BY WENDY M. DODD   |   PHOTOS BY BOB THOMPSON, THOMPSON BRAND IMAGES

From hitting it big in real estate to losing millions when the market crashed, Wesley Chapel residents Patrick and Zezura Ruddell are no strangers to the highs and lows that come with entrepreneurship. Searching for something a little more ‘recession proof’ and that the whole family could be involved with, the Ruddell’s got into the Mini Doughnut making business on November 15th, 2015 and haven’t looked back since. In fact, they are looking forward at a very bright future. Currently with one location running in South Tampa – and lines out the door every weekend – they are slated to open in both St. Pete and Carrolwood by the end of the year.

And next on the list is good ‘ole Wesley Chapel.

With success often comes some uphill climbs along the way, and the Ruddell’s are no different. When the struggles of balancing family life and a rapidly expanding business threatened to tear their relationship apart, the couple knew they needed to find a working balance to save both.

Resident Magazine sat down with the power couple to get the scoop on their keys to success, how to balance work with family, and where in Wesley Chapel they plan to open a Mini Doughnut Factory!

Resident Magazine (RM): Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey before the sweet treats.

Patrick & Zezura Ruddell (P&Z): We’ve been involved in real estate since 2005 but when the market crashed around 2008 we were devastated. We lost millions… we lost everything. We’d flipped between 700 to 800 houses over our career, so of course 2008 hurt, but you shed some tears and you move on. As we started over, we decided to invest in multiple arenas because real estate is cyclical; the risk of losing it all again was just too high.

We moved on to multiple new ideas involving business via the Internet. One was buying and selling domain names; sort of a ‘virtual real estate’. We did well with that venture as well, netting roughly five million.

Blogging was another area we expanded into, writing thousands of articles to teach others to buy and sell domain names. The more I (Patrick) learned, the more I wrote. I was teaching others as I was learning the industry myself. We eventually held our own conference on the industry, spreading the word on what ‘domain names’ are and what they do. When we sold one of our last domains, www.sciencefiction.com, we felt it was time to get back into real estate.

In 2012, we were coaching others to flip houses.  They bring us the deals, we provide the financing, walk them through the process of finding a buyer and closing; ultimately creating a system where we were only working about four hours per week.

We were essentially semi-retired, but retirement is boring to be honest, and we wanted something the kids could do. So, we woke up one morning thinking about doughnuts, and said, “Let’s do it,” so we did.

RM: How did the idea come about for mini doughnuts?

P&Z: Actually, it wasn’t quite part of our original idea. We knew we wanted to make custom, made to order doughnuts; the ‘mini’ part came  into play right before we opened. A friend of ours in Canada mentioned that mini doughnuts are a huge thing up there, so we did some research and found that you really only see mini doughnuts at fairs and such. Some rolled in sugar or powder and others drizzled with toppings, but nothing really mainstream here in the US. So we thought we’d combine our ideas to create a new take on doughnuts; fresh, made to order MINI doughnuts.

RM: What has been the biggest challenge to your entrepreneurial success, mini doughnuts or otherwise?

P&Z: I guess I’ll give you two answers to that one. I’d say for our Mini Doughnut Factory, learning to balance family time was the biggest challenge. In the beginning, we were really struggling with that. We sacrificed family time for the business, which in some ways is necessary for any entrepreneur, until it began dramatically affecting our marriage. Finding a balance between the two was really the key to success; without that balance, it becomes a burden on your family and the business can never truly be a success. We make sure to take a weekly date night, and family nights as well. We even take our kids to meetings, photo shoots and other endeavors with us.

The other challenge was keeping up with demand. With a 1200 square foot space in South Tampa and terrible parking, busy times equal a bit of chaos. Our customer’s love and support means the world to us, so we’re constantly working to maximize our space and update our technology to make it even more enjoyable. It’s a learning process; we’ve never worked in the restaurant industry before, and we were not prepared for the store to be this successful, this fast.

RM: Why do you think the Mini Doughnut Factory has been so successful, so quickly?

