Jennifer Dyer’s Foodservice Full Circle
When you order a dozen at Courthouse Donuts in downtown Sevierville in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, you’ll get a box of 131⁄2 doughnuts. That’s 12 for the jury, one for the judge, and the half because you have about a 50 percent chance of being found guilty.
At the foundation of each of those pastries is a freshly deep-fried cake doughnut. You’ll choose your toppings from three different icings and more than a dozen additional offerings, including peanuts, Fruity Pebbles, Oreos, Golden Grahams, chocolate chips, sprinkles, lemonade mix, Tang mix, powdered sugar, coconut, and vanilla wafers. You can enjoy your customized doughnut with a fresh cup of coffee or a glass of sweet tea.
We sat down with Jennifer Dyer, owner of Courthouse Donuts, and Haley Pickett, culinary student and Courthouse employee, to talk about their experiences running the unique build-your-own doughnut concept.
Courthouse occupies a century-old building in Sevierville that was built in 1906 as a warehouse for Miller Yett’s merchandise company. The shop sits in the long afternoon shadow of the steeple-like tower that sprouts from the top of Sevier County’s courthouse right across the street. Peer to the right out the shop’s front window and you’ll see a bronze statue immortalizing Dolly Parton, the most famous member of the county’s progeny, sitting cross-legged on a rock and strumming a guitar on the courthouse lawn.
When Jennifer decided on the location for Courthouse, people asked her, “Why downtown Sevierville? There’s nothing there.” She replied, “Exactly! People need something there.” She realized a concept serving traditional cake doughnuts with a quirky build-your-own twist would be a perfect stop for locals and visitors who come by the busload to snap selfies with that bronze Dolly. She learned quickly that the folks working and living in and near downtown Sevierville craved a new place to eat lunch, too, so it wasn’t long after the shop opened that Jennifer expanded her menu to include her take on favorites like “A Dang Good Reuben” and southern classics like their grilled pimento cheese sandwich.
Jennifer made the decision to open Courthouse Donuts while on a girls’ trip in Florida as she contemplated her next move in a career that already included success as a real estate agent and country music concert producer. She’d been inspired by a similar concept she and her friends and family had visited for more than 10 years in the Sunshine State, and she decided East Tennessee needed its own take on a build-your-own-doughnut concept.
This line of business is nothing new for Jennifer. She got her feet wet in the foodservice industry at age 13, and the first phase in her career was with a national casual dining chain with which she opened nearly four dozen restaurants.
“I thought it was going to be an easy way for me to get [back] into the restaurant business. Come in, flip doughnuts in the morning, go home. It doesn’t exactly work that way,” she says, laughing. “Our early mornings roll into our late nights, which roll into our early mornings.”
The shop’s doors are open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8 a.m. to noon on most Saturdays. They’re closed on Sunday, when there isn’t much going on downtown and the tourist buses are all headed back out to the interstate. Courthouse caters all types of events, too. A newly renovated portion of the historic building connected to the dining room hosts private events on evenings and weekends.
“We do a lot of birthday parties, special events, and wedding receptions. That leads to a lot of offsite catering. We do sleepovers at area attractions. We do a breakfast catering box that we deliver to some of the resorts in town, so we have to be here at 4 in the morning,” she says.
Jennifer believes her concept is unique because it has elements of both a quick-service restaurant and a casual dining venue. That combination makes the work a perfect fit for Jennifer’s helper Haley Pickett, who moved to Sevierville from Wise, Va., to attend Walters State Community College’s culinary school, where she first connected with Jennifer and her concept. Haley’s experience working for casual chain Applebee’s and build-your-own-sandwich giant Subway gave her the skills she needed to be a natural fit at the build-your-own doughnut brand.
“[Haley has] the Subway background, combined with the Applebee’s background – the casual dining combined with the fast food… that’s really what we are. With those things combined, she knows what I expect from customer service, like you would get in a sit-down, full-service restaurant, but she also understands the pace and the need for speed in getting stuff out quickly. We’re not fast food, but we’re not casual dining. Yet, we are casual dining in the sense that people do come and dine with us. You’ve got to really be able to deal with both fast food and casual dining concepts. You’ve got to be able to balance it, and it’s not easy.”
Advice to the Aspiring Doughnuteer
Three years into developing the concept and almost two years after she opened the doors, Jennifer has some advice for folks aspiring to open a concept similar to Courthouse.
“I would definitely say they need a year’s worth of capital set aside that isn’t touched. It’s just not touched. Because you don’t know who’s going to walk in your door that day. You really are opening your doors saying ‘Gosh, I hope somebody comes in today.’ Especially in the beginning.”
