THE MACHINE PURRS TO LIFE, AND A PERFECT WHEEL-SHAPED MEASURE OF BATTER PLOPS FROM A HOPPER INTO A LONG, NARROW TRAY OF HOT SOYBEAN OIL
A few seconds later, a conveyor belt moves it forward. It proceeds down the canal, one notch at a time, until it flips, finishes its time in the gently bubbling grease, and, exactly 135 seconds from the start, drops into a plastic bowl on a revolving disc to cool.
Another Zombie doughnut is born. Chelsey Beck gently picks it up in a silicon-gloved hand, dips it into the glaze, places it on a plate, and adds custom-ordered toppings. For Tina West, the icing is traditional sugar glaze, and the topping is bacon crumbles. She’s in Athens from Commerce, visiting this coffee shop for the first time.
Sitting in a metal bistro chair, she picks up a knife from the butcher block table and delicately cuts into her freshly fried cake. She forks a piece into her mouth and aaaahs. “This is a good doughnut,” she pronounces. “It tastes sort of like a pancake breakfast.” About one bite’s worth — 5 percent — of the price she paid for the doughnut will go to an Athens-area charity. West’s son, Fischer, 10, hopes that will be the city’s Emergency Food Bank. Customers will determine the recipient of the month’s benevolence by dropping wooden tokens into one of three boxes, each labeled with information about a local organization. The one with the most tokens gets the check. Each month three more charities, nominated with input from the University of Georgia’s school of social work, get a chance at the proceeds.
Fischer, who didn’t want a doughnut but who had custody of his mother’s token, chose the Food Bank over two others for a simple reason: he didn’t grasp the missions of the other two, but he understood that hungry people need food.
A SWEET APPROACH TO BUSINESS || Acquainting customers with the charities is more important in the long run than the 5 percent share of the month’s gross sales that Zombie will send to the top vote getter, says Zombie founder Tony Raffa.
Raffa, 24, opened Zombie on East Broad Street, a few hundred feet from the fabled University of Georgia arch, two years ago. He had sold coffee for several years through pop-up coffee shops, mostly in frozen yogurt stores in his hometown of Washington, DC, on his college breaks from the University of Georgia. Originally, he planned to operate just a coffee shop — Zombie Coffee because people “are zombies before the first cup of coffee in the morning.” Looking for a way to distinguish his store from the usual chains, he came across an old-fashioned doughnut machine that could make the treats “fresh and quick.” Soon people were gobbling up so many that Raffa added Donuts to the name of the business.
The Athens shop runs two machines, one for white batter, one for chocolate, and Raffa now owns a second shop with a partner in Columbia, SC. Recently, the Athens store added an online order and shipping option that will take Zombie doughnuts throughout the country.
With two batters, nine coatings, and some 20 toppings ranging from pecans to gummy worms, the possible combinations run into the thousands.
Some people come for the coffee and made-to-order doughnuts; others come to support the charities, which, according to Raffa, are as integral to the business as hot oil and sugar sprinkles. A sign in the Zombie cafe sums up the philosophy: “Zombie Coffee & Donuts does not want to simply be the best coffee and donut company in the world, we want to be the best coffee and donut company for the world.” Even when he ran pop-up shops, Raffa gave a percentage of the proceeds to worthy causes. But he learned that just putting up a sign that said the business supported local not-for-profit agencies didn’t engage the customers with the needs in the community
“What I realized was that, with a coffee shop, we had a lot of people walking in and out each day,” he said. “I wanted to teach people about the organizations around town.” The solution, he decided, was to let the customers pick the charity of the month. To decide how to vote, theoretically at least, someone would read the posts above all three charities.
CHARITABLE OFFERINGS || Three choices a month, 12 months a year —regular customers are exposed to as many as three dozen organizations each year, although runner-up agencies may show up for another chance at the funds after a few months. “At some point, everyone will win,” Raffa said. Charities that don’t get the Zombie check may attract new donors and volunteers from the exposure. Take the case of First Book, a University of Georgia-affiliated organization that provides books to low-income students in Athens Clarke County. In a heated race that saw students streaming in for doughnuts, coffee, and wooden tokens,
First Book came in second by a nose. But after learning about the literacy mission through Zombie, a donor came forward with a much bigger gift than Zombie’s month’s contribution would have been. “It was a completely unexpected outcome of losing the competition,” said Emily Stone of First Book, “but in the end more books went home with more children in Athens. We’re lucky to have businesses in Athens that are so willing to invest in the community.”
Zombie’s display case used to be lined with thank-you notes from charities, but the doughnut-grease buildup became a concern, said manager Beck. “We had to throw them away. We didn’t want them to attract bugs.” Besides money, Zombie furnishes doughnuts and coffee to some charitable events. The hallway from the cafe to the restrooms is decorated with framed posters for charities and every organization retains a spot on Zombie’s website. Ashley Frederick, a single mother who works at the University of Georgia’s Disability Resource Center, is a regular customer. She came by shortly after the beginning of the month to check out the new display of good causes.
Iced coffee in hand, she pored over the descriptions above each box before releasing her wooden token into the box for Embark, whose purpose is to increase college access and retention for youth who have experienced foster care or homelessness.
“It’s hard to do anything when you don’t have a safe, secure place to stay,” said Frederick, who majored in social work. “It makes everything harder.”
Frederick comes to Zombie for the charities, she said. She paused, then added, “That — and it’s the only place in town where the ice cubes are made of coffee so they don’t dilute the drink.”