Strange Donuts founders got a sweet start at UMSL

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UMSL alumni Jason Bockmann (left) and Corey Smale pose with Strange Donuts customers Lucas (left) and Jackson in their Maplewood store. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Word on the street is if you want the chicken and waffle, you have to be one of the first people in line when Strange Donuts opens.

If you’re a slacker who is fourth or fifth in line, those few prized donuts could be sold out, but don’t worry. The case at the Maplewood, Mo., shop will still be full of delectable and unusual ways to get your sugar rush.

The store at Strange Donuts is barely big enough for a donut case, a coffee counter and a cooler with beverages, but dozens of people line up in the early mornings and late nights for the shop’s creations. The business, and its less traditionally flavored treats, is the brainchild of a pair of alumni from the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Jason Bockman and Corey Smale, opened the business at 2709 Sutton Blvd. in October 2013.

“We were optimistic people, and we hoped it would do well. But every time we set an expectation we went well beyond it,” said Bockman, who graduated in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in international business.

Smale, who graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in communication, and Bockman met at UMSL when they joined the International Business Club. After graduating, they worked in different fields. Bockman continued running the hot dog business that helped finance his education and built a business importing furniture. Smale worked in advertising and marketing. When they decided to launch Strange Donuts, they started building their brand on social media long before they opened their doors.

The result was an almost instant hit, proving popular with both early risers looking for an early-morning sugar onslaught and late-nighters looking for post-bar fare.  The shop operates in the mornings until they sell out, but on Thursday through Saturday nights they also open from 9 p.m. to midnight. Donuts are $1 for classic varieties like glazed or jelly, and $2 for Creations like thin mint, campfire, key lime pie and gooey butter. Strangers, the rarest and, well, strangest, flavors like the aforementioned chicken and waffles, hog burger and pizza sell for $5.

This fall, they opened a second location in Kirkwood, Mo., and have a location planned for downtown Columbia, Mo. They also launched Strange Trap Kitchen inside the Central West End’s Brennan’s Bottleshop and Bar, where they hope to serve more sophisticated pastries.

Even though Bockman and Smale were confident about their product, the extent of their quick rise was unexpected. Their focus has always been on creating products that they and their friends enjoyed.

“The more we are ourselves the better we do,” Smale said.

Donuts are popular in St. Louis, with many neighborhoods boasting corner donut shops and lots of debate over which is the best. Smale and Bockman, though, felt their unusual flavors and zany brand would be a unique offering to the market. Before opening, they served their offerings, called “dones” (rhymes with stones) at events and ventured into nontraditional donut settings like beer pairings to drum up a following. They also made heavy use of social media.

“There wasn’t anyone doing what we were interested in doing,” said Smale. “We put the idea out there, launched it successfully and built our identity through avenues that were free.”

Strange Donuts has also worked with some of the top restaurants in the area, to create special flavors and bring dones beyond the simple question of glazed or powdered. Their own chef is Mary Boehne, who joined them in August after working at the Four Seasons Hotel.

“Some people might not be able to to go to Niche [an upscale restaurant in Clayton, Mo.] and afford to eat a dinner there, but they can come here and experience that through our collaborations with their chef,” Bockman said.

Opening a donut shop did not seem like an obvious career choice while Bockman and Smale were in college, but Smale encourages students to take opportunities that present themselves, even if they’re not expected.

“When I was going to UMSL, I sure didn’t think I would own a donut shop,” Smale said. “Take every opportunity that’s in front of you and make the most of it. It’s ultimately about where that opportunity will lead to in terms of the next one as opposed to the end destination.”

The UMSL Experience

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