ROCKLAND, Maine ― Strangely enough, Todd Bross’ adventures in yeast-raised doughnuts began with a plan to make a batch of Polish onion rolls.
It was December of 2016 and Bross was the head baker at Camden’s Boynton-McKay Food Company. He had already made the yeast-based starter but on the day he set out to make the rolls, the cafe’s order of bread flour didn’t arrive.
Bross made cake doughnuts for the cafe on a daily basis, but had never tried making yeast doughnuts, which require a longer process. With the starter and some all-purpose flour he had on hand, he experimented that morning by mashing together a couple different recipes for yeast doughnuts and adding a couple tweaks of his own.
“I rolled them out, fried them and handed them out to my friends and coworkers. Everyone went crazy,” Bross said on a recent Friday. “I caught lightning in a bottle that December morning.”
Flash forward just over four years, and the one-off yeast doughnut experiment has gained a life of its own, called Ruckus Donuts. After operating as the “rogue doughnut wing of Boynton-McKay Food Company” for the last several years, Bross is set to open a standalone Ruckus Donuts shop this summer in downtown Rockland.
Through a crowdfunding campaign, Bross raised more than $40,000 to turn a former retail location at the corner of Main Street and Tillson Avenue into a small commercial bakery and storefront, where he hopes to be slinging doughnuts by July.
Since Bross ramped up his production over the last two years at Boynton-McKay, Ruckus Donuts has developed a loyal following of folks willing to line up at 8 a.m. to guarantee they can snag some of his creatively topped, pillowy confections. The new space in Rockland will allow him to increase production to keep up with the growing demand.
“The doughnuts have exploded,” Bross said. “I’m making doughnuts in a quantity that I couldn’t even fathom before.”
‘Bring the ruckus’
After his experiment in 2016, Bross began making solely yeast doughnuts for the cafe instead of cake doughnuts. But he was only making a dozen or so a day, since he was also tasked with making all of the other baked goods the cafe relied on, like breads and muffins.
Then in June 2019, the chef-owner of Boynton-McKay, Brian Beggarly, got into a mountain biking accident and broke his arm. He needed to step back for six weeks and he needed his staff to step up.
“He sat down with the crew and he said ‘I want you to bring the ruckus,’” Bross recalled.
For whatever reason, Bross took that to mean more doughnuts. That following Friday, instead of just making glazed doughnuts, he started experimenting with different finishes. Doughnut varieties like blueberry lemonade, raspberry crumble and cappuccino were added to the rotation.
The idea took off. Fridays became doughnut day, the day Bross brought “the ruckus.”
“I just told him to run with it. I said ‘What you’re doing is awesome. Make more, make more, make more,’” Beggarly said.
Then in March 2020, the pandemic hit and Boynton-McKay closed for 10 weeks. Upon reopening, Beggarly knew he couldn’t run the beloved tiny breakfast and lunch spot as it was before.
“The way this place operates, everybody is helping themselves to everything. We do counter service. It’s like a mosh pit in here most of the time and that’s part of the fun,” Beggarly said. “None of that works with COVID, nothing about this place works with COVID.”
Having already launched a side-business of his own, Cold Toes Tacos, Beggarly suggested Boynton-McKay serve doughnuts in the morning and tacos in the afternoon.
The idea worked and it buoyed Boynton-McKay ― along with federal loan assistance ― for the last year.
With doughnuts being Bross’ only responsibility he was able to make more and more, to the point where at maximum production he can now make 25 dozen in a day. On weekends, he’ll often sell out in two hours, and for holidays ― like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day ― he’s been sold out in pre-orders alone.
Over the course of 2020, Ruckus Donuts officially spun into its own business, with Boynton-McKay’s LLC selling all the intellectual property related to the doughnut brand to Bross’ new LLC.
Beggarly offered a limited menu at Boynton-McKay for takeout over the winter and the space has served as the morning bakery for Ruckus Donuts and prep kitchen for Cold Toes Tacos. But with the summer approaching, he’s focusing on Cold Toes Tacos and temporarily suspending the Boynton-McKay menu until he feels it can operate safely as the establishment it was before the pandemic.
Between the success of Ruckus and Cold Toes Tacos being able to expand into a food truck model, Beggarly said he’s proud Boynton-McKay’s pandemic pivot essentially spurred two new ventures.
“I just feel like it speaks to the strength of Boynton-McKay. It was so strong it could survive a global pandemic and launch two separate brands. You don’t do that without a solid foundation. Everyone’s love and support of this place has transcended into support for Cold Toes and Ruckus.”
Coffee, doughnuts and culture
Bross has worked as a professional baker for the last two decades, but he never imagined he’d be opening his own doughnut shop one day. His roots as a jack-of-all-trades baker come through in his doughnuts.
A caramel recipe he used as a baker serves as the filling for his caramel crunch doughnut. The topping on that doughnut is essentially a recipe he’s used for a New York-style crumb cake. The topping for his coffee crumble doughnut? It’s the result of needing something to do with the edges he cuts off the brownies he bakes.
One of the creations he’s most proud of is a chocolate brioche doughnut, topped with a peppermint-chocolate glaze and brownie crumble.
“I call it‘thick mint and it tastes like a gigantic Girl Scout cookie,” Bross said. “As things come to me I think, ‘I can doughnut that.’”
Bross took over the lease for 377 Main St. in Rockland on May 1, but converting the former retail space into a commercial bakery will be a feat. Plumbing and electrical work needs to be converted to handle a kitchen-based operation and new equipment will need to be brought in.
But the space will allow Bross to “significantly increase” production, he said. At Boynton-McKay, Bross uses two small tabletop fryers to make his donuts. Ruckus Donuts’ new location will be outfitted with a large kettle fryer that will allow Bross to fry two dozen doughnuts at once.
In addition to doughnuts, the new location ― which will be open year round ― will offer coffee. Specifically, a proprietary coffee blend that Bross has worked with Rock City Coffee to develop.
While the space will be take-out only, Bross hopes the shop offers a particular vibe that patrons find welcoming and familiar. He said his dream is to create the type of establishment that holds such a special place in someone’s life that they might consider proposing marriage there.
“We’ll be selling coffee, doughnuts and culture,” Bross said.