Eric and I had dreamed about writing for [‘Saturday Night Live’] for years, so we took the money we had from selling the business and moved to New York City, truly on a whim. ‘Let’s just go and see.’ We started trying to get into the writing scene there. It was super fun.

Just by chance, we lived above a doughnut shop in the Chelsea area. It wasn’t really any special doughnut shop. It was just one of those mom and pop doughnut shops. Not famous. But they had a croissant doughnut. They only had one. It was glazed. Probably a month into living there, we tried it. It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is the best doughnut I’ve ever had in my life.’ For the next nine months, until we ended up moving back [to Waco], we went there every day. We were obsessed with it.

The reason we ended up moving back — I had thought about law school for a while, and I got a good offer for Baylor. So, I was like, all right, I’m going to go. And Eric was like, ‘I’m not going to stay here by myself. I’m going to move back to Waco too.’ So, we thought, what could Eric do and what could we do? Because we both love business. I never really wanted to practice law. I just like it to the extent it will help with what I want to do in business.

We were like let’s start a doughnut truck and see if we could make a croissant doughnut [successful] in Waco. But we also have no food background at all. I’m not a cook by any means. So, all right. We need a recipe.

About a month before we moved back, we thought, let’s see if we can find someone here [in New York] who’s a croissant expert. We put an ad up on Craigslist for a croissant chef, which feels like it would solicit the creepiest potential people ever. Our first response was from a guy in Brooklyn who had owned a croissant tricycle in Paris. Basically, he rode around areas of Paris and sold croissants for the day. That was his living.

He had moved to Brooklyn, so we went over and met him. Really interesting character. And we started working with him for like six weeks, right before we moved back. On the front end, we were like, we’re starting a doughnut shop, and we want a recipe that would be a good croissant but also a doughnut. That’s how we ended up getting the recipe. We ended up buying it from him. We bought it, moved back, and I started law school the next month.

Eric and I raised some money from friends of friends and family to pay for the doughnut truck. Pretty much my third week of law school was when we started.

WACOAN: What year was that?

Wren: 2018. May of 2018. We moved to New York in 2017.

WACOAN: And you and Eric are twins, correct?

Wren: Yeah. We’re identical, mirror-image twins. My hair goes this way. His hair goes that way.

WACOAN: With your being in law school, what did the food truck operations look like at the time?

Wren: This was Eric’s full-time thing while I was in law school. I graduate law school [in October.] I’m very ready to be done at this point. We were supposed to open [the store] a month ago, but opening day is pretty much falling the day of my final. I just have to pass to get out of law school.

When I started law school, the first year was pretty tough. Eric ran 80% of the operations. I would get up at 3 a.m. and go to the kitchen and cook. By 5:30 a.m., I would go home and study. Eric would run it through the day. We worked out of a tiny [commissary] kitchen.

WACOAN: And you would make the doughnuts?

Wren: Eric and I would make the doughnuts. At the very beginning. The Waco community was awesome. I think they were like, ‘Oh, this is cool. These twins are starting it.’ It was just a really nice, generous gesture for them to come out in the very beginning. I don’t think anyone was necessarily like, ‘I need to get a croissant doughnut.’ Anyway, they came out in the very beginning, and they liked it, so it started picking up. Eric hired four people, then it grew to six people, then it grew to 15 people.

With running a food truck, you’re only allowed to park [at the locations designated by your business’s city permit], so you have to pick ahead of time — we want to park outside of Barnett’s and Dichotomy, or here. And you have to get permission from every business owner within 100 feet and all of this stuff. We didn’t really have many options of where to go, so we had to choose from the very beginning, this is where we’re going to park. If we were selling doughnuts at Barnett’s or Dichotomy, we’d have to get there like an hour and half in advance to fight for parking. We got it done, but it was a messy operation in the beginning.

WACOAN: With the opening of the brick-and-mortar, where is the food truck now?

Wren: We have an office offsite. We call it an office. It’s literally a warehouse, kind of sketchy. But we’re primarily using [the truck] for catering now. We’ll still have it at the farmers market. That’s a big sales day every week, so we’ll still do that.

But we have a lot of weddings reaching out to us now. It’s interesting. Some people are forgoing cakes for doughnuts now. So catering for weddings and private events is really how we’re using it now.

WACOAN: When did you start making plans to open the store?

Wren: This has been in our mind, honestly, since day one. Since the day we said let’s start a doughnut truck. Let’s see if it can [succeed]. We were like, ‘We’re going to do this for like five years as a truck, and depending on how that goes, we’ll open up a storefront.’ It’s been farther off in our minds, but people came out, and we’re doing better more quickly than we thought. It’s fun that it’s happening sooner than we thought.

