Salvation Army Goes Retail Retro

As any Simpsons fan knows, Homer’s favorite food is the doughnut. The Northwest Division of the Salvation Army in Seattle, Wash. hopes that consumers in 19 states will feel the same as Homer and will support the return of the Salvation Army’s Famous Doughnuts.

“It’s our way of brand building a little bit,” said Lee Stiles, an advisory board member to the Northwest Division and the person behind the new campaign to sell doughnuts in supermarkets across the country.

The Northwest Division of the Salvation Army is hoping the sale of the Famous Doughnut, which was created during World War I but faded away after World War II, will not only expand its brand but will also bring in $1 million per year.

It’s been almost 60 years since doughnuts have been identified with the Salvation Army. The last time was World War II, Stiles said. During World War I and II, Salvation Army workers, at the time known as Lassies, would pass doughnuts out to the troops.

The original Famous Doughnuts were created during World War I, when a Salvation Army Lassie fried some dough in a soldier’s helmet. The resulting concoction was the Salvation Army doughnut. It became so identified with the organization during World War I that the Saturday Evening Post ran artwork on its July 1919 cover depicting a Lassie serving doughnuts to a Doughboy.

It was a fundraising poster with that artwork on it that inspired Stiles to suggest recreating those days in today’s supermarkets. Aimee Sheridan, director of development for the Northwest Division, said Stiles spotted the poster in the hallway of the Northwest Division’s offices and came up with the idea.

“It also came from talking over a number of years with World War II veterans who remember getting doughnuts from the Lassies,” Stiles said. “I’d talk to them during thank you calls for donating to the Salvation Army, and they’d talk about the doughnuts they remembered.”

Stiles, before he retired, was a baker. He said it was a logical progression from talking to the World War II vets, seeing the fundraising poster to suggesting that the Famous Doughnut be brought back. “It was just such a compelling story. There was a real bond between these vets and a food product,” Stiles said. “It was a brand identity.”

The Salvation Army organization’s story is a difficult one to tell, Stiles said. “There are no easy tag lines,” to help with brand recognition. Everyone has heard about the Salvation Army, especially during Christmas but “how many people can tell you what it does?” Stiles asked.

By marketing the Famous Doughnut, it “will enable us to take Salvation Army beyond Christmas and help us with brand recognition year round,” Sheridan said.

“The doughnuts are a metaphor for the compassion of the Salvation Army,” Stiles said. “I knew it would be worth money to the organization to use our name in this way.”

Once the proposal was cleared by the Northwest Division’s leadership, Stiles went to work. “I called some of my old baking friends,” Stiles said. And, his dream of adding to the Salvation Army brand, which began in August 2003, hit local stores in February 2005, just 18 months later.

Stiles’s first stop in making the Famous Doughnut a reality was a visit with Darrell Webb, president of the Fred Meyer stores (Kroger), which has a strong presence in the Pacific Northwest. Webb served with Stiles on the Salvation Army’s King County Advisory Board and quickly agreed to market the doughnuts in the stores.

Some of his friends then put Stiles in touch with an official with Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) who presented the idea to the company’s research and development team. The team looked at the original recipe, modernized it a bit, and now ADM bags the mixture into sacks, Stiles said.

Once he had the mixture, Stiles went looking for a baker to turn it into doughnuts and a packager for the boxes. Another friend of his, Paul Leland of Frontier Packaging, quickly joined in when presented with the plan and began to design a box for the doughnuts with the Northwest Division’s graphic designer, Megan Lyon. It was Lyon who found the Saturday Evening Post cover and the Salvation Army, after gaining permission from Curtis Publishing, and made it part of the package. Curtis Publishing waived its usual licensing fee, Sheridan said.

The final package consists of the Saturday Evening Post cover along with a history of the Famous Doughnut and the Salvation Army.

Stiles took the mix and the packaging to Webb, who introduced him to a sales manager with the Fred Meyer’s Clackamas bakery. The end product, Stiles said, is glazed, with a nutmeg taste. “We want to make people think of eggnog when they bite into it,” he added.

Cost to the Salvation Army for the whole campaign, including the mixture, the baking and the packaging is $600, which consisted of mailing out notices to its donor base in the Northwest Division letting them know about the doughnuts, Sheridan said. All of the companies donated their time, and the material, she added.

And, rather than having to wait to collect their share of the profits at the back end of the deal, the Salvation Army gets its money up front, Stiles said. The organization receives $3.50 for every bag of mix that ADM sells to the bakery and it receives 2 cents for every packaging box sold to the bakery. Stiles said it averages out to about 7 cents for every box of doughnuts sold.

Kroger has an exclusive deal to sell the doughnuts for this year, Stiles said, because the company signed on so quickly to back the project. But, once that year expires, the organization hopes to have the doughnuts in most supermarkets nationwide, Sheridan said.

The Salvation Army is talking with several large baking companies, such as Entenmann’s on the east coast, to get the doughnuts into even more states and by the end of this year or the beginning of 2006. The Salvation Army’s Northwest Division hopes to have the doughnuts in stores in all 50 states, Sheridan added.

Each division where the doughnuts are sold is responsible for developing its own marketing plan for their sale, Sheridan said. And, each division receives the profits from the sale of the materials in its area.

“We hope to raise $1 million per year, which will help a lot of needy people,” said Stiles.