“Doughnuts are the new cupcakes.” The refrain echoed from various corners of the internet, starting in 2010 and cropped up here and there straight on through 2015. (If it’s been the subject of a Buzzfeed listicle, clearly it must be true.)
As the pink bakery boxes that litter countless office break room tables would attest, doughnuts never really faded in popularity — but they saw a resurgence in the early to mid aughts as independent shops across the country like Doughnut Plant (NYC) and Voodoo Doughnut (Portland, Oregon) began serving pricier “gourmet” specimens.
Though indie businesses still rule when it comes to fancified doughnuts, one emerging concept is aiming to combine the upmarket approach of such shops with the dominance of a big chain: Rise Biscuits & Doughnuts out of Durham, North Carolina, opened its first store in 2012 and aims to eventually have as many as 1,000 — or more — locations nationwide. To achieve that massive expansion, the company inked a deal with franchise development group Fransmart, which might be best known as the company that helped burger chain Five Guys grow from five stores to more than 1,000. More recently, it took on Halal Guys, fueling its expansion from a few NYC food carts to a nationwide chain that now has 66 outlets and hundreds more in development.
“The doughnuts bring people in and the biscuits hook ‘em,” says Mark Treptow, Fransmart’s senior director of development for Rise. The franchise group says it was impressed with Rise's founder, Tom Ferguson, a chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America. But it was the one-two punch of carbohydrates that made Rise such an attractive franchise candidate. “Rise is basically just a Southern approach to a gourmet doughnut concept,” says Fransmart CEO Dan Rowe. “But the biscuit sandwiches are the thing that separates it from the pack.”
Breakfast is big business. Earlier this year, market research firm NPD Group reported that out of the three traditional meal times, only breakfast had seen an increase in restaurant traffic over the prior year. “[Breakfast has] been the only bright spot in the industry and it’s been that way for years,” analyst Bonnie Riggs told Eater. It’s also no secret that national interest in Southern food has been growing in recent years, for better or for worse.
Rise capitalizes on both. Its restaurants are designed to look like a neighborhood cafe: Each store follows the same counter-service model centered around a bakery case stacked with fritters. The doughnut menu includes the standards (glazed, chocolate-frosted, old-fashioned) as well as more creative options, such caramelized Cap’n Crunch cereal, pineapple-basil, and pumpkin cream cheese with toasted pecans. Biscuits are baked on site “every half-hour,” and are made into sandwiches with bacon, sausage, eggs, fried chicken, or pimento cheese. “Hashpuppies” — oversized tater tots studded with pockets of melted cheese — are a menu staple.
In the past five years, Rise has grown from one to 15 locations, and it’s moving quickly: The company plans to open another four to six stores in the first quarter of 2018, and 130 more locations are currently in development across 10 states.
Professor Barry Shuster of North Carolina Central University’s Department of Hospitality & Tourism Administration doesn’t believe that kind of growth is out of the question. “The grab-and-go breakfast market has no shortage of competitors,” Shuster says. “But consider in 1994, Firehouse Subs entered the sub sandwich market with Subway and Quiznos, and has since surpassed 1,000 units. Shake Shack went from a food cart in 2004 to a public company employing more than 1,500 workers. Who thought the world needed another burger place?”
“I believe the winners in the quick-service sector are concepts that can take familiar menu items and make them unique and a step above in quality,” Shuster says. “My understanding is that Rise Biscuits & Donuts has been successful in this regard.”
Of course, a step up in quality also means a step up in prices: An assorted box of a dozen doughnuts costs $14.95 at Rise, which is on the lower end for so-called “gourmet” doughnut places but considerably more pricey than the average neighborhood shop. But Rise is banking on the fact that its customers will be willing to pay more for that gourmet experience. Chris Miller, a computer programmer who recently visited the Rise location in the northern Dallas suburb of Allen, doesn’t mind the extra cost, saying, “[The doughnuts] are way better than you get elsewhere. They taste fresher, and the fried chicken biscuit is awesome.”
With an eye toward its planned expansion, Rise is slowly but surely refining its business model to make it more easily replicable. The menu previously featured a build-your-own biscuit sandwich model that resulted in a dizzying array of options, but in recent months, that’s been whittled down to a tidy assortment of eight varieties such as sausage and egg, fried chicken, and a riff on huevos rancheros.
Though it considers itself a “better breakfast” concept, Rise is now pushing its lunch menu in an effort to drive more weekday afternoon traffic to its stores; currently, the typical location does 50 percent of its business on Saturdays and Sundays. Starting at 11:30 a.m. until closing time at 2 p.m., stores sling a more lunch-oriented array of sandwiches served on Martin’s potato rolls — think buffalo chicken with blue cheese, turkey and brie, and chicken-fried steak.
Colorado, Florida, and California are about to get their first Rise locations — and though the company’s origins are in the American South, Fransmart believes its appeal will translate globally, “We’ve already had franchise inquiries from Asia and the Middle East,” Rowe says. “So, soon enough we'll be there, but right now the focus is just North America.”
But whether or not biscuits will resonate with customers on the coasts — not to mention Asia and the Middle East — is a question worth asking. The current lack of biscuits (and biscuit sandwiches) in regions beyond the South can, in food writer and Extra Crispy senior editor Kat Kinsman’s opinion, be attributed at least in part to the fact that most people simply haven’t had a really good biscuit.
“If you’re not from a biscuit culture, you probably just think of canned biscuits or Bisquik biscuits, which are decent for a fix, but nowhere near the act of art that they truly can be,” she says, noting that though chains like Popeyes may also offer a cheap option, there are no “biscuit-centric” chains represented nationally.
The Fransmart team believes bringing quality biscuits to the masses will be Rise’s key to success. “If you look at our competition, like Biscuitville and Bojangles’, they don’t really offer anything sweet — and if you look at Dunkin’, they try to do [savory] food, but they do it really badly.”
But Rise doesn’t have any aspiration of becoming the next Dunkin’. “The big huge doughnut chains, we won’t compete with those,” Rowe says. “Our competitors will be gourmet, cheffy, regional players — Voodoo Doughnut, places like that that have more of an artisan, scratch approach. But only a few of those guys will actually be able to grow coast to coast.”