ORLANDO, Fla. – Chef Ian Russell and his wife, Juliana Peña, could not agree on whether to open a donut shop or a barbecue restaurant.
So, like in any good relationship, they compromised and decided to try both, creating Smoke & Donuts.
“We had no idea that the response was going to be what it was,’ Russell said. “It was a donut and barbecue concept and when we google donut and barbecue back then — you punched into Google and nothing came up. It didn’t Google. There was nothing when you punch donuts and barbecue, barbecue and doughnuts into Google. And so that’s either — well it could be terrifying because you have a really bad idea or it’s a good idea right and nobody else’s was doing it.”
The pair first took their idea on the road as a pop-up “in the back alley of a Winter Springs brewery.”
“We sold out fast — that’s what happened,” Russells said. “That’s kind of why we — that’s how it continued forward. That’s how the inertia of the concept of the two ideas going together moved forward because at our first event, we sold out and really fast.”
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The pair’s success continued and they kept moving forward, despite juggling full-time jobs on top of their pop-ups.
“It’s tiring, but the response from the Orlando community was so encouraging, so exciting, so invigorating, that it kept pushing us forward,” Russell said.
Even with continued success over the last six year — recently opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Orlando’s trendy Milk District — Peña still works in a regular job.
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“My wife still has her day job. You know, we’re not to a point yet where we’re, able to just roll without any kind of standard income,” Russell said.
Despite that, Russell said his goal is to make his customers happy.
“We want people to eat barbecue and doughnuts and when they visit us have fun for a little bit and have a good time. And that’s it. That’s the goal. A little bit of joy in the middle of your day,” he said.
While the concept is barbecue and donuts, Russell said their goal is not to force people to indulge in both together, unless they want to — in which case, there is are barbecue and donut sandwiches on the menu.
“Often at a restaurant, the donuts will be ready first. And so 50% of the time at least, we start with dessert at our restaurant,” he said.
Russell himself is a classically trained chef, getting his education at the Culinary Institute of America. When the business was starting out, he was also making all of the donuts but eventually decided to hire someone more qualified in that department.
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“I kind of BS my way through it a little bit,” he said. Then at one point, this classically trained pastry chef reached out to me and sent me an email that said, ‘Hey, I’m interested in working with you on the donut side,’ and I kind of didn’t pay attention to her in the beginning. She sent me another email and this one had pictures in it. She even put pictures of a donut that she made that had flames on it. So I hired her.”
On the latest Florida Foodie, Russell shares more about his early years with the business and his culinary journey before striking out on his own. He also talks about all of the specialty donuts he has available and his favorite barbecue item on the menu.
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Florida Foodie is a biweekly podcast from WKMG and Graham Media that takes a closer look at what we eat, how we eat it and the impact that has on us here in Florida and for everyone, everywhere. Find new episodes on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you download your favorite podcasts.