Columns Magazine

A keen eye for design drives a doughnut dynasty

Brothers Michael and Mark Klebeck, the brains behind the Seattle-based doughnut maker, Top Pot, definitely have something going on. More than 10 years since opening their first café, people are still going nuts for their product. Today, there are 18 Top Pot cafés; the doughnuts are sold in grocery stores from here to Southern California; and they’re available via delivery, through Amazon Fresh, as well. Howard Schultz liked their fried dough so much that he inked a deal to sell Top Pot doughnuts in his Starbucks stores for several years. But if you ask Michael Klebeck, ’93, why they’ve been successful, his answer isn’t necessarily what you’d expect. On a recent fall afternoon, he ponders the question from a corner table in Top Pot store #3, in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood. He gazes at the wall-to-wall birch bookshelves, filled with old hardbounds. He mentions the patio out front and explains how it was laid not with typical bricks but with slimmer, more unusual, Roman bricks. He notes the funky metal patio umbrellas, tilted at alluring angles. He gets a little animated.

And then, he looks up at the ceiling. “They remind me of the school auditorium,” he says admiringly. They? Turns out he’s talking about the registers. You know, HVAC—the vents that help circulate the air. In the Wedgwood café, the registers are round instead of rectangular, which, apparently, was all the rage when his grade school was built in the 1940s in Lakewood, Washington. But they’re not so typical in 21st century Seattle cafés.

Clearly, Michael, 48, gets jazzed about things most of us don’t even think about. Moreover, his view of business—not to mention his budget priorities—is quite different from the typical business owner. Accountants? MBAs? Not really his people. What he thinks about, from morning until night, is design. Style. A look and feel that, in Top Pot’s case, is retro at the same time as it’s fresh. It’s a look he devised and helped build by hand, and it’s part of Top Pot’s identity, its brand. Michael’s design sense is also a big part of Sun Liquor, a bar and distillery he cofounded on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. And it’s part of Mod Pizza, a national chain started by some Seattleites who enlisted him because they appreciated his vision.

“Companies pay thousands of dollars for marketing experts to come in and shape things, or kind of build brands,” says his brother Mark. “This guy just builds it out of thin air.” Put that way, Michael’s passion for design makes sense (even, perhaps, the vents). Still, an obvious question soon arises: What, exactly, does all this have to do with doughnuts? Doughnuts are a hot item right now, so it’s easy to think that the Klebecks struck gold by cleverly anticipating the Next Big Thing.

This is not the case. Nor did they have a finely honed recipe they just had to bring to market. Heck, when they started talking about opening their own café, they didn’t even have a notion of what they wanted to sell. “I thought it would be kind of cool to do a cookie,” Michael Klebeck recalls. He got interested in the food and beverage industry during his time at UW, where he studied design, printmaking, photography and architecture history while working at coffee shops. As he was graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1993, he helped open Bauhaus, an iconic coffee house on Capitol Hill. A few years later, he, Mark and other partners opened another trend-setting coffee joint—Zeitgeist in Pioneer Square.

Then one day, he stumbled across some old doughnut-making equipment for sale and fell in love. “All this beautiful shiny stuff, I thought it looked so cool,” he says of the machinery. “And it was this 1940s aesthetic!” Michael bought it, took it home, and invited Mark to come see it. “I rolled up the garage door and said, ‘We’re getting in the doughnut business.’” Well, eventually. First, they spent months and months building out a location on Capitol Hill’s Summit Ave.

“We were incubating the concept of doughnuts,” Michael explains. By that he means they were laying flooring and building bookshelves; deciding on window signage and tables; thinking about display cases and packaging concepts. He does not mean they were figuring out how to make doughnuts. “I always did things in reverse,” he says. His philosophy: the details come first. They’re what sets the tone, what creates the interest, and, ultimately, form the foundation of something lasting. “I wanted to put an effect into each store that was very magical,” he says. “If we don’t have enough money for heat we’ll figure that out later.” Rather than hiring “experts,” he and Mark did most of the work themselves. And their deadlines tended to get a little mushy. Michael remembers a hand-written sign on the window with a whole bunch of cross-outs. “Opening Feb. 2,” it said. “This time for sure.”

Somehow, “amid the chaos and the dust and dirt,” Michael says, Top Pot #1 was born in February 2002. Yet when customers arrived, they didn’t have any doughnuts to sell. When you’re opening a shop that’s selling fried dough, putting your money into things like birch bookshelves and fancy display trays may seem, well, unusual. It’s definitely a tough one to explain to your typical bean counter. Especially when you don’t even know how to make doughnuts. “We kind of put the cart before the horse,” Mark concedes with a laugh. Thinking back to those days, and their inexperience, he says, “Most banks probably wouldn’t have lent us money.”

