Taking the Leap with Donut Love

A Seacoast cop trades the badge for a bakery

The handmade potato donuts have a delightful irregularity to their shape.

Photo by Liz Davenport

Mike Oliveira stands in his home kitchen surrounded by eight dozen doughnuts. On his limited counter space, he balances cooling sheets, bags of flour, powdered sugar and one of his three sons’ forgotten rubber ducks. He works with a seemingly unconscious precision, dusting each cookie-cutter circle of bright blue Maine-blueberry-infused dough in a light coating of flour, then he enlarges the perfect cutouts into wide, donut-shaped cylinders. Without breaking the rhythm of his work, he reflects on a childhood spent watching his mother bake in their kitchen and her dream of creating a family business.

Last September, weeks before Oliveira’s youngest son was born, he lost his mother to cancer. With 12 weeks of paternity leave from the police force and a wish to pay homage to his mother, the North Hampton native began baking. There was one catch — he’d never made a donut in his life.

As it turns out, he’s pretty good at it.

When he fried his first donut about 10 months ago, he and his wife Steph couldn’t have imagined that the experiment would change their lives. Now, less than a year later, they fulfilled his late mother’s dream by opening their North Hampton shop, Donut Love. It’s dedicated to her memory.

The journey from officer to baker wasn’t exactly a planned route. “We had no idea what we were doing,” says Oliveira, who figured everything out on the fly as word of his donuts spread.

In the beginning, Oliveira went from selling donuts at a farmstand across the street to personally delivering his goods right to customers’ doors. He found that clothing-sized gift boxes were the perfect fit for the larger door-to-door orders, a step up from the Hannaford baked goods boxes he used at the farmstand. He was making three types of dough — cake, traditional yeast and Maine potato — and bringing Steph, the baby and the 6-year-old twins along wherever he went.

They added farmers markets as far away as Amherst to the weekly routine, but soon the Oliveiras couldn’t make enough to keep up with demand. Lines would form at the markets, and some potential customers were left donut-less. One day in Newmarket, seven dozen doughnuts sold out in minutes. Gradually, they increased production to 24 dozen, and even then the donuts were gone in under five hours. All of this was done out of their house, not in a professional kitchen. Oliveira was frying just two doughnuts at a time in a small countertop fryer while Steph, baby in hand, glazed them by his side.

“It seemed like within 48 hours it went completely viral,” says Oliveira. At that point the small home kitchen operation was at a crossroads. His paternity leave was almost over, and Steph’s own fitness consulting business needed her attention. In March, Oliveira made the decision to leave his 15-year career as a police officer behind and focus everything on his newfound passion.

Taking some advice from the owner of the Holy Donut in Maine, which specializes in potato donuts, he focused on making one perfect potato donut. Store space was secured, a $10,000 fryer was purchased (the counter fryer has since been retired), and his donuts began appearing in cafés and restaurants around the Seacoast.

Donut Love’s donuts are made with only Maine potatoes and are free of artificial preservatives and flavoring. Everything but the sugar is sourced locally from New England. You won’t find the uniform, perfect round shape you’d expect at a commercial store. Oliveira makes his donuts by hand, which gives them a pleasing, slightly irregular shape (though always round) that lets you know no machine dropped these onto a conveyor belt.

The donuts are dense, perfectly sweetened and without any unpleasant oily residue. This is in part due to the quality of the ingredients, but also because Oliveira fries the dough in canola oil instead of an animal-based lard.

Though their products are viral-attention-worthy, Donut Love is about more than just a really good sweet treat. The Oliveiras explain that they want to pay it forward, and will offer advice to anyone with hopes of opening a small business. The shop itself is decorated with the signatures of everyone involved in the process of making the shop a reality, the walls list the farms that supply ingredients, and the counter tells the story of the history and people who made Oliveira’s mother’s dream possible.

Opening the shop was certainly a big risk, but it’s one that Oliveira took with confidence.

“You have to take the leap. If I said, let me hang on and let me try and figure this out, I wouldn’t have worked as hard, I wouldn’t have gone all in,” he says. “I had to commit myself to saying, ‘That street is closed, it’s time to go forward,’ and I haven’t looked back.”

He wasn’t alone in his belief that it would all work out. “I just knew that it had legs and it was going to run,” says Steph. “Even if there was a lot of risk, I always felt in my heart that it was the right thing to do.”

Perhaps a little bit of fate was involved as well. Donut Love is located directly across the street from where Oliveira grew up, he signed the intent-to-lease paperwork on Mother’s Day weekend, and the move-in date fell on his mom’s birthday. All signs point toward something that was meant to be.

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