CINCINNATI — On New Year’s Eve 2018, Ben Greiwe sold his Starlight Doughnut Lab doughnuts for the first time, at Nine Giant Brewing in Pleasant Ridge.
Since then, he has sold two kinds of doughnuts every Saturday at Nine Giant — he works there as a line cook — and every Friday at Pleasant Ridge’s Apricot Coffee House. In June, he participated in CityBeat’s Brunched event, and he will sling his doughnuts at the media outlet’s Aug. 7 Sugar Rush event. This month, he’ll make doughnuts for his first wedding order — he has to make 250 of them.
Not bad for an idea that started in 2015, when Greiwe was taking classes at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Four years ago, a friend of his wanted to partner and open a doughnut shop in Oxford, but instead the friend moved to Virginia for a job. In 2017, Greiwe — a West Chester native — moved back to Cincinnati.
“I thought at that point the doughnut company dream was kind of dead,” Greiwe said.
For fun, he hosted doughnut-making parties for friends and family, who liked his product.
“I thought we could do something down here,” he said. “It’s been a long journey to try and get to this point.”
He and his cousin Jack Nowlin operate Starlight out of Nine Giant’s kitchen, and Jack’s girlfriend, Gina Broeker, takes photos of the doughnuts and posts them to Starlight’s Instagram account. The “starlight” portion of the name refers to how a long time ago stars led explorers (like a lodestar), and the “lab” part denotes how experimental the company strives to be.
When he’s not working 40-45 hours a week at Nine Giant, Greiwe said the gastropub allows him to make doughnuts after hours or during slower shifts.
“Nine Giant has been great to us,” he said, adding, “Without them we couldn’t do this.”
He and Nowlin have managed to generate five dozen doughnuts in just a few hours; in the beginning it took them hours longer. While Greiwe is not a classically trained pastry chef, he has worked at various restaurants and bars, including Oxford’s Skipper’s Pub. He said his brother taught him how to cook.
“He showed me it’s a lot of fun to experiment with flavors and to not be afraid to try something new,” he said.
Inspired by Holtman’s Donuts — “They do a really good job at keeping things interesting” — Greiwe said he likes to mix unusual flavors: “I hope people seek us out because the flavors we have are a little off-the-wall some weeks.”
Recent eclectic flavors include: mocha coffee cake, which consists of chocolate, coffee and vanilla doughnut topped with a coffee glaze, streusel crumble and a dark chocolate drizzle; Galaxy Dreamcicle, a orange-vanilla doughnut topped with an orange and vanilla "galaxy" glaze; blueberry pancake, a blueberry-maple-vanilla doughnut topped with a blueberry-lemon glaze and maple drizzle; and Greiwe’s favorite, raspberry-lemonade, a lemon-vanilla doughnut topped with a raspberry-lemon glaze and sprinkles.
He put lemon juice in the dough and realized it added to the texture, which is denser and fluffier than typical cake doughnuts.
“It changed our recipe,” he said. “The acid in the juice broke down some of the protein bonds in the dough. Because of that, we now add lemon juice into every doughnut that we do.” And instead of using extracts in the doughnuts, he uses water-based bakery emulsions.
In order to come up with new flavors, Greiwe polls his patrons and references “The Flavor Bible” cookbook.
“I usually start with one kind of flavor,” he said. “This week I want to do hazelnut doughnuts. From there, I’ll look in the book — what other aspects go with that? I’ll see what else goes well with it and if I can put it into the doughnut or on the doughnut as a topping.”
His doughnuts pair well with craft beer, which makes his snacks ideal for a brewery. Citrus, sours, chocolate and coffee notes can bring out the nuances of Starlight’s doughnuts.
“I just think the more these breweries experiment with beer and the flavors they can produce, it helps me want to experiment and create doughnuts that work well with them,” he said.
Eventually, Greiwe would like to make savory doughnuts — he’s more of a savory cook — such as a garlic-rosemary doughnut that he could transform into an eggs Benedict sandwich.
“I want to push those boundaries and take it where a doughnut isn’t just something with a sugary glaze with sprinkles on top,” he said. “It can be so many other things. I want to explore different fried-dough cultures around the world.”
By early next year, he hopes to have enough money saved to open a storefront in an up-and-coming neighborhood (and a place that’s bereft of doughnut shops) like Walnut Hills, Northside or even Pleasant Ridge.
“At this point, not a lot of people outside of Pleasant Ridge have tried our doughnuts,” he said. “The reviews that we’ve gotten so far are really good, but so far it’s mainly been from people there.”
In the meantime, he wants to partner with other pastry-based businesses and possibly develop a beer-infused doughnut. He would like to take or teach a class at Cincinnati State’s culinary program to obtain more training, and he really would like for Starlight to eventually be discussed in the same breath as Holtman’s.
“They’re synonymous with elevated doughnuts,” he said.
But more importantly, the overwhelming responses Greiwe has received from so-called competitors encourages him to keep going.
“When I was initially getting into this, I thought I would have a lot of pushback from other businesses — ‘Don’t step on our toes.’ But it’s not like that,” he said. “From the people I’ve met, everybody wants to help. They want to see you succeed. They want to give you good, solid advice and help you along the way.”
To find out what flavors Greiwe will be working on next, follow Starlight Doughnut Lab’s Instagram account: www.instagram.com/starlightdoughnutlab.