Despite the unusual approach—and the fact that they were open for a month before selling their signature “hand-forged” doughnuts—Top Pot quickly took off. After they opened a flagship store in downtown Seattle, Starbucks CEO Schultz began stopping by, and in 2004 made a deal to sell Top Pot doughnuts in his stores. At the time, Michael says, it felt like “we were on the map.” But it also required they ramp up production. Which meant they had to deal with more accountants, more bankers, more partners who wanted to have their say, and get a certain return.

It made Michael uncomfortable. Mark was more pragmatic. “You have to understand the big picture,” Mark says. “You try to retain as many of the things that make the brand as special as possible, without diluting it too much. Obviously, you’re not going to skimp on the doughnuts because that’s what people come in for.” But what about the 1940s air registers? The funky retro umbrellas? Building subsequent cafes, Michael’s design aesthetic became less achievable. At this point, Michael has stepped back from day-to-day Top Pot operation. “I never wanted to be the doughnut guy who figured out how to get a fresh product from point-A to point-B in the cheapest possible way,” he says.

He found a new muse: booze. In 2006, he co-founded Sun Liquor, a bar near the first Top Pot on Summit Avenue. In opening the bar, he took the same approach he did with the doughnut shops. The details mattered, from the glassware to the signage. “We didn’t go out there trying to be a cool hipster place,” says Michael. “People want it to be their special place they discovered. You’re not looking at the next cool thing and you’re not looking to make a buck. Because guess what: in two or three years, there’s going to be a cooler, flashier, hipper place.”

Here is how Seattle newspaper The Stranger described the bar in a review: “Sun Liquor’s aesthetic is sort of tiki, kind of stylized colonial Singapore, or maybe upscale Hong Kong Phooey. Every detail scrupulously aligns: antique cocktail glasses and shakers behind the bar, lemony-backlit bar shelves with cutout blossom patterns, bamboo chairs and bamboo bowtie accents, “Mandy” and “The Girl from Ipanema” playing.”

“Every detail scrupulously aligns….” Michael was back in his element. Later, he and partner Erik Chapman decided to distill their own spirits. But they weren’t going to sell just any old gin or vodka. Chapman, an experienced barman, set out on a mission to find a “fresh” concept in gin. “I remember buying so many botanicals and trying them out,” Michael recalls. “Some of the smells … talk about lighter fluid and anti freeze!” Sure, they made some mistakes. But the way he views it, “you’re creating these special moments out of them. Finally, you say, wow! I never tasted that before.” That wow came in the form of watermelon. A relative of the cucumber, which is a well-known pair with gin, melon rinds are a key ingredient in their Hedge Trimmer gin. The melons are grown in Eastern Washington.

In 2013, Alaska Airlines—going for that unique, local feel—began offering Sun Liquor gin, vodka and rum on all of its flights. The Sun Liquor bartenders even created a special cocktail that could be offered on the planes, using ingredients in the flight attendants’ carts.

For years, Michael has carried around sketchbooks in which he obsessively records ideas and inspirations. He estimates that he has filled a hundred of them. Some of the ideas have become elements in the doughnut brand; others in Sun Liquor; still others have yet to be realized. It’s all about creating spaces that “really inspire people to be there.” In the earliest Top Pot cafés, people would say, “I don’t know what it is about this place, but I want to be here,” Michael recalls. “People can appreciate something special.” Even if they can’t put their finger on why it makes them feel good. “I want to take something that’s common and have people amazed and change their lives in that particular moment when they walk in the door,” he says. “I’m an artist and designer. The food is an extension of it. It’s like making it into a work of art, in a sense.”

Along the way, there have been ups and downs. But mostly, it feels like growth. Organic, authentic, and solid rather than ephemeral, Michael says. “The idea is the most important thing. The idea is everything.”

He pauses for a moment. “It was never about the doughnuts.”

Top Moments in Top Pot History

Open Wide
First Top Pot café opens in February 2002 in a small brick storefront on north Capitol Hill in Seattle. Today, there are 15 Top Pot locations in the Seattle area and one in Dallas, Texas.

“I understand the allure of maple bars.”
—SEAHAWKS COACH PETE CARROLL after rookie Golden Tate is caught in a closed Renton Top Pot café (in his residential building) at 3 a.m. on June 7, 2010, helping himself to doughnuts.

“You can’t eat these every day.”
—PRESIDENT OBAMA during a stop at the Top Pot café in Belltown during a quick visit to Seattle on Oct. 21, 2010.

(Maple) Bar the Door
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn bets a dozen Top Pot maple bars with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu over the Seahawks-Saints NFC wild-card playoff game on Jan. 8, 2011. Whew. Those babies didn’t have to leave the Emerald City.

Treats in the Seats
Top Pot Doughnuts are the official doughnut of CenturyLink Field (home of the Seahawks and Sounders) and of the Washington Stealth of the National Lacrosse League.

We’re No. 1!
Top Pot dominates best doughnut lists compiled by U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, MSN City Guides, AOL City Guides, Travel Channel, Yahoo Food Blog and (Columns, too.)

­—Maureen O’Hagan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who, despite being a CrossFit devotee, still enjoys an occasional doughnut.