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How Sprinkles Donut Shop innovates through quality

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GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Sprinkles Donut Shop is a mainstay in the Grand Rapids, MI, area. Founded by the late Gary VanderStelt Sr. as a 2014 post-retirement project after owning Goober’s Bakery in Whitehall, MI, Sprinkles has grown to six locations — and counting — as VanderStelt’s son, Gary VanderStelt Jr., carries on the legacy.

“I don’t remember ever not knowing how to make donuts,” VanderStelt Jr. said, recalling that even before Sprinkles, donuts anchored his dad’s product lineup.

This bakery is no stranger to growth. It opened a second location in just over a year and launched another four shops before VanderStelt Sr.’s passing in 2018.

A former software engineer, VanderStelt Jr. is inherently an innovator. But when it comes to his donut line, innovation is about being the best, even when it means remaining a classic. When VanderStelt Jr. thinks about innovation, quality is at the top of the list. For him, innovation doesn’t mean coming up with a new donut; often, it means coming up with a better one.

“I’ve always been on the bleeding edge of everything, and I’m always looking out for the latest and greatest,” VanderStelt Jr. said. “That said, I really love a traditional donut.”

Before recently moving into its new, nearly 11,000-sq.-ft. production space, the bakery primarily kettle-fried its donuts in a central kitchen attached to the flagship storefront.

While there is much to be said about tradition and the personal touch of hand-flipping donuts, it also poses risks to the quality.

“When you’re flipping donuts, it can be easy to over-fry them, especially with something darker like a devil’s food donut,” VanderStelt Jr. said.

Automation was the driving force behind investing in a state-of-the art Belshaw frying system, which has helped Sprinkles maintain product quality at a time when labor is hard to find.

With the new frying system, it’s not unheard of for the bakery to crank out 15,000 donuts in one night for Sunday morning delivery to the stores.

“Doing that with two kettle fryers takes a long time,” VanderStelt Jr. said. “Especially if you’re hand-sheeting dough with rolling pins and using donut cutters by hand.”

Sprinkles also installed a new Rondo sheeting and makeup line to streamline the process. Having attended the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE) with his dad since he was about 18 years old, VanderStelt has kept his eye on equipment for years.

“We’ve always focused on, ‘How can we do this a little bit better?’” VanderStelt Jr. said. “That’s where we like to dabble in innovation. And what I like about going to the IBIE show is finding new vendors.”

And it’s not just equipment vendors that he’s discovered at IBIE 2022. He’s had discussions with ingredient suppliers like Corbion on how he can innovate for quality. While formulation hacks like enzymes imply shelf life extension, VanderStelt Jr. has discovered that enzymes actually enhance quality without chemically extending the shelf life of his products.

“Everything we sell in our stores is made fresh every day,” he said. “The enzymes make the product a little more moist. And that supports our focus on how to make the product just a little bit better.”

VanderStelt works with BakeMark to procure enzyme solutions from Corbion to ensure he’s obtaining the right amounts for his production volume while controlling costs and waste.

At IBIE, VanderStelt also shopped for new partners to supply ingredients such as bulk flavors and fillings now that volume will increase in the new facility and with new stores set to open this year.

In looking back in the archives of Sprinkles recipes and as far back as Goober’s, it’s clear VanderStelt Sr. relied on a lot of trial-and-error — and not as much specific note-taking — to perfect his recipes. But VanderStelt Jr. believes now is the time to innovate quality on the foundation his father set for the bakery.

“My dad could take a bag of flour, pour it and put it on the scale, and it would be spot on,” VanderStelt Jr. recalled. “He could measure that way like nobody else. And now we have Russ [Crawford, Sprinkles’ COO], and we have all this history paired with all new skill sets.”

Once a year, Sprinkles leadership engages in strategy sessions during which the team looks at the bakery’s biggest successes and identifies future opportunities.

“I always say our biggest success is our brand,” VanderStelt Jr. said.

For him, the strength of the brand is the driving force behind innovating for the best possible quality, whether through ingredient or equipment automation.

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