Eric lives in Chicago now. He’s at [Northwestern University]. He’s in grad school at The Family Institute up there. He moved up there, and I thought, I want to open a storefront. Hopefully he’ll move back [after graduation] and we can keep working together, but I don’t know what his plans will be.

He wants to be a therapist. He is the most sincere human being in the whole world. He’s my closest person, but we share the majority of friends, and people are like, ‘I just end up telling Eric everything.’ He’s really good at understanding people. My dream is that we build this into something that is franchise-able, and he would come on as our chief of people.

But a year ago, we started moving forward. We got a broker and started looking at properties. We came across this property probably nine months ago. Do you remember what this used to be?

WACOAN: Club Alazan?

Wren: Yes! There was a club, and this used to be the parking lot. We became pretty serious in January of this year. We got this location and got financing from a bank right when [the pandemic] happened. It was a pretty interesting time to be like, all right, we’re moving forward with this.

WACOAN: With your brother in graduate school, is it just you running it?

Wren: Yeah. I’m the point person, and then we have Kate Kooiker [as the chief operating officer]. She’s the ops-minded person. We hired a pretty big group of people.

We had our application open for six days. We thought we’d probably get 115, 120 applications. We got over 450 applications. We pared it down to 150 people; we did interviews and from that we ended up hiring 44. Our group of people is super cool. They come from all different backgrounds.

WACOAN: What will your hours of operation be?

Wren: We’re going to be open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weeknights and until midnight on weekends. So we have a lot of spaces during the day that we have to fill. Then people will get up here at 4 a.m. every morning and start prepping doughnuts. Early. Very early.

WACOAN: When you showed me the kitchen earlier, you said you used to make the doughnuts on a tabletop fryer.

Wren: We started with a tabletop fryer for the past two years. It was a 16-by-16-[inch] fryer. We had to put them in individually and flip them with a spatula. It took such a long time.

WACOAN: How many could you make at a time in the tabletop fryer?

Wren: Twelve. Our kitchen, it was tiny. There was no room for another fryer. We were tapping out at 98 an hour [with the tabletop fryer]. And that was when you were really proficient at doing everything before, prepping, knowing when to flip it. We were having to eye it. It was hit or miss in the beginning, and then we finally got our staff really good at eyeing it and being like, ‘OK, this color of brown, [it’s time to] flip it.’ On farmers market mornings, we would have people getting there at 2, 2:30 in the morning to start cooking for a 9 o’clock start.

WACOAN: How many did you typically sell at the farmers market?

Wren: It was usually like 500 doughnuts and then doughnut holes from the leftovers. We’d normally sell out pretty quick. We just didn’t have the capacity to bring in anymore. We’d be there at 9 [a.m.] and a lot of times, we’d sell out by 10:45 or 11.

WACOAN: What is the doughnut making process like now? How many will you be able to make an hour?

Wren: Now, once we make the dough, it will proof in [a commercial proofing cabinet], then we stick it on trays, load it [onto the commercial fryer], then it will automatically come through the conveyor belt. It fries it, flips it. We’ll have a setting to where it’s fried exactly how much we want it to be. Now, we can make 1,200 doughnuts an hour. Big difference.

We’ll do all of our dough prep [in a back room off the kitchen]. We’ll have two pretty large prep tables right in the middle. A lot of our ingredients go in the big walk-in [refrigerator]. So that’s where all the dough prep’s happening. We also put the prep back here because that’s our proprietary process, our secret process. Figured we’d keep it behind closed doors.

WACOAN: Last time I had your doughnuts at the food truck, you had a glaze, cinnamon sugar and a chocolate croissant doughnut. What does the menu look like now?

Wren: We decided all across the board, we want to keep our menu extremely simple operationally. We have a double-lane drive-thru out here. We basically just watched Chick-fil-A. We’d sit in the parking lot like creeps and count how many cars would come through and how they do everything. We want to be able to get people though super quick. Our thought is once someone gets to [a certain point in the parking lot], on the high end, it will be four minutes from that point to when you’re pulling out of drive-thru.

WACOAN: That’s the goal? Four minutes.

Wren: I’m a little hesitant to say that because I’m like, ‘Oh, shoot,’ but we’ll get there.

But our menu, part of being able to be really efficient, we’re keeping it to six croissant doughnuts. We’re going to have those same three, then beignet-style, which is pretty much like powdered sugar with a little secret ingredient added in there, a glazed sprinkle or chocolate sprinkle (we’re counting that as one) and a season special. Did you ever have the maple bacon?

WACOAN: I’ve had a maple doughnut before, but not from you guys.

Wren: People were like, I don’t know if I’d like that. But we put bacon on the doughnut.

WACOAN: That makes sense. I always eat bacon by dipping it in maple syrup.

