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Giovanny Gutierrez

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Inside The Salty Donut Phenomenon

Learn just what it takes to make these cult-followed donuts come to life.

It’s 5 a.m. Saturday morning and the first of three crews are walking into the commissary kitchen that the Salty Donut uses in North Miami Beach. It’s an around-the-clock effort for the team that creates Miami’s first artisanal donuts.

While the Magic City might be a bit behind on adapting to the fried dough craze, we’re catching up quickly. Since its launch during Art Basel 2015, the weekend-only Salty Donut pop-up in Wynwood has been causing such a frenzy that lines start forming well before the 11 a.m. open time, running anywhere from 1 to 1.5 hours long any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

Point in case: Salty Donut's Valentine’s Day themed pop-up inside the Hyatt Centric South Beach — the first it hosted outside of Wynwood since its inception — sold out in under an hour. Forty eight minutes to be exact.

Maple Bacon donuts in the making

Behind the donuts is longtime pastry chef Max Santiago. Odds are if you dined out somewhere in the past 20 years or so in South Florida, you’ve tried one of his sugar-filled creations. After stints at places like The Thompson Hotel and Swine Southern, and he teamed up with business savvy couple Andy Rodriguez and Amanda Pizarro to venture out to create The Salty Donut.

Santiago admits he had been approached by several companies over the years, but the business plan brought to him by Rodriguez and Pizarro, "was the best one" he had ever seen. Plus, he admits, he was "ready for his next move."

Santiago creating the Valentine's Day themed donut

With the aim to be Miami’s first "artisanal donut shop" the crew got to working to come up with a creative — albeit, labor intensive — menu. Every weekend the pastry team creates seven different flavors of donuts, plus two to four different donut hole varieties, including some "spiked" versions filled with reductions of popular cocktails like Margaritas and Moscow Mules. They are made with a variety of doughs like 24-hour raised brioche and cake donuts and topped with everything from maple-infused frosting to chocolate-dipped strawberries. And a rule of thumb remains that one is always gluten-free and under 120 calories. You know, for that healthy friend in the bunch.

We are trying to do as much as we can and keep hiring staff," Santiago adds. "But it's a learning curve.

The flavors are the brainchild of all three of the partners, who get together every Monday to discuss the weekend past and the weekend ahead. They brainstorm flavor ideas, usually according to the season, and get to working. The staff then spends Wednesday and Thursday creating all the fillings and toppings before the real work begins Friday morning.

Each Friday, Saturday and Sunday, three teams rotate out to create the roughly 700 to a few thousand donuts that are sold each day. The first team comes in to create the doughs, the second team comes in to cook the donuts and the third team decorates, before it all begins again. Santiago admits during those days he’s there at least 15 hours, if not more.

But they can’t seem to hire quick enough to meet the demand. Santiago tells Eater that the staff at Salty Donut has doubled in a just a week’s time with now ten people working as part of his kitchen staff, including Norman Van Aken’s son, Justin. But the pop-up still sells out every weekend, and quickly at that.

The Salty Donut team is well aware of the sell-out challenges, sometimes facing angry crowds process. "We are trying to do as much as we can and keep hiring staff," Santiago adds. "But it's a learning curve."

The Salty Donut line

But relief is soon in sight. The Salty Donut's brick-and-mortar store in Wynwood is slated to open in the next few months — somewhere between late Spring and early Summer is the current ETA — where they (hope) they'll be better equipped to meet the overwhelming demand.

"I think there will still be lines throughout the day on the weekends, but I feel like they'll be more spread out," Rodriguez notes of the upcoming store. "Because right now we're getting seven days of worth of business in three."

He adds that once the store opens, The Salty Donut will start selling the donuts wholesale to different vendors around the city, "so some people who might have driven all the way to Wynwood now, might just go to a retailer closer to them," which also will help with the lines.

Scenes from the Wynwood pop-up

As for the airstream, it isn't going anywhere. It will still be around for special events and different functions. And the donuts have been so popular that it won't be long until a Salty Donut shows up in your neighborhood. The team has already started scouting several more locations — although none have been finalized yet.

Until then, it’s time to get in line like everyone else. (A no-skipping policy is strictly enforced.) Which donut creation you order when it's finally your turn, well, that's up to you, but Santiago tends to go with the Boston Cream Pie donut made with homemade vanilla custard "on steroids" while Rodriguez is a Maple Bacon donut fan saying that the "Miami Smoker's bacon is amazing and when we candy it, it's just so good."

Photographer: Giovanny Gutierrez/Chat Chow TV

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