Young and Hungry

Eating Viral: How Doughnuts, Ramen, Tacos, and Other Food Trends Sweep D.C. Restaurants

Three years ago, two groups of people in the same place had the same idea at the same time: Hey, why don’t we open a gourmet doughnut shop?

The owners of Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken and Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s GBD (Golden Brown Delicious) knew nothing of each other’s plans, or that people would be calling doughnuts the “new cupcake” in a few short years.

Both concepts initially planned to sell just doughnuts, not fried chicken. At the time, there were no “gourmet” doughnut shops in D.C.—just Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme. Astro Doughnuts owners Elliot Spaisman and Jeff Halpern drew inspiration from the doughnuts they use to snack on after hockey games when they were growing up in Montgomery County. And for the team behind GBD, the idea was sparked by the immediate popularity of pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac’s doughnuts on the brunch menu at Birch & Barley.

But when Astro found a space in Metro Center and GBD in Dupont, both needed something beyond doughnuts to help pay the rent. And both took a spin off fried chicken and waffles: The Astro guys were in part inspired by Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles in California. And for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, fried chicken and waffles was the No. 1 brunch seller at Birch & Barley. There’s also a practical reason for the combination: both items are fried to order, so you don’t need any additional equipment.

GBD publicly announced its plans to open on Sept. 28. Astro Doughnuts came forth less than a month later. “We were just as surprised as everyone else when Astro announced it,” MacIsaac says. “We were like, ‘Holy shit. What are the odds?’” Nonetheless, both MacIsaac and Spaisman say they welcome the competition. “It just kind of validates the idea,” Spaisman says. “It only creates more buzz and it only helps. The city is definitely big enough for all of us.”

Now, it looks like both shops are set to open within the next week or two.

In the past several months, doughnuts have been heralded as D.C.’s new ubertrend. Besides Astro Doughnuts and GBD, there’s Zeke’s DC Donutz in Dupont and District Doughnut on the way, not to mention the countless restaurants that are suddenly featuring fancy fried dough on their menus. And let’s not forget that Seasonal Pantry chef Dan O’Brien also flirted with the idea of opening a fried chicken and doughnut shop after the sellout success of themed nights with those foods.

These days, D.C. restaurant concept trends don’t just come in small clusters, but in tsunami waves. And it’s not just doughnuts. Ramen went from a novelty to all-the-rage with the arrival of Daikaya, Taan, and Sakuramen within the past year, plus bowls of the noodle soup appearing on menus at non-Asian restaurants. The District transitioned from a taco desert to a Mexican hot spot with Bandolero, El Chucho, Pacifico Cantina, Crios Modern Mexican, District Taco, Tacos El Chilango, and Fuego Cocina y Tequileria all opening in 2012. Italian restaurants, burger joints, and frozen yogurt shops have all made similar onslaughts in D.C. recently.

So why do certain food concepts comes in droves? “All I have to chalk it up to is that we thought it was a great idea,” MacIsaac says of doughnuts. “So it’s not that far-fetched for someone else to think it’s a great idea. There was a huge void for it.”

But just the absence of some food concept isn’t necessarily enough to start a trend, according to Jonah Berger, an assistant marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose new book Contagious explores why things catch on. “There are probably dozens of voids right now. Hundreds of voids,” he says. “Kazakhstani food, there’s not a lot of Kazakhstani restaurants. Not a lot of Polish restaurants. There are dozens, if not hundreds of cuisines that are not heavily represented in the D.C. metropolitan area.”

Instead of filling a void, trends are influenced by what others are doing, Berger says. And what’s popular now can help predict what’s popular next. “People like what’s around now, but it also makes them like similar things as well,” Berger says. For example, if Karen is a popular baby name this year, similar names like Katie or Karl will likely be popular the next year, because people have heard the “K” sound more frequently.

In the food world, if cupcakes are the big thing, people might not want to open up yet another cupcake shop. But they’ll see the movement toward desserts and go for something similar, Berger says. Like, say, doughnuts. “By doing something slightly different, you put your own spin on it and get credit for it,” he says.

From there, Berger says people tend to go into imitation overdrive, looking to others for information about what is the right thing to do: “It’s just like when we’re in another foreign city and we don’t know where to eat, we look for a restaurant that’s full. We assume, well, if the restaurant’s full, it must be good. We assume, well, if a bunch of places like this are opening, it’s probably a good idea.”

Indeed, if it’s popular in D.C. now, there’s a good chance it was popular somewhere else first. Local gourmet doughnut shop folks say they drew inspiration and validation for their ideas from similar places in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. Notably, Philadelphia’s Federal Donuts, which sells fried chicken and doughnuts, had been drawing a cult following since it opened in October 2011.

Toki Underground is often credited for starting the ramen trend in D.C. Though it’s certainly been a big influencer, chef Erik Bruner-Yang wasn’t the only one around here to come up with the idea. The planning for Daikaya happened more than a year before Toki ever opened. Daikaya’s owners didn’t know the H Street NE noodle shop was in the works at the time. “It’s like the whole sliders thing. When did every restaurant have sliders?” asks Daikaya chef Katsuya Fukushima. “And then in New York, you turn around and everyone’s doing steamed buns with pork belly. Once people realize it’s just good food, then why not make it?” Besides, before Toki Underground or any other hip noodle shop hit D.C., David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar was already leading the trend in New York.

Another reason some trends catch on more than others: emotional resonance. It’s no coincidence that the foods popping up everywhere in D.C.—doughnuts, noodle soup, tacos—are comfort foods, steeped in nostalgia. Berger devotes an entire chapter to the idea that “when we care, we share.” “Doughnuts literally are an American staple,” says Greg Menna of District Doughnut. He and his business partner Juan Pablo Segura, who currently cater doughnuts, began thinking about opening a doughnut shop several years ago and are still trying to secure a lease. “There’s just something about a doughnut that unites your fondest memories of childhood to where you are now.”

In food, it seems, there really are no new ideas. “Even the ideas that are new ideas are spinoffs from existing ideas,” MacIsaac says. “They find inspiration. Everything is connected.”

Like fashion trends, food trends are eventually recycled, fluctuating in and out of vogue. The big question is which of D.C.’s latest obsessions have staying power. Will gourmet doughnuts quickly rise and fizzle or be a staple for years to come?

“The next big thing that pops up,” MacIsaac says, “I’m interested to see if they’re going to say ‘is this the next cupcake’ or ‘is this the next doughnut?’”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo of GBD sign by Darrow Montgomery

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