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Meet the Navy Vet Turned Baker Who Transformed a School Dream Into a Donut Business

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Courtesy of Kamal Grant
At Thrillist, we’re advocates for everyone pursuing their wildest dreams despite what society thinks they “should” be doing -- whether that’s ditching corporate America to start a side hustle or smashing stereotypes in the food world. That’s why we’ve partnered with Halo Top to inspire you to stop “shoulding” yourself and release that undue pressure keeping you from achieving your goals. In this series, we’re spotlighting entrepreneurs and activists who learned how to stop sidelining their passions and they have advice on how you can do it, too.

Kamal Grant’s dream job started with a donut executive. Grant, 39, was in the figure-out-your-future phase of high school in Georgia when a higher-up from Dunkin’ Donuts visited his class and said the only thing Grant needed to hear: Part of the executive’s job was taste-testing in the research lab. Grant, already a decent baker with a discerning sweet tooth, decided he’d do whatever it took to make eating confectionaries his actual business.

After school, Grant joined the Navy as a cook and baker. He then used his GI Bill benefits and the Navy College Fund to pay tuition at the Culinary Institute of America. From there, he attended the American Institute of Baking, then joined Flowers Baking Company where he oversaw the preparation of thousands of loaves of bread a week. He was good at it. So good that he could assess dough quality in a 10-foot-tall mixer from dozens of yards away. So good that he decided to go into business for himself.

He abandoned his steady paycheck in 2008 to do what had been in his sights since that executive visited his class: Open a shop selling innovative, whimsical donuts. Sublime Doughnuts was born, with Grant as its founder and creative director dreaming up flavors like pistachio cannoli, CBD coconut cream, and cotton candy that were unlike anything the people of Atlanta had ever eaten. But for how sweet his goals were, getting there wasn’t a cakewalk. So we asked Grant for advice on turning passion into a profession. Here’s what he had to say.

Build your self-discipline and be ready to do the work

At the heart of any successful small business is a person who, after discovering what they wanted to achieve, prioritized long-term success over immediate gratification. But that’s not a superpower that comes easily. For Grant, it came from joining the military. “Before I went to the Navy, I was rough-and-tumble,” he says. “But while I was there, I learned how to be a straight shooter, stay organized, and get a job done.”

Those skills became useful a few years later when he opened Sublime Doughnuts and couldn’t afford to hire employees at the start. “For the first six to eight months, I was in the shop by myself,” he says. “I would come in at 2am, make all of the donuts, open the doors at 6am, sell donuts from 6am to 6pm, clean up at night, get out of there by 7:30pm or 8pm, be asleep by 9pm, and then wake up and do it all over again.”

Though being willing to do the work is key, Grant says if you’re not excited about the job you’re doing, it’s going to be tough to stay motivated. “The real key is to do something you would want to do regardless [of] if you get paid, so find something you like to do and be passionate about it,” he says. “Do the work and be willing to work for nothing. If you’re not willing to work for nothing, you’re not going to succeed.”

Don’t get locked into golden handcuffs

Not everyone is going to have the foresight to pursue their dream when they’re in their 20s, but Grant suggests if you do, take advantage of it -- and don't just take a job you feel pressured to take, whether it's for financial reasons or otherwise. “In your early 20s, you’re excited about using your degree and making that big money, but a lot of the time, you get the job and then five or 10 years later, you realize you hate it,” he says. “Only now you can’t leave because it pays you great money that affords your lifestyle. Now you’re wearing the golden handcuffs.”

Instead of taking the job that will make life easier financially but isn't what you actually want, Grant suggests chasing what you're passionate about, even if you have to start in a position that doesn’t pay a ton of money. “If you want to work in video game development and they’re not hiring for that role, ask them if they’re hiring a janitorial position, sweep up, talk to the developers, and work your way into getting hired,” he says. “People like people with passion.”

Courtesy of Sublime Doughnuts

Be ready to jump into the deep end

Grant says oftentimes it’s the commitment part of starting a small business that holds people back. “A lot of entrepreneurs tell me they’re creating something, but they haven’t made it their full-time job because ‘they also have to work,’” he says. “That’s never going to work. You can’t swim with only one foot in the pool; you’ve got to jump in all the way.”

Of course, you don’t want to jump in before you know what you’re jumping into. “You’ve got to be a risk-taker, but also a calculated risk-taker,” Grant says. “Don’t just quit your job to do the job. Do the research and development and get a solid business plan together and then go for it.”

Learn to adapt when things don’t go your way

When Grant started his business 12 years ago, he had a robust business plan. But he wasn’t able to get a loan from the bank. He pulled out the few thousand dollars he had in his 401(k), knowing there wouldn’t be any budget for advertising. The fancy billboards in the business plan were out; innovation and courage were in.

Grant understood the best way to get free marketing was through word of mouth, so he decided to make donuts so creative that people would want to talk and write about it. And that meant skipping traditional flavors for something more memorable, like a donut with buttercream in the middle and Oreos on top, strawberries & cream donuts, and Reese’s donuts. “Those donuts are kind of blasé now,” Grant says, “but back when we opened, people had never seen anything like it. They were revolutionary.”

Trust that you can do the things that scare you

In the pursuit of any passion, there are going to be things that scare you. You may be scared of being judged, or failing, or just doing something that doesn’t feel comfortable. The key is getting used to feeling the fear and then doing it anyway.

“When I first started my shop and I couldn’t hire employees, I was a little scared to work the counter because I wasn’t sure if I’d be good at it,” Grant says. But in almost no time at all, he realized that not only was he good at it, he enjoyed it. “I realized I do have a knack for talking to customers and that if I was genuinely interested in someone, they’d like to tell me about themselves.” He’s a lot busier now, which means that he doesn’t spend as much time at the counter. But, to this day, Grant still counts some of those first customers as good friends. In other words, not only will pushing your limits help you succeed professionally, it may end up enriching your personal life. 

Daisy Barringer is a freelance writer who counts donuts as one of her all-time favorite treats. Follow her on Instagram @daisysf to see what other delicious things she’s consuming these days.