Doling Out the Dough

Greenbush Bakery enjoys sweet success of donut business.
With roughly 40 variations of doughy treats on his menu, Greenbush Bakery owner Marv Miller, aka “The Donut Man,” hasn’t frittered away the opportunity to satisfy local sweet tooths.

With nearly emptied trays of donuts under a glass case, Greenbush Bakery owner Marv Miller, 70, reflects on yet another successful day. “This is America’s dream right here,” he says. The “donut man” can hardly contain his excitement about the popular Regent Street business that he purchased 18 years ago. He’s put thousands of dollars into renovations since then, and it’s paid off, with a profitable bottom line year after year. The reason? “Failure has never been an option,” he insists, watching as a worker replaces empty trays with a fresh batch of donuts, long johns, and crullers.

In the back kitchen, four young men are busily making fritters, just a small portion of the next day’s inventory of cake and yeast-raised donuts. One cuts and shapes the dough, another stands guard over the fryer, a third works the walk-in traffic and counter. Nels Labansky, the bakery’s 34-year-old general manager and baker, oversees it all. 

“Everything made this afternoon and by about 7 o’clock tonight will be sold by noon tomorrow,” Labansky says. It’s pretty much an exact science at Greenbush, where between 35 and 40 variations of doughy treats are handmade every day. The store sells as many as 175 to 200 dozen on its busiest days, usually Thursdays, when in addition to getting walk-ins, it delivers donuts to retailers around town. The favorites, Labansky says, are the old-fashioned sour cream, or the double chocolate cake donut, or the Oreo-topped donut with white butter cream, or … the list could go on and on.

Today’s fritters – apple, blueberry, and cranberry/orange – are produced twice a day. Matt Schroeder stands at a long table, chopping a fruit and batter mixture and shaping it into round discs. A rack nearby, white with dried frosting, holds earlier batches awaiting distribution. The smell is delectable … nirvana for the senses, and it’s hard to resist eating the profits. 

“We run 95% to 96% utilization here,” Miller chimes in. “We sell virtually everything we make. We have no competitors, we do our own thing.” Case in point, Greenbush Bakery is the only certified kosher dairy kitchen between Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago. “We don’t add any additives or preservatives on-site to what is already in the product. It makes the product unique,” Labansky clarifies. Miller nods, not missing a beat: “Nothing is more sacred than the food you put in your mouth,” he smiles.

A healthier donut?

Several years ago, when the trans-fat issue had restaurants nationwide changing the oils they used in frying, Greenbush, too, attempted to adjust appropriately to industry concerns, and learned a fast lesson: “We’ll never try that again!” lamented Miller, shaking his head. “The aroma – we had to use palm oil, a chemical base – it plugged the filtration and we had to re-do our ventilation system. It was actually a health hazard!” 

“It affected the quality of our product,” Labansky added. “So we went back to a Super Fry oil for our deep fryer.” 

Back in the kitchen, Matt has moved on to making filled donuts. He uses 24 pounds of a batter base, 24 pounds of flour, and 24 pounds of water (three gallons) – enough for about 400 yeast-raised donuts. The batter is mixed in a commercial mixer and then flattened into sheets that move under a roller. The roller cuts the dough into hundreds of donut-shaped pieces. After 10 to 12 minutes in a special oven called a proof box, the donuts will be removed, frosted with sugar, and when cool, filled with a jelly or custard. Greenbush makes about nine different types of filled donuts.

Across the room, Zach, another employee, tends to the fritters. One by one, he drops them into a 375-degree, bubbling cauldron of Super Fry. With long dowels, one side is browned, then the other. When fully cooked, the fritters are removed and immediately glazed with sugar. “You want to glaze them when they’re as hot as possible to get that sheen,” explains Labansky, who claims he only tries one chocolate-glazed donut a week. 


Labansky said he knew nothing about making donuts when he was hired as a part-timer in 1998. Now, Miller’s protégé/manager/baker is in line to acquire the business when the owner decides to hand over the reins. That may not happen any time soon, however, as it’s clear Miller has no designs on slowing his pace. He simply enjoys it too much.

Meanwhile, Labansky, a married father of three whose wife also works part time at the bakery, is excited at the prospect of ownership. “It’s pretty much all I know,” he admits, as he loads dozens of boxes of donuts into larger delivery boxes. Each Monday and Thursday, Greenbush delivers donuts to eight retail outlets around town, including Metcalfe’s, Willy Street Co-Op, Bill’s in Oregon, and Madison Fresh Market. 

A national movement toward a healthier diet hasn’t affected Greenbush’s clientele. Business has been booming, with 10% to 15% increases each of the past four years. Miller credits not just the food but also the staff for its success. He employs 11, including four full-timers, and says he likes to hire a more mature group (mostly college or former college students over 20 years of age). The frosting on the cake – er, donut – is in the benefits: Miller pays 100% of health insurance, 80% of dental insurance, and a minimum wage of $10 an hour. He also provides eight paid holidays a year. With donuts as an added benefit, is there any wonder why retention is high? 

Double-checking for donuts

Mitch, a second-year mechanical engineering student at UW-Madison, is going on his second year as a part-timer at Greenbush Bakery. While his educational priorities have forced him to scale back his schedule, he still works between 18 and 20 hours a week, enough to cover food and rent. 

Mitch enjoys people, and has a personality-plus knack for dealing with all types, usually injecting fun and humor into the experience. “I used to ask people to do the discount double-check to get their sprinkle donuts,” he laughs. “One day, some guys came in with no idea of what the discount double-check was. Then a little girl, like, 6 years old, says, ‘I know what it is!’ and does the move like a pro. Aaron Rodgers would have been proud,” he laughs.

Greenbush Bakery is open seven days a week and caters to customers of all stripes on weekdays. But on weekends, it’s a hot spot for late-night sugar fixes. Open until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, Greenbush has for years been attracting a spirited bar-time crowd. Mitch often works the late shift, and says the trick to keeping customers happy and calm is to play music that they want to hear. “You just want to keep their energy on point so you can control them and keep them on track,” he advised. That means a late-night sugar rush to Greenbush might include house music, or rap, or techno. “If it’s really late,” he adds, “I do enjoy singing to myself – Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé – so I’m also having fun.”

He tells another story about a longtime customer, an older gent. “He always orders a dozen or more donuts, and often, he’ll pay for the donuts for others. It’s always great to see someone’s reaction to that.” 

Seems almost too good to be true, donut?

Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates the hard work and happiness that go into Greenbush, as it has been robbed five times in its history. At the mention of that, Mitch’s face sours. “You don’t mess with Greenbush,” he says, almost proprietarily, shaking his head. Miller has invested $7,000 into a security system, but firmly believes his people are part of the solution.

“This is a great place to work,” Mitch says. “It’s a place of happiness.”

Whether Greenbush’s success is attributable to the bakery’s handmade donuts, muffins, cookies, or pastries; the Kosher branding (the company was certified in 1998), which Miller says means quality; the cleanliness (Miller posts the store’s City of Madison Health Department inspection reports on the wall at eye level for all customers to see); or the staff, its donuts are driving a healthy profit.

Miller, who wears his pride on his sleeve, still bristles at the term “donut shop,” however.

“I don’t like it,” he says. “To me, ‘donut shop’ has connotations of some greasy guy standing over a dirty deep-fryer, smoking a cigarette. … That’s just not us.” So what are they, exactly?

“We’re Greenbush Bakery,” Miller states matter-of-factly. No explanation needed, and the proof is in the donut.

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