Pandamonium Doughnuts has caused some pandemonium since opening in 2013. In just a couple of years, it’s one of the most popular food trucks in C-U, regularly selling out its daily stock. The doughnut dispensary is so popular that is actually made SP’s WORST list last year — for its regular huge line at Urbana’s Market at the Square. All joking aside, if you haven’t yet tried the doughnuts, just go head and do so. They’re pretty great. The doughnut flavors change everyday, and there is always a gluten free or vegan option available, which is awesome. I recently chatted with James Kyung, founder and owner of Pandamonium Doughnuts. Check out our conversation below.
Smile Politely: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us! Can you give us a quick background story — when and how and why did Pandamonium Doughnuts come into being?
James Kyung: Well, back in 2012 I got really into cooking and baking and started doing a lot at home with different dishes and recipes. It was really just for fun and for me to experiment and get creative. Baking especially caught my interest as it was always a little science experiment and challenged me no matter what the dish was. I have always loved doughnuts growing up, and craving doughnuts one day I decided to try and make these at home. And not just the simple, regular doughnuts, but something more unique and just different. Thus, started my doughnut making adventure. I experimented and played around with so many different recipes and flavors and would end up just feeding these doughnuts to my friends and family. Doughnuts became something I was passionate about and making them was not only to feed my own doughnut obsession, but to keep challenging my abilities to make them better and better and my creativity in the kitchen. I had no intentions of even offering these to complete strangers, let alone starting my own doughnut business. Then in the summer of 2013, my friends suggested we sell these at the Urbana farmer’s market. We signed up and our first market day was in June 2013. We brought three flavors, about 40 doughnuts, and set up shop. I had no idea how people would respond to our product, or if people would even stop and buy anything. I was so nervous and worried we would go home without selling anything. We ended up selling our entire stock that day and so we signed up for more market days. It wasn’t until March 2014 that things really started picking up for us. I met Matt Cho ([co][lab]) around this time and we threw around random ideas of how we could collaborate. One idea was doing a pop-up shop, so we decided to try out three weekends of a Pandamonium Doughnut booth inside [co][lab]. I had no expectations really going in, and since weren’t really well known then, I had no idea how many people would show up or how to prepare for this. That first night there was a small group waiting for us and we sold out in 30 minutes. The next day, more people showed up, and then the lines kept growing from there. So we kept on making more doughnuts weekend to weekend. Keep in mind; it was just my wife and I, and sometimes my sister during this whole time. We were busting our butts off and going on no sleep. We were making as many doughnuts as we could in the early morning hours, then selling them, packaging them, and then we would repeat the next weekend. After another pop-up shop stint inside Cream & Flutter, I realized we had something special here, so I quit my job and went into Pandamonium full-time. The food truck didn’t come along till November 2014.
I don’t think people realize how small we were in the beginning and how we grew little by little with every opportunity we had. Going from our home kitchen, to the famer’s market, to a food truck has been quite a ride. I wake up every day surprised that I am doing something I love and am passionate about. It’s crazy to think about really.
SP: How’d you decide on the name?
Kyung: What’s funny about the name is that in the beginning, when we first started selling our doughnuts at the Urbana Market at the Square in 2013, lots of people thought we spelled pandemonium wrong. We didn’t have a logo or any indication it was eluding to the beautiful animals, so we had to explain over and over it was actually spelled that way on purpose. The name “Pandamonium” stems from a nickname my friends used to call me during my undergrad days at UIUC. Since a lot of my friends called me Panda, I had always joked that I would open up a bar after graduating and call it Pandamonium. So going back to the beginning stages of my business, when we had first signed up for the Urbana Farmer’s Market, I actually didn’t have a name for what would be my new doughnut business. We tossed around lots of cliché sounding bakery names, but nothing really felt right. During this name tossing, we had just been calling it Pandamonium Doughnuts as a temporary name until we could find one. Then the week before my first market day, I was like why don’t we just call it Pandamonium and the rest is history!
SP: Why doughnuts, as opposed to any other sweet treat?
Kyung: Doughnuts are something I love and am obsessed with. There are really no other sweet treats or desserts that interest me as much as doughnuts. I mean we all love doughnuts and doughnuts have become a very strong part of our food culture in America. So wanting to take regular, plain doughnuts and make them more unique to offer something different was always a driving force. Doughnuts also these days are mostly mass-produced or commercially made with prepared mixes and pre made icing. So wanting to create something from scratch with real, high-quality ingredients was my initial challenge when I started making doughnuts at home. I wanted to go back to creating doughnuts using artisan and made-from-scratch methods, which is very rare these days in the doughnut world.
SP: What are the particular rewards and challenges of running a food truck?
Kyung: Having the food truck for a little over a year now, I can say there are a lot of rewards and challenges. One big challenge we face throughout the year is the weather. It can either be too hot or too cold, and the doughnuts can be very temperamental depending on the outside conditions. During summer, if it’s too hot or humid, the icing can start melting. Also, the winter can just be brutal because it can be really cold outside. Which is bad for working on the truck, and not many people want to go outside and visit a food truck when it’s freezing. But there are a lot of bright moments of owing a food truck. We get to move around to different locations and bring our doughnuts to the people. We also have the ability to move if a location isn’t as busy a certain day. Also, the reaction we get from people when they see our truck is priceless. People are always taking photos next to it or chasing us down if we are driving down the road. We have had people follow us till we make a stop and ask if we had doughnuts left. It’s also just adds another fun and unique element to the great food scene in Champaign-Urbana.
