When you get mixed up in a love triangle, you have to expect drama. Ian Kelley’s triangle looks like this: Love of family. Love of soccer. Love of cooking. At thirty, he juggles all three with dexterity. In addition to loving his business, Sugar Shack Donuts and Coffee, Ian is committed to coaching the Maggie Walker girls’ varsity soccer team, and he loves his life partner, Tanya Bartek. But love triangles eventually force you to make choices, and on June 6, 2014, the day of reckoning arrived.
The Green Dragons had had a good season. A very good season. For Ian, coaching was more than just a job. He had grown up playing soccer in Powhatan and with the Richmond Strikers, setting the Powhatan High School record for assists along the way. After high school, he continued playing in men’s leagues, worked at U-Turn, and helped start a specialized soccer training facility in the West End, only slowing his playing career when he blew out his knee in 2012. Coaching was a natural way to continue to be involved with the sport he loved. On June 6, 2014, the Maggie Walker team had a date in the regional soccer finals.
June 6 also happened to be National Donut Day, which is kind of a big deal to a guy whose Sugar Shack Donuts operation is the darling of both local and national pastry aficionados. Like coaching, Sugar Shack is a continuation of a childhood passion. At the age of five, Ian fell from a tree and broke his skull. During his extended recovery, the only channel on the hospital television was PBS, and Ian watched countless episodes of Yan Can Cook. He told his grandmother he wanted to be a chef like Yan, and was making salsa by age seven, chili at age eight, and “wielding kitchen knives with confidence by age ten.” At sixteen, Ian’s professional life began as a line cook and continued across the country and back. In Colorado he fell in love with dough, and in Seattle he plumbed the secrets of pastries. Back in Richmond, in June of 2013, Sugar Shack opened its doors on Lombardy Street.
June 6, 2014, was not supposed to be an exciting one for Tanya, who, not surprisingly, has connections to Ian’s other two loves.
Ian met Tanya and her eight-year-old daughter, Eden, at a soccer game. Ian and Tanya fell in love while he was preparing to open Sugar Shack. A few months after Sugar Shack opened for business, Tanya was pregnant.
Ian had wrapped his day at Sugar Shack, traded his apron for cleats and coach’s whistle, and was warming up with the team on the field when the call came. Tanya was in labor.
The baby was coming. A month early.
The moment had arrived to choose which love was greatest, and the answer is no surprise.
Maggie Walker played without its coach.
Sugar Shack celebrated National Donut Day with throngs of donut lovers, but without its owner.
The Green Dragons did not manage to win their game that day, but in the wee hours of June 7, Sawyer Kelley was born, prematurely, yet healthy.
Ian’s love of his family won the day. It’s no surprise, then, that Sugar Shack feels more like a family than a place of business.
That was Ian’s goal all along.
Ian Kelley opened Sugar Shack Donuts in a former used car lot on Lombardy Street across the street from Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in June 2013. The concept was simple: gourmet donuts and coffee, created and served in a place that feels like home. Now, even as Sugar Shack expands into what could become a donut dynasty, a family-centric ethos continues.
“Some people think it’s just a donut,” says Ian. “But a Sugar Shack donut is much more than that.”
A Sugar Shack donut not only melts in your mouth, it makes your taste buds jitterbug with joy. It’s a happiness bomb that explodes in bite-sized bada-booms of warm and sumptuous and flavorful. It is so fresh, you know it must have been created only moments ago, just for you.
But that donut is a story years in the making. It is Ian Kelley’s circle of life, from his days as a kid on Powhatan’s soccer fields to his first job as a line cook at the Koger Center.
“The pay was terrible, but I learned how to be a grunt,” says Ian. “To this day, I still identify with the guys doing dishes and banging out hundreds of pounds of peeled vegetables. Those are the guys that keep things in motion, and I’ve never let myself forget that.”
After graduating from Powhatan High School in 2003, Ian went straight into the restaurant business, starting both the Old City Bar and White House Catering. And still, around it all was soccer. He fed his jones in men’s leagues and began coaching youth teams as well, passing along his love of the game to a new generation.
In 2007, he fell prey to a young man’s wanderlust and hit the road for Vail, Colorado, where he skied by day and worked in an Italian restaurant by night. It was in that restaurant that Ian first heard the siren call of dough. Working with the pizza crust’s raw materials, he found something fascinating about its protean nature. Dough could be so many different things, formed and shaped so many ways, the foundation of so many different kinds of food. It
was an essential building block, but it had to be properly finished. In this way, Ian was himself like dough – still more potential than finished product.