P&Z: We’ve been in business about a year and a half now.  South Tampa is a big area for ‘foodies’ who tend to be very accepting of the little mom and pop chains; I really believe that helped us. Also, it was a new product, which makes it fun and exciting. We have customers that will share a photo of their doughnut on social media, bragging about visiting our store and from there ten new people will discover us.

We created our business to be a show. When you walk in, you see the doughnuts being made; you smell them, you see them being mixed and deep-fried right in front of you. We tell our staff they’re ‘on stage;’ they’re putting on a show for the customers, and that’s very important to us. The consumer’s anticipation builds as they move through the line, watching the whole process, and once they reach the end, our product cannot disappoint. We want them to have a fresh, quality product.

There isn’t another place around where you can buy a fresh, quality made doughnut. There are now six other companies that have adopted what we do, but we’re still the best. We were voted #1 doughnut shop in Tampa Bay, by ‘Best of the Bay.’ Hopefully our ‘doughnut family,’ that’s what we like to call our customers, will vote for us and we’ll take #1 again.

RM: Fan favorite?

P&Z: The sweet pig is our best seller, it’s a hot, vanilla cake doughnut glazed in maple icing topped with crispy, chopped bacon.

RM: What is it about mini doughnuts that you love?

P&Z: For me, I love seeing the smiles on people’s faces. It’s about genuinely making people happy. If they’re having a good day and celebrating, or if they’re having a bad day and need a pick me up, we’re there with sweet treats. I love coming in on Sundays to sit and talk with our customers. They’re there with their family gathered around a table, enjoying doughnuts and connecting. It’s really an honor to be part of that. You can’t say that about real estate; that’s about numbers. This is fun. We’ve had customers that have become really good friends, and of course most of our friends are customers as well.

Our children being involved has also been great, they’ve been there from day one. This is something they can do, that they also enjoy. From running the cash register, to barista, to making the dough; they can contribute. We have days that are quite exhausting though and we have to remember they are kids. Like National Doughnut Day, we worked from 4:00 am to 4:00 pm; I think the kids mentioned jokingly about taking an Uber home at some point(laughs).

Our kids are very independent and strong willed; at the end of the day they are what we raised them to be. My parents never taught me about becoming an entrepreneur, they taught me to get a job and work for 30 years to earn my retirement. We raised our children to be open to new ideas and we’ll support them no matter what. Our son, he’s definitely going to go to college, and that’s a good thing. My daughter is a mini-me, she’s a hustler; she does what she needs to do, to get things done.

We are in the process of shifting our children from public school to home school. We’ll be traveling quite a bit with the new stores opening and this way they will be able to take their work with them and finish school faster. Right now they are both in the gifted programs at school and we feel this could be more beneficial. They’ll also be able to observe and learn from us as seasoned entrepreneurs as they grow, allowing us to give them responsibilities over time such as accounting and inventory.

RM: What other products can customers get at the Mini Doughnut Factory?

P&Z: We have matching milkshakes, soft serve ice cream sundaes and our newest addition, doughnut; ice cream sandwiches. Whatever flavor you choose for your doughnut we can make an ice cream treat to match. Right now we’re still perfecting the ice cream sandwich process; it will be added to our menu this month.

Just to add in a fun fact that we haven’t went public with yet, our new St. Pete store will be serving beer and wine as well…; mini doughnuts and mimosas on Sundays!

RM: How does your family get involved in teh community?

P&Z: For us it’s important to be a part of our community, so charity work and giving back is something we are very involved with. We make sure to involve our kids; and teach them the importance of helping others along the way.

We partnered with Metropolitan Ministries a while back to participate in a pizza party where we provided the mini doughnuts for those living in the shelter there. They do wonderful things there; they help young adults get through school if needed. They also teach them life skills and help get them on their feet and working toward becoming productive members of society. We had a great time talking with the residents there; our whole family even ended up having a fun basketball game with the teenagers after the pizza party.

We hold at least one charity event every month, and often we’ll donate thousands of donuts. An event that stands out was a backpack drive for underprivileged kids that we participated in. Our daughter was really moved by what she observed when the younger kids were going through the line to get their donuts; one little girl had said it was the only things she’d had to eat all day. That really hit home with our daughter and, made her appreciate what we have.

