The Magic Is In the Hole: A Conversation With Voodoo Doughnut’s Rock-Star Owner Tres Shannon

Atop a mountain of doughnuts, sexual innuendos, pink boxes, and 45′ records are Tres Shannon and Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson. Before IFC’s hit series Portlandia was putting Portland’s eccentricities on the map, Voodoo Doughnuts had lines out its doors with customers lined up around the block waiting for voodoo doll doughnuts, maple bacon doughnuts, or the iconic cock and balls doughnuts.

Tres Shannon is a true Portlandian through and through, becoming an official mayor to downtown Portland. Doing this interview Shannon walked us around Burnside Street where the flagship Voodoo Doughnuts is located and led us into iconic Portland venue, Dante’s.

Voodoo Doughnuts has become one of the most eclectic locations in not just Portland but the entire U.S. food/restaurant industry. Now located in Hollywood, California, Denver, Colorado, and Austin, Texas, voodoo seems to be sweeping the nation one city at a time.

Tres Shannon in front of Voodoo Doughnuts, Portland, OR. location. Photo by Antonio Villaseñor-Baca.

Shannon and Cat Daddy have made a happy tradition of waiting in lines for long periods of time only to be greeted by voodoo lore’s Baron Samedi and pink panties with “The Magic is in the Hole” written across them.

But it isn’t just dirty puns and phallic shaped doughnuts that built this doughnut empire; it’s Shannon’s rock n’ roll history mixed with Cat Daddy’s food industry know-how.

Shannon use to book bands at the X-Ray Cafe, which use to be located near where the original Voodoo Doughnuts is now located. The X-Ray Cafe was Shannon’s introduction into rock history, having booked bands like Green Day and Queens of the Stage.

He even recalled a story of booking El Paso punk-rockers At the Drive-In and describing how awkward and shy they were. This X-Ray Cafe history and Shannon’s credentials were the roots for Voodoo Records, the record label owned by Voodoo Doughnuts.

The doughnut company is a place where people have fun if not because of the great sweets, because of how fun it is. Each location seems like a weird Willy Wonka factory designed by a pervy teenager.

Question: So tell me about your background. You use to book shows. You’ve traveled. Tell me about yourself.

Answer: My name is Tres Shannon. T-R-E-S; three in Spanish. I’m a third. I was born in Portland, so I’m like a fourth generation Portland-guy which is pretty rare these days in Portland. Everybody is new nowadays, ‘I’ve been here nine years,’ and they all claim that they know the town. I did do some time in Colorado, I did high school in Colorado. But my grandparents, and my great-grandparents are from here. And then I moved back in ’84 and I didn’t go to college. I got out of high school and went to one day of college and then moved to Portland and just had a couple of restaurant jobs and just dumb stuff and then I booked a club called the X-Ray Café, which is right on Burnside [Street]. It’s right on the other side [of Dante’s, where the interview took place]. And that was in 1990. This area is still pretty sketchy but it was really sketchy in 1990. Now Voodoo Doughnuts is there so there’s all these tourists there but in 1990 there weren’t tourists coming down there. Lots of drugs dealers, lots of homeless; we like to effectively call this area the crotch of Portland- not the heart it’s the crotch. And so I’ve been down in this block since 1990 in some capacity so I had an all ages club from ’90 to ’94 and didn’t make any money. Very small, like 50 people was the capacity. We could squeeze in 100 because we had bleachers. Tons of bands played there. Green Day played there. It was all during the grunge movement happened in what, ’92? Every fucking band wanted to play that place with guitars and basses and drums. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus and they’re all calling themselves alternative bands. And I’m like, ‘you guys aren’t alternative, you sound like everybody else.’ So I had that from ’90 to ’94 and we didn’t make any money of course but we kind of put ourselves on the map, I made a lot friends, made a lot of connections. But after that I started booking after a year of kind of not doing much except singing and DJ’ing, in a 500 seat capacity place. Lots of bands played there. At The Drive-In, the White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age. Those kind of levels of band. And that was from ’96 to 2001, I think. And then I kind of sang for my supper again. I DJ’ed a bit. My business partner, Cat Daddy, moved back. He’s from Memphis. He’s a Memphis guy; lived in Portland wanted to move to Memphis to start a business. He didn’t like Memphis, he wanted to come back to Portland. So right around when I was kind of getting tired of singing for my supper, I needed to make a move. He came back and was like, ‘let’s go into business together.’ Didn’t know what it was going to be like and we kind of just hit on a doughnut shop because of all of our research, there had never been doughnut shops in downtown Portland, ever. I mean as a party game in the 80’s, I thought it would be funny to call it ‘every picture tells a story doughnut,’ like the Rod Stewart song and just serve cream-filled doughnuts and have pictures of Rod Stewart, you know because of how they had to pump nineteen gallons of semen out of his stomach or whatever. [A rumor Rod Stewart blamed on an upset publicist.] But that’s just a funny, in my mind. Now I have a doughnut shop. So we opened up Voodoo Doughnut in 2003 and that was almost fifteen years. It’ll be fifteen years in May. That’s what I’ve been doing. Cat Daddy and I, when we first started working in the doughnut shop, it was 750 square feet. Now we have two shops in Portland, one in Eugene, one in Denver, one in Austin, Universal Studios in L.A. and soon to be in Orlando and we just hired a CEO who’s going to probably push the pedal to the metal and probably open up a bunch of Voodoo Doughnuts because, fuck I didn’t go to college. I don’t know how to manage 300 employees. And we’ve done a pretty good job and it’s kind of time to take it to the next level I think, which has its challenges but I think we’re ready for it. It’s kind of what I’ve been doing. I’ve been the doughnut guy for fifteen years. It’s been great. I’ve made more money than I’ve ever, not that it’s all about money but going from making fifty bucks a night DJ’ing to making a steady paycheck is kind of cool and owning my own business. It’s kind of cool. And I’ve still been able to big time in this part of town. I mean I can go in the basement [in Dante’s] if I want to and I mean I’ve got the keys to the city around here, around this part for sure. Other than that, I like traveling. I like girls. I like weird stuff.