From Vail, Ian kept on keepin’ on, this time to Seattle, where he worked in a French bistro and struck up a friendship with the pastry chef. They bonded over dough. While it might be a stretch to say that dough was becoming Ian’s life, it was becoming his life’s work.
“I was fascinated by the chemistry behind pastry arts,” says Ian. “Culinary arts is a feeling, pastry arts is a science, I learned that I loved both equally.”
Finally, one morning in 2010, sitting in a Seattle coffee shop, Ian made a decision. He was burnt out on the fine dining scene, he missed Richmond, and he missed soccer. He had a vision of a warm and inviting place that did just two things, but did them better than anyone else: coffee and donuts. While he didn’t have a plan, he did have a vision, and it was with this vision that he returned to Richmond.
It took a few years to make his vision a reality. He got back into the soccer scene and picked up extra money working restaurant shifts, and, oh, yes, met Tanya. The donut shop vision remained mostly that. Then, in 2012, his knee surrendered (soccer giveth, and soccer taketh away) and Ian was laid up for a few weeks with nothing much to do but watch his knee slowly flex under the power of a passive motion machine. It was a moment of reckoning. He opened his laptop and began researching and typing, and when he got out of bed a few weeks later, he had a donut shop business plan that Ian says numbered “well over one hundred pages.”
In the winter of 2013, having maxed out his credit cards and purchased the kitchen equipment of a closed restaurant off Craigslist, Ian set about renovating that car lot into what would become the flagship Sugar Shack store.
But a donut shop wasn’t the only thing evolving over that winter of 2013. Ian and Tanya’s friendship blossomed into romance. Fittingly for a man staking his future on coffee and donuts, “We really connected drinking a cup of pour over coffee,” Ian recalls. When Sugar Shack opened for business in June 2013, there was no doubt they had connected for the long haul.
Sugar Shack was an instant hit. Ian had succeeded in creating a welcoming place where top-notch donuts are crafted by people who genuinely enjoy their jobs and respect one another. Traditional glazed and chocolate-covered donuts are staples, as well as Sugar Shack faves like maple-bacon-glazed. But Ian, along with his flavor master, Kristian Barber, is a relentless experimenter, and one can never tell when the Irish dough bomb, or the orange creamsicle will show up. Ian estimates that Sugar Shack has offered between eight hundred and a thousand different varieties since opening its doors.
Accolades rolled in from near and far. Southern Living and Martha Stewart Living offered shout-outs. USA Today named Sugar Shack one of its “Ten tastiest donut shops in the USA.”
But it’s the local folks who most interest Ian. The community has embraced Sugar Shack, and Sugar Shack has embraced the community. Ian works with local vendors on ingredients for his flavor creations, and every day the store does a free donut giveaway, which can be found on the store’s Facebook page. The store has given free donuts in exchange for FeedMore donations, and teamed up with the Pink Ink Foundation (an RVA nonprofit benefitting breast cancer survivors) to raise $18,000 in seventy-two hours.
Life was good, and then it got even better when Sawyer announced his impending arrival on National Donut Day.
In this story, love and family and business, like donuts, are circular, so it’s no surprise that Ian’s business family quickly expanded as well. A second Sugar Shack location, Sugar Shack Coffee, opened downtown on Main Street. A Shack on Parham Road opened late last year. Another Richmond location in Midlothian, as well as a Northern Virginia Sugar Shack, are in the works. Ian’s father, an architect who specializes in Pacific Northwest architecture, had a hand in the store designs. Ian’s sister is considering taking the Sugar Shack concept even further afield, to several possible locations, including the West Coast.
So that’s just the way things happen these days in the life of Ian Kelley, a confluence of the people and things he loves. A big, if somewhat chaotic pile of blessings dropped right into his lap.
Even sitting down to talk with Ian and Tanya about how they manage to make it all happen is an adventure. One recent afternoon finds Tanya, Sawyer, and Eden at the Parham Road store, but not Ian.
“He should be back shortly,” says Tanya, with perhaps more hope than conviction. She goes on to explain that Michael Goins, Sugar Shack’s district manager, has just been in a car accident, and Ian has gone to do what he can to help. Ian and Michael have known each other since kindergarten. If Michael needs help, Ian will be there for him. Taking care of his people is taking care of his business.