SP: What factors led you to offer gluten free and vegan doughnuts?
Kyung: We always wanted to offer different types of doughnuts so people with certain dietary restrictions could enjoy our doughnuts as well. Back in 2013, when we actually started off, my wife was misdiagnosed as being gluten intolerant, so we did a lot of gluten free baking and cooking at home. So at our first year at the Urbana Farmer’s Market, we used to offer gluten free bread, brownies, scones and other gluten free pastries. It wasn’t until our pop-up days in 2014 that we offered gluten free doughnuts and actually vegan doughnuts too. Since then we have really grown our vegan and gluten free flavor options and they have quite a following.
SP: How do you come up with your flavors? What’s your favorite so far?
Kyung: Coming up with new flavors has always been one of my favorite parts of being in the doughnut business. I’m always trying to challenge myself to come up with new surprises for my customers. When it comes to creating a new flavor, it can either come from months of conceptualizing, or in a day or two. There’s really no formula I follow other than lots of testing and eating doughnuts, and once my team and I feel like it’s there, we debut it on the truck! My favorite flavor varies throughout the year, but one flavor I always love to eat is the PB&J! First off it’s my favorite sandwich, so eating this in doughnut form makes it that much better. Other favorites have been the Banana Split, Maple Bacon Apple Fritter, Chai (vegan), Double Blueberry (vegan), or Snack-Attack. But really, it just depends on my mood and what I’m craving that week.
SP: What’s the most adventurous doughnut flavor you’d like to make or eat?
Kyung: There are a lot of flavors I want to create and a few we are working on right now, but the most adventurous flavor I’ve created that did never made the menu was my Kimchi doughnut. I know, it sounds very interesting if not a little weird but there is a reason I tried to make it happen! Growing up as a Korean-American, my favorite breakfast item in the world when I was younger up was Bisquick pancakes with my mom’s homemade kimchi and Aunt Jemima syrup. So I really wanted to create a doughnut that brought this childhood memory to life. Unfortunately, after lots of test batches, I learned that doughnuts and kimchi do not really mix. It was either too sweet or tasted too much like Kimchi, or just tasted weird. Maybe one day I’ll visit it again, but we shall see. For the future, I would love to collaborate with the crew over at Watson’s. Who knows what we could come up with?
SP: What’s your favorite beverage accompaniment for doughnuts?
Kyung: Really, just a nice hot cup of coffee is great. A really good pairing is an Autumn Berry doughnut with coffee! Or during those hot summer days, a cold brew from Slingshot Coffee Company is always a good choice!
SP: Anyone who has visited Urbana’s Market at the Square has seen the enormous line in front of the truck. What’s it like to see so many people waiting for doughnuts, and how do you cope with the stresses of meeting the demands of so many people?
Kyung: It can definitely be a little overwhelming when you look out and see a long line, because I want to make sure we move quickly as we can so everyone can get the doughnuts without having to spend a large amount of time in line. Also, the length of the line can vary throughout the market day. It just depends on if everyone decides to come all at once or if it’s more spread out in the morning.
Back before we had any employees and it was just my wife and I, so it did take a lot longer for us to do everything – taking orders, boxing the orders, answering questions, serving drinks, etc. But now that we have more people slinging doughnuts for us, we do move pretty quickly considering the amount of people that can be in line. We are always trying to improve and have definitely learned to become more efficient on taking orders and getting them out to people as fast as we can.
Customers are always in good spirits, however, and just very excited to get doughnuts!
SP: Where do you hope to see Pandamonium Doughnuts in five years?
Kyung: In the next few years or so, I would love for Pandamonium Doughnuts to have its own brick and mortar! It would give us a permanent location and a home base so customers could find us easier. It would also give us the opportunity and freedom to experiment with other ideas we have that just aren’t possible on a food truck or outdoor market setting.
SP: Where and how can we keep up with the food truck and flavor schedules?
Kyung: We try our best to be active on social media. We use Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter the most. This is where we post our schedule for the week or the next day, any flavor updates, new flavor debuts, and even just photos our customers have shared with us! We love seeing photos that are posted of people out and about with our doughnuts and repost our favorites! Being a food truck, we are always on the move, but we try to keep a consistent schedule of where we are parked week to week. But we always urge customers to follow us on social media to make sure they get the most recent updates or changes.
SP: Anything else you’d like to share with SP readers?
Kyung: We really just love what we are doing and feel so lucky to have this opportunity to make our doughnuts and share it with everyone in Champaign-Urbana! Everyone in this community is so supportive and loving of small, local businesses. Through all the ups and downs, we have been so fortunate to have the opportunity to grow our business to what it is today. More importantly, we are so lucky and blessed to have had the support and doughnut love from the most wonderful community and wouldn’t want to call anywhere else home. We have so much more planned in the future and can’t wait to share it with you all!
All photos by Sam Logan.