It’s rare that a French pastry chef requires private security. But for Dominique Ansel, it was an absolute necessity.
“I had to push them back, almost like physically, and ask them to wait in line,” he said.
It wasn’t Ansel himself people were clamoring for, but the 3-inch, cream-filled, flaky pastry that he invented 10 years ago this May, known as the Cronut, a portmanteau of croissant and doughnut.
The tiny creation — forged in Ansel’s 100 square foot kitchen in SoHo in 2013 — would generate an international furor, a David and Goliath trademark war with huge conglomerates, a Harvard Business Review case study in entrepreneurship and a small baking empire for Ansel himself.
A decade on, Ansel is a bona fide celebrity in the food industry and he says the pastry has changed his life forever — though not always for the better.
There is no playbook for inventing a pastry so popular that grownups fight each other to get one. He learned that the hard way.
Sometimes customers stood for hours, only to be disappointed when the Cronuts sold out. Scalpers started reselling them for 20 times the price. A dozen Cronuts once sold for $14,000 at a charity auction. Corporations were trying to steal the concept. TV news crews were showing up, filming the line, where fights occasionally broke out. One morning, the line was rerouted because of a dead body — but even that did not stop people from waiting for Cronuts.
“It was just like, what is gonna happen?” Ansel said, looking back. “Like when is this going to stop?”
Amid the frenzy, Ansel was sleeping just two or three hours a night, and sometimes working 22-hour days. He lost 20 pounds that year.
Part of the problem – but also the charm of the Cronut’s origin story – was that Ansel couldn’t just hire more staff, because his kitchen was only 100 square feet. That limited supply turned out to be a brilliant marketing play.
Ansel said he never expected the Cronut would bring the level of success it did. In May 2013, before the Cronut was a case study for Harvard Business School, or a trademarked term, or sold in Tokyo, or even a limited edition NFT, it was a clever treat that Ansel had spent three months developing: a croissant-donut with Tahitian vanilla ganache, a rose glaze and crystallized rose petals.
The goal, Ansel said, was to make something good so customers would return.
What was hard to see in 2013, but seemingly obvious a decade later, is that what took place was the perfect confluence of events — a Big Bang of baking. A chef who’d worked at some of the world’s most demanding kitchens, had come out with a new treat, which was affordable to most at $5 a pop. But it followed another new invention: Instagram, a photo sharing platform most people weren’t exactly sure what to do with, but figured it probably involved taking pictures of their food?
The Cronut “started a revolution of Instagrammable, desirable foods that basically created social currency,” said Penny Stankiewicz, a chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education and the owner of Sugar Couture, a custom cake business.
In 2013, words like “algorithms” and “influencers” hadn’t yet crept into our collective understanding of how the world works. TikTok was still three years from launch. But the term “food porn” was ubiquitous; news articles from that era examined the curious trend of “foodstagramming,” and marveled that people were turning to social media rather than “mom’s recipe box” for cooking tips.
Enter the Cronut, with its photogenic charm, novelty, and limited supply. Ironically, the man who swears he had no marketing strategy backed into writing the formula for how to make a bakery hit big in the Instagram age.
The Cronut paved the way for social media darlings that followed: the ramen burger, the rainbow bagel (which was invented years earlier but trended in 2015), baked feta pasta, Crumbl cookies and the Suprême croissant (“it’s like the Cronut’s hotter, cooler older sister,” according to Tasting Table).
“What happened with that Cronut changed how people built restaurants, how people built bakeries, to make places where people could take pictures,” said Stankiewicz. “Because they understood the need for the public to drive the interest in their product.”
But why the Cronut? What desire did it unlock in people to make them willing to wait hours for one?
“The Cronut wasn’t just selling food,” said Jonah Berger, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the author of “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.” “There are a gazillion places in New York City to get food faster and easier and more cheaply than the Cronut.”
“They were selling social currency,” said Berger. “They were selling the ability to tell everyone you know that you’ve had something that not everyone else has had access to, right? You look smart, you look special, you look in the know, you look ahead of everybody else, because you’ve gotten this thing that not everyone else has.”
When asked about his success, Ansel, with his laser focus on quality, said the secret sauce was more tangible than digital: “We still have to make the food, we still have to hand out the food to the guests, and guests still have to enjoy it, and build their memories and emotions with the food.”
He said live TV spots helped, and so did an early blog post on Grub Street (that itself went viral), whose headline proclaimed that the Cronut “may very well change your life.” The post went on to describe the “sheer implausibility and engineering genius that goes into each one of these things.” It explained to non-bakers what a feat it was to fry croissant dough, let alone fill that creation with cream.
Hugh Merwin, who wrote that blog post and headline, said he was feeling “a little bit bombastic that day.” But he emphasized that he sincerely loved the Cronut, it did change his life, and he looks back on the post as almost a personal essay because he was so blown away by the Cronut.
“It never struck me as a novelty,” said Merwin. “It just struck me as a well-engineered, well thought through, beautiful pastry.”
“We were also emerging from a decade-plus era of cupcake boutiques,” Merwin said later in an email. “It often seemed joyless to me, but the Cronut didn’t.”
Ansel knows that luck and timing and social media all played a role in his ascent. He said you could give him “all the money in the world” and even he couldn’t replicate his own success story.
It is not for a lack of trying. He’s created the chocolate chip cookie shot, the gingerbread pinecone, and the less-heralded pretzel lobster tail, to name just a few – but none have caught fire like the Cronut.
The Cronut, he said, could only have been invented in New York City, where “people are more adventurous with food” and “don’t judge you for your background, where you’re from, or what you’ve done before.”
New Yorkers, he said, give you a chance to gain their trust with quality, creativity and price. (French people, he said, have deemed the Cronut “actually good,” which is a “French compliment.”)
These days, Ansel does a lot of the baking himself, but he has a bigger team to help. He has a bakery in Las Vegas (at Caesar’s Palace), several in Hong Kong (where they only sell the Cronut in May), and two shops in New York (where only one sells the Cronut). In 10 years, he has never repeated a Cronut flavor.
He has turned down offers to expand his empire into a global chain of Cronut stores.
“My dad used to work in a factory,” he said. “I don’t want to own a factory.”
Ansel was born in Beauvais, France, a manufacturing town north of Paris, and started cooking seriously at age 16, in a free culinary program for children from low-income families.
For his clarity of vision, he credits his wife, Amy Ma, who has been with him from the beginning.
He said the Cronut still sells out every day, but “it’s not painful for anyone anymore.” During the pandemic, in October 2020, Ansel introduced online ordering, and Cronuts are now shipped nationwide.
The Cronut isn’t even his bestseller — that would be his sweet and salty caramelized croissant, the DKA, which stands for Dominique’s Kouign-Amann. It’s his spin on a classic Breton cake and has been sold at the bakery since it opened in 2011.
Ansel now forces himself to take Sundays off, because he has two children: a girl born this year; and a son, a pandemic baby who shares a birthday with the Cronut (but not his name).
The Cronut, he said, has opened so many doors: “to creativity, to hospitality, to connecting with people.” He said he’s proud it’s raised money to fight against hunger.
It has made so much possible, Ansel said. “If I had to do it again, I’d do the exact same thing.”
The 10th anniversary Cronut, Raspberry & Pistachio (with raspberry jam and pistachio ganache) will be available at Dominique Ansel Bakery in SoHo from May 1 through May 31. The store will also be selling limited-edition Cronut Holes from May 5 through May 7. Pastries will be available for purchase online at DominiqueAnselOnline.com.
Source : https://gothamist.com/food/the-cronut-turns-10-a-look-at-the-sweet-little-pastry-that-started-a-revolution