The success of Dominique Ansel and his cronuts is simple. The formula is part Paula Deen, part McRib and distinctly geared toward American food culture: make something really bad that combines what people already love and make sure that it's almost impossible to get a hold of.
Over the weekend, Ansel announced the next flavor of his donut-croissant hybrids — coconut cream-filled with coconut frosting — which will only be available in August (his flavors change monthly; this month's flavor is blackberry). To get the so-called croconut, you will have to get yourself in line around 6:00 a.m., wait around for two hours and be one of the first 200 people in the door — and then be willing to pay $5 per pastry (a maximum of two).
Yes, even though we're knee deep in July (cronuts debuted in May) people are still lining up around the block for cronuts. But despite what Ansel will tell you about his French technique and the mastery of getting croissant dough just right, the success of his cronut can be traced to a tried-and-true formula of preying on American grease-loving tendencies. And he just might have Paula Deen to thank:
Dominique Ansel Is Like Paula Deen and KFC
What made Paula Deen successful (at least for a while) was that shamelessly trumpeted the most artery-clogging, deep-fried aspects of Southern food. This is a woman who once fried lasagna and was okay with serving a hamburger in-between a split glazed donut. And though her food could consign small children to a life of diabetes, that did not deter anyone from falling in love with the butter goddess — that is, until she turned out to be a crazy racist.
That's because Americans love food that might kill them. During the height of Deen's reign as one of the Food Network's stars, KFC introduced the artery-killing Double Down sandwich, which featured bacon and melted cheese pressed between two deep fried chicken cutlet slabs. As had been the case with Deen's dishes, people rushed out to try out the fat-laden sandwich, diabetes be damned.
Ansel's cronut is in that same vein. He, like Deen, is redefining a cuisine — in this case, the breakfast pastry — by upping the fat content and calories of a food people already love. The actual nutritional value of a cronut is undefined, but when you take into consideration that he's using deep-fried croissant dough, cream filling, and frosting, you can ballpark the cronut into the "not good" range of the spectrum. People, on some level, know this. And they just don't care.
Dominique Ansel Is Like McDonald's
One of the things that defines American food culture is the desire of American eaters to consume something that's fleeting (see: how people go bonkers over ramps) or a novelty. Perhaps the greatest corporate example of this is McDonald's and its boneless pork sandwich, known as the McRib. For a few weeks each year, it seems like McDonald's introduces this weird little sandwich onto its menus for a limited time. And that move brings McDonald's success—in 2010, the company said the sandwich's limited run helped boost its November sales by around 5 percent.
That's pretty good for a sandwich that no one really likes when its available regularly. In its first stint on the Mickey D's menu, the sandwich lasted a scant four years. People like the McRib better when it's scarce.
Well, Ansel's cronuts are scarcer than McRibs. He only makes 200-250 per day and limits purchases to two cronuts per person. Such rationing makes it very hard to procure a cronut for your average person. Would cronuts suffer the same fate if they were available at all times of the day? I have two words: Krispy Kreme.
Dominique Ansel Knows He's Created a Monster
"My team has tried to please everybody and be very sweet to customers, but people forget that we’re not a cronut shop. We are a French bakery, and our specialty is French baked items," Ansel told First We Feast, an online magazine focused on food and. He's totally right. To a food zombie who must have cronuts, Ansel is a one-stop means to an end. But if you go by his bakery at any other time (I pass it each day to and from work), it never gets as busy as it does in the early morning hours. "We have almost 100 different items on the menu. And with all the beautiful pastries that we have, it’s very important for me to keep our roots," he adds.
But if Ansel really wanted people to remember his roots, instead of just treating him as the guy who invented cronuts, he could easily stop selling the cronut. Of course, he'd had to be as crazy as Paula Deen to do something like that.