In the meantime, Tanya and Sawyer wait at the coffee bar. Sawyer is just stirring from his nap, stretching in the way babies do, as if with every new awakening they are discovering new and wonderful things about their bodies. He regards his audience with one arched eyebrow, then an easy smile and a lazily raised finger.
“Easygoing,” Tanya says with a laugh.
Easygoing. It’s an appropriate word for the Sugar Shack. Natural wood and walls of windows brighten an already clean and open space. Upbeat music (Jackson Five, anyone?) issues from high corner speakers. Just walking through the door is a stress reliever.
No wonder Sawyer’s so chill.
Ian arrives. (Fender bender. All okay.) The zeitgeist of the Shack envelops him. He’s been going since three-thirty in the morning, working the kinks out of the new store. He’s got a six-month-old, and he’s just returned from the scene of a dear friend’s car crash, yet he plops down on a stool, hazel eyes cool, alert, and focused. Tanya’s next to him – Sawyer, too. Family. This is his life, and he’s settled comfortably in the middle of it all.
“We’re in it together,” he says, when asked how they handle new business, new baby, the whole joyful pileup.
“And we’ve learned to plan,” says Tanya. “Even if it does take a month to figure out how to do dinner and a movie out of the house.”
Ian says, “I am a self-confessed workaholic. I will go for eighteen hours a day, nineteen hours a day, then sleep until someone tells me to come back to work. Tanya is very good at reminding me to slow down.”
And yet here they are, a Sunday afternoon, at the store.
“You do have to make exceptions, especially at a new location,” says Ian. “But there will be a few more days of this and then I’ll get back on a more regular schedule.”
Which seems like a bold statement to make for the guy who wrote the hundred-page business plan. Can he really turn over the running of the new store so quickly?
Outside, a car pulls around the side of the building, its rear bumper mangled. It’s Michael, returning to work after the accident. Ian indicates him with a nod of his head.
“That guy would do just about anything I asked him to, and I would do anything for him. If anything were ever to happen to me, he’s the guy that would take the reigns. I truly believe that guy loves Sugar Shack more than anything – family excluded of course.”
There’s the family thing again. It’s an aura that extends to anyone affiliated with Sugar Shack.
“It works in all directions,” he says.
And it’s his work family that allows the hundred-page-business-plan-workaholic to hear Tanya’s voice when she says, “slow down.” He trusts them to run the shop with the same care and concern as he would.
Proof came after Sawyer’s birth, when Ian and Tanya took turns at the NICU for ten days while the other parent was home with Eden.
“During that time I didn’t have to check into work once,” says Ian. “The staff really stepped in and took over. They even delivered donuts to the nurses on multiple occasions.”
So what does it mean, a regular schedule?
“He leaves in time to take Eden to school in the morning,” says Tanya.
“…and I’m usually home by five or six,” finishes Ian. Which makes it sound very much like a normal workday.
“I’m not the two-in-the-morning guy anymore,” says Ian, even though his eyes sparkle when he talks about these past few weeks, coming in early to the new store. “I got into this business in the first place because of certain things, and it’s been good to get back into that a little, rolling out the dough, making glazes.”
“Food is very important to him,” agrees Tanya with a smile. “He still cooks dinner most nights.”
And it’s no surprise that business has become a part of the family life, as well. Ian, Tanya, and Eden watch Shark Tank, and have spirited discussions about the business ideas on the show. They squeeze in vacations when they can. They will even, one day, find the time to get married.
“We don’t want to just run down to the courthouse,” says Ian. “We have a bit of a vision for how we want to do it.”
“We just have to find time to plan it,” adds Tanya. A notion that causes them both to laugh.
About then, Sawyer begins to fuss. He’s entertained by a ready cadre of admirers. Ian, Tanya, Sugar Shack employees. Held in the hands of his family. “This is how we want to live,” says Tanya.
“We wanted the whole Sugar Shack experience to be compatible with our lives,” says Ian. “When you walk into so many chain restaurants, it just feels generic and sterile. That’s not how life should be.”
Sawyer continues to fuss. He’s hungry. Tanya takes him back, arranges him within a nursing blanket. Sawyer settles in and Tanya looks around. The sunlight streaming in through big windows, bouncing off natural wood, illuminating the display case full of lovingly crafted donuts and the faces of the people who poured such care into their creation.
“One day we’ll build a house,” Tanya says, envisioning the future she and Ian and Eden and Sawyer are creating with equal care, “and I hope it looks just like this.”