Q: Once you did have an idea for a doughnut place, where did the name Voodoo Doughnuts come from?

A: You know, Cat Daddy, partially being from Memphis. He was thinking of opening up a place called Voodoo Barbecue, because he’s a really good barbecue guy. So it was kind of flipping around, but it just sounded good. It has a lot of O’s that look like doughnuts. And our big thing about starting a doughnut shop is that it’s spelled correctly. They’re made of ‘dough’ not ‘do.’ So it’s little funny stuff like that. And with Voodoo Doughnut and spelling it correctly, it was kind of a big deal. With voodoo then, our logo is Baron Samedi, who’s the guy who leads the parade in Mardi Gras. In voodoo lore and culture, he’s the guy who shows you heaven or hell when you die. And if you see him, on the earth when you’re alive, you’re suppose to adorn him with sweets so the story goes that when he sees you at the gates or whatever, if he remembers that you adorned him with sweets then you’ll be sent the right way. But he’s the guy you’ll see lead the parade. Think of James Bond, Live and Let Die. It’s like Seven-Up guy. That’s Baron Samedi. And we get a little people saying we’re appropriating culture and all this stuff and it’s like, it’s just Voodoo Doughnuts. There’s good voodoo, there’s bad voodoo; we’re just a doughnut shop. And with voodoo, we’re able to conjure up delectable sweets around a cauldron of fat. We do weddings and we have some ritual like that but it’s just a doughnut shop with the name voodoo. And we always knew we wanted to make the voodoo doll and we learned how to make doughnuts down in L.A. Neither of us had ever made a doughnut. I wasn’t even allowed to eat doughnuts growing up and so we went down to L.A. where our supplier is and they taught us how to make doughnuts in three days. We wanted to make a voodoo doughnut like a voodoo doll but we had no idea. The guy took like three seconds. He took a roller and then took a cutter and was like ‘those are your arms, so there’s your voodoo doll.’ Then we dipped it in chocolate and made the little face. It took us a couple of months to figure out the pretzel, because you needed a pin. We were going to use these chocolate sticks but they were too expensive, and straw. And one day it was like hmm, pretzel sticks and they came in these big boxes of twenty thousand or whatever they are. It was like perfect, now we’ve got the voodoo doll. And then shortly after that the bacon maple bar was a big deal. I think we were the first people to put bacon on a maple bar. Now, I’m sorry about that because it seems every body has bacon on a maple-something. Now we’re just rolling with the tide. Cat Daddy and I are really good at kind of running the circus. That’s easy for us. I think for a lot of business owners, it’s kind of hard. They get operations people. Cat Daddy and I are good at all this. We have a great product too but with us being able to get out and do interviews, we’ve never really spent money on advertising. It’s always been word of mouth. And with my rock n’ roll credentials, it’s great to be able to get doughnuts backstage. Put them in the basement here at Dante’s.

Q: You said you weren’t allowed to eat doughnuts- why is that?

