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Alumni Engagement

BizAdmin grad scores hole-in-one with new cafe and doughnut shop downtown

July 10, 2015

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Brett Zahari welcomed his “baby”— a newly-opened downtown doughnut shop called Bronuts — into the world nine weeks ago. His baby daughter, Emelyn, arrived a week later.

Yet the 23-year-old says he was unfazed by the added stress of navigating both his café’s opening and the arrival of his first child.

“I don’t know any different,” says Zahari, from a table at the Exchange District hot spot.

The way he sees it, opening a business is tough — with a newborn or without — and the demands it creates are par for the course. “You don’t have time for the stuff you’d normally have time for,” Zahari admits. “You prioritize. It’s fun.”

He partnered in the venture with his brother, Dylan, and his wife, Meghan. In less than a year (from May 2014 to April 2015) the trio came up with doughnuts as a business idea, haggled and wooed their landlord for their must-have Bannatyne and King location, burned the candle at both ends balancing day jobs while turning empty space into a charming little café, quit their day jobs, took on considerable debt, and became bakers, marketers, managers, bosses and all the “other duties as assigned” of opening your own business.

In spite of the hectic pace, Zahari, appears to be having a good time. He’s quick with a wave, wink or a hello to customers coming and going. Building relationships, he says, is fundamental to success.

“The people around you are what are going to make you successful,” he says. “The connections that you have with people, that’s how you become successful in life.”

Zahari has lived in the Exchange for three years, and has long been enamored by the now-bustling coffee culture it helped launch — one that has since fanned out to pockets throughout the city. He says it’s a collaborative community based less on competition and more on celebrating the shops’ diverse offerings. What does he think Bronuts brings to the mix?

Zahari answers with the simple brand parlance from his website: Two brothers making donuts. (These particular brothers favour the American spelling.)

“Homemade doughnuts,” he adds. “The way you think they should taste. With really good coffee.”

As an entrepreneur, he’s learned to triage issues as they come. (In a single hour on the day he’s interviewed, he has to deal with a shortage of coffee filters from his supplier and an unpredictable wireless connection that supports the entire sales process.)

It helps that Zahari comes from a family of self-starters: his mom has a nine-to-five job but also owns properties, his dad is a contractor, and his stepdad is self-employed, as well. He also credits his training in marketing and start-ups at Red River College — where he graduated from the Business Administration program in 2013 — for helping lay the groundwork for Bronuts.

But when the rubber hit the road, he admits that all bets were off and that instinct became his guide.

“The first week we completed our business plan and it was like, ‘Okay, now we’re just guessing,’” says Zahari, who previously worked as a marketing analyst for a local IT firm. “That was as much as I had learned. Now we’re just winging it.”

Rather than fear this unknown, Zahari’s advice to would-be entrepreneurs is to embrace it, just as he and his partners in Bronuts have done.

“I would say just try things,” he says. “Just be okay to start small and explore any ideas you have. Think them through. Try them out.”

He calls Meghan their “secret weapon” and admits that in spite of his background in marketing, she’s grabbed the reins to drive their brand using social media channels such as Facebook and Instagram. Scanning the interior of their 1,000-square-foot café, all of it built by the brothers, Meghan and the boys’ dad, he points to the tiled back splash behind their counter as another example of their go-for-it ethos.

“When you own your own business, you’re doing it as it comes,” he says. “[Dylan] built that whole tile wall. He’d never tiled before in his life.”

Dylan had also never made doughnuts before either— a hurdle for someone getting into the doughnut business. Zahari says it took a lot of research, and some disastrous experiments in their mom’s kitchen, before Dylan turned the five staples of “dough” (flour, eggs, butter, milk and sugar) into the special “Bro” formula.

“Doughnuts are funny,” says Zahari. “They all have the same ingredients for the most part. It’s all in how you make them. It’s all about timing. It’s all about the process. The secret sauce is your process.”

In three months, Bronuts has gone from buzz to busy. The shop today has a staff of 12 and Zahari says they are constantly looking at ways to improve the experience. They recently introduced the lemon and poppy seed doughnut — Zahari’s favourite, dubbed Summer — alongside their fixed, four-flavour rotation of Madison (peanut butter; named after the boys sister); Nicholas (Nutella; named after their brother, who works for them too); Samuel (vanilla; named after Meghan’s brother); and Betty (cinnamon-sugar; named after Meghan’s late grandmother). Additional entries are in the works for later in the year.

Zahari says the focus for now is on becoming an integral part of the Exchange District community. But ideas for what they can do beyond their neighbourhood are also on the brain.

“If you sustain, you’re going backwards,” says Zahari. “We always have to be innovating, trying new things. Nothing’s really off the table for us.”