The Real Men Wear Pink event will be coming up soon, and with our social media following(26,000 Facebook followers and 21,000 on Instagram) we make sure to post links and share, to get others involved.  Another great example is Orlando’s toy drive from 94.1; they had roughly 800 bikes donated but needed volunteers to put them together. Not everyone reading this can donate money, but that’s where donating your time comes in; it’s just as valuable.  Our social media reach helps to rally volunteers.

RM: Tell us about your plans for expansion.

P&Z: Our St. Petersburg store will be opening in September, we’re about mid construction now. Located at 730 Fourth St N, this store will have double the seating capacity and live coffee roasting. In order to beat out the big box coffee shops, we’re aiming for a locally fresh roasted coffee. That is what consumers want today, to see where and how their food is prepared from start to finish.

We are in the process of signing a lease in North Tampa and working with contacts in Wesley Chapel as well. Wesley Chapel residents really support local businesses and we love that idea of having a location so close to home. Next up will be Orlando, with one or two locations. The idea of franchising has been brought up, and in the future we may revisit that, but at this time we want to maintain ownership of our stores as we expand. By 2022, we’re hoping to have 50 or more locations.

RM: What do you do in your free time?

Z&P: Our weekly date night is usually at Eddie V’s; it’s one of our absolute favorite places in Tampa. We are foodies. We love food, and we workout hard so we can enjoy the best. Sacred Pepper is another one of our favorites; we also do a lot of charity work with both restaurants so that makes it nice. As a family, we play a lot of basketball together, have family movie nights and travel when we can.

RM: If you could put up a billboard, and have it say anything, what would it say?

ZR: “Expect the Unexpected.” We are constantly putting out fires, dealing with employee situations, or running out of bacon at the shop (laughs). We work it out but  the constant flow of unexpected situations isn’t something you’re mentally prepared for when you start out in a business.

PR: My billboard would be two words; “Do Good.” That’s it. I’m a really big believer in ‘if you do good things, good things will happen.’ We try to surround ourselves with good people and do good in our community. That’s really how we try to live.

RM: Do you have a system for coming up with new ideas?

ZR: Usually something will happen that starts the process. We were at the Sacred Pepper and had peanut butter cookie dough with marshmallow ice cream. We ended up collaborating with them to make peanut butter cookie dough with marshmallow mini doughnut. We had our social media teams work it out together, promoted it together and now we may start collaborating more often. We’re very excited for this partnership and where it may lead in the future.

Our customers offer some pretty great ideas. If a customer comes in and puts together a pretty good combination, sometimes we’ll take that and perfect it to see if others feel the same. We listen to our customers; we want to provide a product that they’ll love over and over.

Our employees have been great asset when it comes to foodie creations. Many of them attended culinary school and contribute some great techniques. You can really find new inspirations everywhere you look, even in other industries.

PR: When I walk into a business, even industries completely disconnected from doughnuts, I analyze every aspect of their store. What keeps their customers coming back? What makes their decor, their food and their business stand apart? Those are the ideas we bring back and implement to make our own better.

RM: What’s the lesson that took the longest for you to learn?

PR: I’d say something I personally struggle with would be being too complacent. When things are going good it’s easy to forget to continue improving and innovate.

ZR: I would agree, the hardest, biggest and longest lesson was learning to balance our family life and our business ventures. When our business was growing faster than we could keep up with, we really had to work to find a balance.

Many people don’t know this but when we opened our doors November 15th, we worked every single day through February 4th. Not one day off, and there were some pretty crazy times where I would have to work doubles before our staffing was adequate.  I’m one of those people that can be pretty sacrificial when it’s necessary. My mind knows this is not a permanent situation and I can see the bigger picture that we’re working toward. That’s where I dig in, keep my head down and just do what I have to do. Once things are running smoothly, you sit back and see how much work you’ve really put in.

When it comes to entrepreneurship, the Ruddell’s are at the top of their game.  With the promise of at least three new stores in the near future (of course, crossing our fingers for Wesley Chapel!) there is no sign of them slowing anytime soon. Together they’ve learned to work through the ups and downs within their business as well as their marriage, to come out on top and stronger than ever.