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Voodoo Doughnut morphs into a Portland ritual

HOMETOWN U.S.A.: Portland, Ore.

In the Pacific Northwest, nothing says commitment like a Voodoo Doughnut. And what better place to stop after your naked bike ride?

February 20, 2011|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Co-owner Tres Shannon, left, and employee Jay Rubin hold forth on the origins of Voodoo Doughnut, which offers weddings and commitment ceremonies in addition to pastry. "You can't believe how many people told us it wouldn't work," Shannon says.
Co-owner Tres Shannon, left, and employee Jay Rubin hold forth on the origins… (Benjamin Brink, The Oregonian )

There were more witnesses when Jeffrey and Kathryn Elliott renewed their vows in the lobby of a doughnut shop than at their first wedding in Hawaii.

This time, instead of family and friends, the ceremony was observed by a ring of delighted tourists snapping pictures on their cellphones while a skinny "voodoo priest" in battered Chuck Taylors and a mask fashioned from a paper bag officiated over their declaration of love.

The couple — she's a technical writer for Microsoft; he's a management consultant — had taken the train from Bellevue, Wash., to Portland for a Valentine's Day weekend retreat. The commitment ceremony was a surprise gift from Jeffrey.

Jeffrey, 55, recited the Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet "Love Is Not All," and Kathryn, 58, told him, "You're the love of my life — you have been since the moment we met."

Then the two were required to take a bite of the Doughnut of Love, a terrifying concoction piled high with sprinkles, chocolate chips and pretzel sticks.

"Jeffrey, do you take Kathryn through thick and thin, voodoo and sin?" the "priest" inquired.

"Especially the sin," Jeffrey said.

Kathryn responded "Absolutely" to the same query, and the two kissed to loud cheers from the crowd.

It was just a typical day at Voodoo Doughnut.

Voodoo has become an international tourist attraction since its first late-night doughnut shop opened in downtown Portland in 2003. The quirky shop was an immediate hit in a city where naked bike rides are a popular pastime and the 24 Hour Church of Elvis performed weddings for many years. (The "church" closed before Voodoo came on the scene but has since reappeared).

Now Voodoo's two stores in Portland and one in Eugene, Ore., operate 24 hours a day, hawking concoctions like the Bacon Maple Bar, the Voodoo Doll and others with names unfit for a family newspaper. They sell vegan doughnuts, doughnuts covered in cereal or Oreo bits, and a line of customized clothing bearing the slogan "The Magic is in the Hole."

For a brief period, they sold NyQuil doughnuts, until the health department gave them a friendly warning to knock it off.

Owners and longtime friends Kenneth "Cat Daddy" Pogson and Tres Shannon hatched the business plan over late-night cocktails. Both were veterans of the bar industry, and Shannon had previously owned an all-ages music venue downtown.

"You can't believe how many people told us it wouldn't work," Shannon said.

He and Pogson have made the naysayers eat their words, if not Voodoo's pastries.

These days, as many as 20 tons of doughnuts a week move through the brightly painted walls of the two Portland shops during the summer tourist season. Depending on the hour, they draw businesspeople, tourists, bike messengers, families, barflies and the homeless.

Behind the scenes, the cadre of doughnut makers is frenetically busy around the clock, mixing and frying, rolling and cutting, frosting and topping.

In 2008, the Portland City Council declared the Voodoo's Portland Crème the city's official doughnut. The creme-filled confection is decorated with a pair of eyes intended to represent Portland's vision. "It's a pretty hokey concept," Pogson admitted.

That wasn't the doughnut shop's first venture into the political arena. The past two mayors, Sam Adams and Tom Potter, showed up for Voodoo's midnight doughnut-eating contest for mayoral candidates during their campaigns, although neither emerged as a doughnut champ.

And then there are the weddings. Last year, the two Portland shops performed about 60 legal ceremonies and 30 intentional commitments. They've run the gamut, with 10 bridesmaids, a disgruntled mother-in-law, drunken jokes and members of the Russian Mafia (or at least that was the owners' suspicion). On one occasion, the store hosted a commitment ceremony for a pair of cats.

The two owners are ordained ministers under the Universal Life Church, an organization that offers near-immediate ordination to anyone who applies. Pogson said weddings seemed a natural addendum to the business plan.

"If you're going to do voodoo, you're supposed to practice some sort of ritual, and what's better than the happy ritual of a wedding?" he said.

As for the Elliotts, they took a picture of the heart-shaped doughnut with their names written in pink frosting, and then offered it up to the crowd of strangers filling the shop.

"We're not big doughnut lovers; we're big voodoo lovers," Jeffrey said.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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