When downtown Guelph business owner Cas Knihnisky wants to reward herself, she reaches for a doughnut – one she made herself, with no eggs, milk or butter.
In other words, a vegan doughnut.
Knihnisky is the sole proprietor of Merit Badge Doughnuts, a downtown vegan doughnut bakery. After being in food services around Guelph for a decade – including a stint as a kitchen staff member at Brass Taps at the University of Guelph – she set out last year to test the waters with a vegan version of a Canadian standard.
“I wanted to put my own ethical and environmental values into Merit Badge doughnuts,” she says. “It’s also a matter of inclusion. The ingredients in a conventional doughnut don’t work for everyone.”
With all that in mind, Knihnisky worked up a recipe using organic flour, sugar and flaxseed, with as much local content as possible. This mixture produces a rich, yeast-based dough. When it’s lightly fried, it provides a tasty and hearty foundation for her six doughnut varieties she offers, including the three most popular ones: lemon lavender shortbread, blood orange almond and butter tart bull’s eye.
Merit Badge Doughnuts are catching on. Knihnisky now produces up to 40 dozen doughnuts a week, but plans to double production shortly to keep up with new orders. Just before Easter, three more local retailers started selling them (they’re only available through the company website or at participating retailers; Knihnisky doesn’t have a storefront). That brought the total to six shops in Guelph and Elora where they’re now available.
Knihnisky’s love affair with doughnuts goes back to her childhood. She fondly remembers Saturday morning outings to the doughnut shop with her grandfather – he’d have a French cruller and read the newspaper, while she had a sprinkle doughnut and scour the comics.
“For me, doughnuts have a nostalgic quality, especially in Canadian culture,” she says. “We have more doughnut shops per capita in this country than anywhere else.”
To move her business along, Knihnisky took part in the Incubator Hub program at the University of Guelph John F. Wood Centre for Business and Student enterprise. It focuses on helping start-ups like Merit Badge Doughnuts develop a strong business model that can be rigorously tested and intelligently scaled.
“What we liked about Cas’s company is the strength of the product and the wonderful personality behind the brand,” says Dr. Tyler Zemlak, the centre’s business incubation services manager. “Cas is a gifted entrepreneur and a wonderful human being. When you combine these characteristics with an exceptional product, it’s not surprising to see Merit Badge Doughnuts growing so quickly. Anyone who tries their doughnuts is instantly hooked.”
At $3.50 per doughnut, it’s likely Merit Badge Doughnuts will be seen as a rewarding dessert rather than a snack. But as the company’s growth attests, people will pay for quality… and values that they support.