Wren: Really? Interesting. At first, I was like, I don’t think that will be good. But it’s so good. I honestly should have taken your method way sooner because I’m definitely about the bacon with the sweet.

WACOAN: Well, yeah, because if you ever have bacon with your pancakes or French toast, the syrup gets on it. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve eaten bacon with syrup.

Wren: So you’ve done this forever?

WACOAN: Yeah. I just thought, that’s just how it comes, right?

Wren: I love that. It was the secretary at the law school, [Meredith Meyer], who I’m good friends with. She’s kind of like the mother of the law school. She was like, ‘Y’all need to do something with bacon.’ She kept telling me. And I was like, ‘All right, fine. We’ll try it.’ It sold out immediately.

WACOAN: People love bacon.

Wren: Yeah. Crazy. We’re also having coffee. The brand we’re using is Intelligentsia Coffee. They’re based out of Chicago, but they have a big presence in New York. There was a small Intelligentsia coffee shop where Eric and I would go drink coffee and talk about our plans for a doughnut empire, so that’s how we ended up choosing that brand.

WACOAN: Where did the Nightlight name come from?

Wren: I was driving to Austin one night. There was terrible traffic, and it became this absolute standstill where people were getting out of their cars. I was on I-35 just chilling on the hood of my car. Across the highway was a doughnut shop, and it was closed. It was like 6 p.m. at night, and I was like, why aren’t doughnut shops open at night? I think if you like doughnuts you’d like them at night.

WACOAN: Any time.

Wren: Yeah. I think the latest Shipley stays open is like 1 or 2 [in the afternoon] and that’s it. So I was in my car, I wrote it down — it’s so cliché. I have this journal where I keep ideas. Some of them aren’t good at all. But I wrote down the name Nightlight Donuts. That was the year I graduated from Baylor. Immediately, that night, I bought the domain name, so we just held on to it.

WACOAN: The doughnut you had in New York that inspired it all. Is that still the best doughnut you’ve ever had?

Wren: Is it arrogant if I think ours is better? I don’t know actually. The one in New York is unbelievable. Cronuts are a pretty big deal up on the East Coast. [Dominique Ansel Bakery] trademarked the name ‘cronut,’ so we can’t call ours that. We have to call them croissant doughnuts.

WACOAN: Is there anyone that you and Eric have leaned into for support or business advice?

Wren: I went to the business school at Baylor, so I think there’s probably four professors who, at this point, are probably screening my phone calls because I call them so often. They were super helpful, especially with raising that pre-capital and getting financing.

And honestly, I feel weird saying, ‘I created this,’ because it was so many of our friends and connections who were like, ‘I’ll design your logo. I’ll help you with the menu. I’ll help you figure out this.’ It’s been this big collective of friends and friends of friends that have done a ton of stuff for us, which is awesome.

WACOAN: Did you bake at all growing up?

Wren: Oh, my god. No. I’m trying to become good at cooking. I spend too much money at Chick-fil-A.

WACOAN: What do your parents think of their nonbaking sons now owning a doughnut shop?

Wren: They’re awesome. My dad is an attorney, and he’s taught at the law school for the last 15 years. It’s interesting I’m getting on with law school, and I’m going to make doughnuts. And he’s like, ‘Good. Go for it. We believe in you.’

WACOAN: Has the pandemic affected the store opening at all?

Wren: We hit an enormous hurdle in March. Our original financing got pulled because of COVID. We were left with half of a structured building and no financing for it. That’s when my parents stepped in.

The main thing, it shut down the food truck completely. For good reason, Waco shut down a lot of the commissary kitchens here. We have to have a commissary kitchen that’s health code approved. Since March, we haven’t made a single doughnut. Today, [at staff training], will be the first day since March.

Kate was at Magnolia, and she’s a genius. I wanted her to work with us, and I recruited her for a year. ‘Please come work with us.’ Finally, she agreed, and she quit her job literally the night before our financing got pulled. I have someone on salary who has left a dream job. I have no financing. We’re shut down. We basically exhausted the remainder of our cash to float us.

Then one of mine and Eric’s biggest disagreements was location. We looked at the downtown area because that’s more of our vibe, but with zoning, you can’t have drive-thrus unless it’s grandfathered in. You can only have drive-thrus on I-35 frontage, and with all the construction, I was like, ‘We can’t do that.’ Eric thought we should be downtown. I was like, ‘We have to have a drive-thru.’ This was pre-COVID. I could not have seen this coming. We finally agreed we’ll have it here for the drive thru, and two months later is when COVID hit. It’s really nice because I don’t anticipate, at least in the beginning, a ton of people coming [inside the store]. Drive-thru is going to be the majority of our business.