Having at least a year’s worth of capital set aside is essential to surviving the inevitable slow periods any startup is bound to go through. “Slumps happen and it’s the slumps that will kill you.”
Jennifer also emphasized how her engagement with the local community over the years has contributed to her success. “We’ve been pretty involved in the community since we’ve been here. We’ve been here 17 years.” She appreciates the support of her friends who helped get Courthouse off to a strong start.
“In the beginning, it was really people coming in here to support me and my decision to open the restaurant. People were coming in here just because they were my friends, just wanting me to make a dollar. Eventually we won people over with the product and the service, and I’m glad, but I do think involvement in the community definitely helps.”
Neighboring businesses continue to show their support by sponsoring their own signature creations. “We’ve got five community favorites. Five different businesses here that are very close to our business in many ways have come on board and they’ve actually sponsored a doughnut. They’ve designed and named their doughnuts.”
“We’ve got Terri’s Turtle – it’s chocolate, pecans, and caramel. That’s Terri Williams, she’s a realtor here with ReMax Preferred Properties. That’s her doughnut to show her support. City Bonding has the Lemon Blueberry Escape. It’s vanilla icing with lemonade and blueberry glaze. Smoky Mountain Title has Smoky Mountain S’mores. That’s pretty self-explanatory – chocolate icing with golden grahams and marshmallow cream. They are very, very special to us, those folks.”
On Learning From Others
Jennifer herself got some good advice on starting her concept from the proprietors of the Florida business that helped inspire Courthouse. “I called them and I said, ‘I want to open a doughnut shop 1,400 miles away from you. I have my recipe. I have my doughnut machine. I need to understand the flow.’ We’ve been going there for 10 years. I’ve been watching this place for 10 years. They have some distinct flow issues. Why in 10 years have they not changed that? Well, I know why – they just don’t have the ability to change it because of their building.”
Those flow issues helped Jennifer become mindful of how customers would navigate the interior of her restaurant.
“That’s what led me to want both sides of this building. This is actually two addresses, 158 and 160 Court Avenue, and there was a wall here. Those doors didn’t exist,” she says, pointing to sets of double doors, “it was two separate businesses. I knew that I needed the flow to be circular, because that’s one of [the shop in Florida’s] biggest issues. Theirs is a shotgun building – you go to the back to order, and you come all the way to the front. If you need a refill on coffee – it’s all the way in the back. The bathrooms are in the back. So you’ve got people constantly trying to go back while people are in line trying to get to the front so I said, ‘We’ve got to have circular flow.'”
The Importance of Open Communication
Jennifer and Haley’s work together has taught the two the importance of open communication between owners and employees.
“I know people who totally keep things from their staff and I think that’s so wrong. They need to know. It helps with their decision-making when you’re not here. Haley understands that money is tight. We need to be cautious with what we use.”
In the end, Jennifer believes open communication is good for the bottom line.
“Simple things like, ‘Are you eating those doughnuts here or are you taking them with you,’ because there is nothing that pains me more than to see one of those doughnut boxes in that trash can – that means they ate them here and we could have put that on a plate that we wash, instead of spending money on a box that should be reserved for going out the door. It’s little things like that – and she’s really good about that, but she wouldn’t be like that if I didn’t communicate the struggles and the challenges with cash flow and watching every penny.”
Jennifer would like to see every small town have a Courthouse Donuts of its own. “Our goal is to franchise. That’s our long-term goal. We’d love to have fifty in the next five years in the state of Tennessee.” She believes all of those can indeed share the Courthouse theme. “Every small town has a courthouse. We kind of thought about [franchising], maybe subconsciously, in the decisions we’ve made along the way, because I’ve been in that world – looking at things from a branding standpoint.”
The key to Courthouse’s success has been and will continue to be the things that set it apart from national doughnut chains and their “me-too” copycats. “A lot of small towns are losing their bakeries and their doughnut shops for whatever reason – because they’re trying to compete with the national brands. When you’ve got the same product it’s hard to compete with the big brands, but our product is completely different. Our process is different and people dig that. They dig that it’s made right in front of them and that it’s not just sitting on the shelf for three days.”
“People enjoy going to small businesses. There’s a real movement, especially in the older crowd – they really want to see the small businesses back in business. The younger folks – the 20-somethings – think it’s cool because there’s not that many of us. Small doughnut shops and small businesses are sought out, especially by our visitors to the area. We have a lot of tourists that come in.”