A: Oh, it was just my parents weren’t big sweets people. It wasn’t like ‘you’re not allowed’ but it wasn’t like we’d go. And there weren’t a lot of doughnut shops. I mean I lived in Denver at the time. There were a couple but not near my house. And Cat Daddy in Memphis had a little more experience because he went to church. After church in the South, everybody goes to the doughnut shops. So that was kind of a thing. And it’s funny because we’re Voodoo Doughnut and we’re not really following the Christian lifestyle. A lot of it was just ‘ha-ha-ha. We’re just kind of shooting from the hips.’ Seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. I have a really good relationship with the local press, mostly because of the X-Ray. I had a really good rolodex and people want stuff to write about and a doughnut shop in downtown Portland became this thing. I just wanted to maybe buy a house. You know? That was kind of my whole goal; and try to have more than 75 bucks in the bank like most people living paycheck to paycheck and I did that for a long time. It’s kind of neat. And it’s neat to see my employees, they’re my friends now, but have been working for us eleven, twelve years, buying houses, getting married, having kids, and I’m very proud of that. Being able to provide jobs for people. It’s pretty cool. We pay people well, and there’s benefits, paid time off, and all that. But you can always do better. There’s always a challenge. I can’t just throw everybody 100 dollars an hour. I wish I could. But a lot of our people make real good money. Most of the people that work for me are , I’m 52. So I’m like the oldest guy in the whole deal. I think there’s one older person than me in the entire company. And our new CEO is older than me so maybe two people. I got Cat Daddy by a couple of months…fucker. So I’m real proud of that. WE just set out to run a business and have something to do, make doughnuts, have fun, and we start making cock and ball doughnuts, and good things come in pink boxes, and the testicles and the tip are filled with dream, and it’s lots of sexual innuendos we’ve done with doughnuts. Magic is in the hole. We have a good time with stuff. But you know, neither of us really expected, all people when you go into business want to be successful, and blow up but I didn’t really think that doughnuts… I mean before that place next door opened it was a porno theatre. And then there’s the titty bar next door. It’s like opening a doughnut shop in this terrible part of town next to a porno theatre and not even a topless bar, in Oregon it’s topless and bottomless, um I don’t really think that’s in your business 101 book. Somehow we made it work and [you can see the line outside of the flagship location.] But it’s funny that all these people want to wait in line in the cold with the homeless people and drug dealers out in front. I don’t know why but I’m happy to provide them doughnuts.

Photo by Antonio Villaseñor-Baca

Q: Where do the ideas come from now for the doughnuts?

A: The first ones were probably Cat Daddy and I. A lot of them were probably just sheer exhaustion, because we had to go to Cash and Carry, a place where they have large quantities. So you know, ‘let’s put cereal on them,’ and we discovered like cotton candy powder and we started putting on there. Some of this is smoking pot. Kind of tired and getting high and going shopping and then at one point we had too many kinds of doughnuts. There are so many combinations. It’s kind of like Mexican you have your bases. There’s not much difference between a burrito and an enchilada but there is. Same kind of thing with doughnuts. So we started making these crazy combos but then it got too confusing so these days we just did a little doughnut purge. We got rid of like nine doughnuts that weren’t really selling. I think we have like 60 choices now. But we were up to 100 at one point. Then you got out employees and you don’t want to squelch their creativity but we need to have consistency. Somebody makes a doughnut over here that they aren’t making over across the river or in Denver or Austin. We do our tribute doughnuts when people die. We do obituary doughnuts. We have these amazing decorators now. Then our cock and balls doughnuts, people put funny sayings or do art on those. Kind of let people fly the freak flag for that. I haven’t made a doughnut in five, six, or seven years. I made them everyday, I was up for 18 hours a day for five to six years. It’s hard work. It’s a young man’s game, let me tell ya. It’s tough. And I kind of slow the process down because I talk a lot. I kind of get to be the fun Flavor Flav of doughnut shops. I always tell Cat Daddy he’s the dough and I’m the nut. Everybody says not to go into business with your best friend but we made it work.

Q: When and where did the decision come from to branch into making records?

A: Oh, the record label. Well, Cat Daddy and I are big record people. I mean we love records, vinyl, music, and we always have music out in the shop, loud rock n’ roll music. It started with kind of a joke. Let’s make a box-set with doughnut themed songs. And so we put out a box-set of 45’s thirteen in a box so it’s kind of like a box of doughnuts and they’re on different colored wax. All of the songs are about doughnuts. And from the X-Ray I had all these tapes that had to be digitalized so I reacquired them and now we’ve all these great shows from ’90 to ’94. So I got them all digitalized. We kind of went through and mixed and mastered some stuff and put out full lengths. Running a record label is just digging a big hole and putting money it and putting a bunch of dirt on the money and stomping on it then digging another hole and putting money in it. It’s kind of just a vanity label and we thought it was a good idea. We did put out, I mean three or four years, we’ve put out 35, 36 releases or something? I don’t know how these little labels can actually survive and thrive. We’re kind of slowing it down a little right now just because we don’t have a lot of time. And quite frankly I just don’t want to put too much more money into these projects that I feel so passionately about. You know, print 500 records and I’m still sitting on 436 of them. But we had some success.

By Antonio Villasenor-Baca

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