“You can never predict what ideas will go viral. The only thing you can do is keep producing, keep thinking,” Dominique Ansel says. “Don’t hog or save your best ideas. Set them free.”
It was 8 a.m. on May 10 when Ansel, founder and owner of his eponymously named bakery in New York City’s Soho district, set free the Cronut, a hybrid that's part croissant, part doughnut. Ansel didn’t think much of it at the time—just business as usual, another day, another new pastry. Customers seemed to like the product and by that evening, there was a small writeup in an online foodie magazine. Totally normal.
What happened next was anything but normal. “When I woke up on Saturday, there were 140,000 links to photos of the cronut all over the Internet and we had a line around the block before we even opened. I couldn’t believe it,” Ansel says.
Since then, the world has officially gone Cronut crazy. Lines outside Ansel’s shop start at 5:30 a.m. every day. Bakeries from Los Angeles and Cleveland to Russia and Australia have started to make copycat versions of the Cronut. Since the product is trademarked, bakers are improvising, naming their creations dossiants or kronuts or croughnuts. In addition, according to the official website, pre-orders are completely full and advance orders of 50 or more cronuts are booked out until August. This has led to perhaps the most shocking development: There is a thriving black market for Cronuts. You can buy them on Craigslist for up to $40 apiece (in-store, Cronuts run for $5 each).
RELATED: Phil Libin of Evernote: The Surprise 3 A.M. Email That Saved His $200M Company
Ansel only makes 200 to 250 Cronuts per day, so even those who wait in line are not guaranteed a treat at the end. Empty-handed customers have been known to break down crying and raise voices at barista staff. Those in high-ranking positions (read: celebrities and CEOs) have even tried to bribe Ansel for a bite. “I’ve had folks email me with their Wikipedia pages and LinkedIn profiles for leverage; other people will offer my staff up to $100 per pastry,” he says. “It doesn’t work; we save the Cronuts for those who are willing to wait.”
How has your life changed in the past month? Are you sleeping right now?
[Laughing] No, I’m not sleeping much. I’m there every morning for my customers. These days, they applaud when I open the doors. It’s a nice way to start the morning. I opened the bakery in late 2011, but now I feel like I’m opening a new shop all over again. We’ve had to increase staff 30 percent in the past three weeks because of this.
What's your reaction to the world’s obsession with the Cronut?
I’m happy as long as I am making other people happy. A lot of people ask me if it is just a fad or if it will be popular for a long time. I don’t know, but I’m fine either way.
Many bakeries are attempting to copy the Cronut. What is your reaction, and was the trademark a strategic move?
Sharing ideas and ripping off ideas are two very different things, and sometimes people cross the line.
The decision to trademark the name Cronut happened serendipitously. We were getting an international trademark for the name of the bakery and my lawyers suggested trademarking a few other items in the shop at the same time. The Cronut was one of them. This was just two days before we launched the product.
At first, I didn’t think there was a need to trademark and thought, "What respectable chef would so blatantly rip off a product from someone else’s shop?" I was right to a certain degree. None of the chefs I respect have ripped it off.
RELATED: Viral Marketing: Strategy or Serendipity?
You grew up in France and were classically trained there. What brought you to New York?
I was working with [French food company] Fauchon, in charge of opening bakeries all over the world. In 2006, Daniel Boulud invited me to join his team as the executive pastry chef at Daniel. I came to New York and fell in love with the city at first sight. I worked at Daniel for six years before launching my shop.
What has been the most rewarding thing about the Cronut craze for you?
It’s been great to see customers befriend each other. I usually see them at the cash registers, when they say goodbye to each other. I’m always shocked at how many people become friends and exchange phone numbers and email addresses. One customer even told me that he met his new girlfriend while waiting in line for a Cronut.
What does the future hold for your bakery?
I have so many pastry ideas! I’m working on something new, and hopefully I’ll be able to share it soon.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself pre-Cronut?
I would’ve told myself to take longer vacations because I’m not sure when the next one will happen.
Read more stories from the Building an Empire column.
Photos: Getty Images