Most entrepreneurs realize at an early age they have a knack for business. This was certainly the case for Nebraska native and owner of Square Donut, Elizabeth Pooley. At age 11 she started a business, breeding hamsters to sell to local pet stores so she could buy a pair of Adidas basketball shoes. At age 20 she launched an interior plant maintenance and landscape company. After spending her early adult years living on a farm, she then opened and operated an outdoor family entertainment venue for eight years—Pooley’s Pumpkin Patch. For someone who was never a morning person and didn’t care for sweets, the thought of owning a donut shop never crossed her mind. But like many entrepreneurs will attest, opportunities have a way of presenting themselves.
While visiting her daughter in Alabama, Pooley tasted her first square-shaped donut from a small local shop in Auburn called D2 Donuts. “I was in awe at how good they were,” she said. A few months later, Pooley learned that D2 Donuts was for sale but quickly dismissed the idea of purchasing a donut shop in Alabama. The desire to have another business lingered, because Pooley said holding an ordinary job “kills your spirit” as an entrepreneur. After some gentle persuasion from a friend, Pooley finally called the owners of D2 Donuts to get some general information. That phone call eventually turned into nearly a dozen visits to Alabama. “The first few visits were supposed to validate all the reasons why I didn’t want a donut shop,” Pooley said. “But then I started to slowly wrap my head around it.”
If she went forward with it, she wanted it to be different. For starters, it would have to be located in Omaha, and the equipment would have to be moved from Alabama. She’d also rename the business. D2 Donuts (which stood for D squared) sounded too mathematical. Pooley wanted a name that was easy to read and understand. She also wanted to develop new recipes from the shop’s originals. With those parameters, Pooley bought the business, bringing her new brand, Square Donut, to Omaha.
The concept of a square donut is simple: four corners provide four more bites, so you get more donut for your dollar. This proved to be a novel concept during a time when there was a lot of donut competition in Omaha. She approached owning her own restaurant with cautious optimism, but plowed ahead and found space in West Omaha. The buildout took a year and cost more than originally anticipated, but Square Donut held its soft opening in March of 2020. “It was glorious,” Pooley said. Until the pandemic hit Omaha two days later.
With bills to pay and a fully trained staff of 18 employees, closing was not an option, so Pooley immediately pivoted. They filled the donut case with empty pink Square Donut boxes and offered six options for pre-boxed donuts that customers could walk in and purchase. “It was rough and customers were angry that they couldn’t customize orders or buy single donuts, but because of the mandates, it’s what we had to do.” As the saying goes, things happen in threes, and that same month Pooley’s home caught fire, which displaced her for six months, and her mother became critically ill, spending five months in the ICU.
Pooley carried on, and that summer some of the pandemic mandates lifted, allowing Square Donut to go back to single sales. Demand quickly skyrocketed, with people lined up throughout the parking lot and donuts selling out often by 9:00 am. “We made mistakes as we learned along the way, but we kept growing. The pandemic was really a mixed blessing.”
Unfortunately, as the pandemic wore on into 2021, staffing shortages, supply chain issues, and inflation started to take their toll. Pooley and her son both worked 100-hour weeks, her head baker suffered a car accident and couldn’t work for three months, and Pooley felt like she was running on fumes. “Everything that could hit a business happened all at once,” she said. “I felt defeated, questioned if it was worth it, and considered closing. But right when you’re at the end of your rope, that’s when things fall back into place, and everything slowly started to fit together.”
Pooley prevailed, and Square Donut found its groove. She upgraded the original equipment and focused on employee retention to make Square Donut a place where everyone wants to work. As someone who is “creatively motivated,” she dove into recipe development and has expanded the gluten-free product line. She’s also going to expand the vegan line and is developing a drunken donut line, which will feature alcohol-infused flavors such as smoked bourbon whiskey, bloody mary, and mojito. The restaurant always offers a donut of the month, which is a great way to allow the public to test new flavors. Coffee naturally complements donuts, and Square Donut sells the local Hardy Coffee brand and plans to add hot and iced espresso drinks.
Determining how many donuts to make each day is more of an educated guess than a science. Unlike some of the chain donut shops that freeze donuts and heat them as demand dictates, Square Donut makes everything fresh from scratch daily, which is why product can run out on high demand days. But pre-orders are always welcome and customers can walk in and purchase up to 4 dozen donuts at a time.
Pooley’s favorite part of owning a donut shop is interacting with everyone who enters. “I love seeing kids and families and talking to people—that’s so close to my heart. We truly care for you and care about meeting your needs.” Her advice for someone who wants to start a business is that you are capable of doing more than you think. “Crazy ideas happen, but you can do it, especially if you have lots of support and faith.”
How does Pooley feel about mornings and sweets these days? “I have come to appreciate mornings—the ability to meditate and gather my thoughts. The sugar is still difficult for me, but I love seeing people interact with our product. It provides good vibes and happy stories.”