Monday, August 5, 2013

The Doughnut Vault, Hewn, and the problem of pastry scarcity

Posted By on 08.05.13 at 04:39 PM

The precious commodities at Doughnut Vault
I spend way too much time thinking about the Doughnut Vault. For one thing, it's so temptingly close. If I get off the train at the Merchandise Mart stop in the morning and take the stairs down to the street instead of dutifully marching into the Mart, toward the office, it's just a block away.

For another, there's the Twitter feed that keeps followers apprised on doughnut availability throughout the morning, so easy to access from a smartphone, especially if you're riding the Brown Line and are superbored. 9:45 AM, passing Sedgwick: "4 dozen vanilla, 2 dozen chocolate, 1 dozen chestnut, 4 dozen buttermilk old fashioned, 2 dozen pineapple old fashioned, half a dozen gingerbread stacks left. 10 people in line."

Oh, the suspense! The mental calculation! How acquisitive are these potential doughnut buyers? Do they want a single sinker with their coffee, or are they buying for a whole office, or are they visiting doughnut aficionados who have read about the Doughnut Vault in some foodie magazine and have traveled long distances to try every single one?

So far, the magical convergence of factors—a doughnut-eating mood, doughnut availability, and cash in wallet (the Doughnut Vault does not accept plastic)—has happened for me only once. It was a pretty good doughnut. But still, I keep thinking about the Doughnut Vault. And about my high school economics class and the principle of supply and demand.

I believe at the time my teacher used the example of either guns or butter, the two factors that always appeared in our economic models (he had a special way of spitting out the words "guns" and "butter"), but baked goods could work just as well. Anyway, the underlying principle is this: a scarcity will always increase the demand for a consumer good. Particularly if it's something like a good doughnut.

The Dunkin' Donuts in Merchandise Mart has doughnuts available all the time, most for a half to a third of the cost of a doughnut from the Doughnut Vault. The price drops to two for a dollar at the end of the day. I walk past it at least twice a day and barely think about it at all.

Brendan Sodikoff, the mastermind behind the Doughnut Vault, has sworn to the Tribune that he did not deliberately set out to create a scarcity in order to create more demand and improve business. (And why would he lie to our city's paper of record?) "All this was not the goal," he said. "It was meant to be fun."

But then why the hell doesn't he make more doughnuts?

I thought about this again last week when I went to review Hewn, an artisan bakery in Evanston. Hewn also has a Twitter feed, though it's not as informative or tantalizing as the Doughnut Vault's. We got there a little after 1 PM and learned that the bakery had just two Brie and greens sandwiches left (the veggie sandwiches were all sold out) and one piece of flatbread. An hour later (per Twitter), the bread was all gone, too. The only thing that wasn't in immediate danger of selling out was the pastry: croissants and scones and brioche with various flavorings and fillings, morning buns, and, best of all, the kouign amann.

Kouign amman
Kouign amann is a Breton pastry that translates literally as "butter cake." In Hewn's interpretation, it's a flaky pastry, like a croissant, encrusted in sugar that caramelizes it as bakes. It is as simple and delicious as you might imagine.

The centerpiece of Hewn, though, is the bread. It's kneaded and shaped by hand, allowed to rise for 17 hours with the benefit of wild yeast, lovingly wrapped in paper and knotted up with twine, or maybe hair plucked from unicorn tails. It costs $6 or $7 a loaf. The model is clearly a French boulangerie, except that boulangeries have set business hours and a constant supply of bread.

No doubt it requires a lot of time to make a loaf of bread by hand, particularly one with a 17-hour rise time. But how do the bakers determine how many loaves to make every day? Do they plan it so they'll run out in the early afternoon? Do they bake continuously? Is this a deliberate scarcity? And why is the kouign amman exempt? It is such a fine pastry that by the new laws of pastry scarcity, it should never be available after 10 AM.

I e-mailed Julie Matthei, the bakery's director of operations, to ask. I haven't heard back from her yet. But I am genuinely curious: are the doughnuts at the Doughnut Vault and the bread at Hewn valuable because of their inherent quality, or because they are a rare commodity?

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