In small town Oregon, at a mostly-automated chain coffee drive-thru, wearing a bright green apron, Mark Davis became something of a local legend. People would plan their coffee run based on his shift schedule; they’d tip him by name. It had almost nothing to do with the coffee in the cup he was handing through the window. Mark had–and has still–a beautiful way of being with people.
As Mark was scattering his joy with every customer interaction, he was simultaneously locked in an internal struggle. His creativity was pinging him with a different small business idea every day. At the time, Mark and his family needed the health insurance and schedule consistency–the safety–that corporate cafe culture can offer.
But, then everything started to change. As Mark’s wife Katie’s floral business was becoming an international phenomenon, Mark was able to step back from cafe work and spend his time as a stay at home dad. Almost without even realizing it, he turned his home kitchen into a laboratory.
Mark’s kids have some fairly serious food allergies, so he started spending more time making from-scratch, allergen-free meals for his family. This began a theme that would eventually give shape to his work at Bigwig: fresh creativity sprung from the necessity of limitation. The goal he set for himself was to make food within the limitations of his family’s dietary restrictions that didn’t feel even a little subpar.
Mark has this artist’s intuition (in his non-work life he’s a brilliant musician) that helped him to recognize food as more than just…food. For Mark, food is a way of experiencing the world, and, just as importantly, it’s a means of connection with other people. Food is communion. He’d spent enough time in health food stores finding allergen-free foods to realize that people with dietary restrictions, while already having to forego many foods they love, can also end up feeling somewhat alienated because they’re not eating what everyone else is eating.
As his mind was churning out new ideas, Mark set himself a pretty lofty goal: to create food that would accommodate a pretty wide swath of dietary restrictions, and (this is the hard part) be so tasty-delish that it wouldn’t be just an extra stop after the rest of the family hit up their bakery of choice–it needs to not be hippy-food,’ he chuckles. Which is to say, the goal started with people. He wanted to create a treat so good that everyone could eat it, and more important would want to eat it. ‘The whole idea was, I’m going to make something unique. The more I limited myself, the more specific I could get with the concept to try it.’ So, with a background in coffee culture, he began dialing in a recipe for the best coffee companion outside of a bagel: the donut. In this case, gluten-free, vegan donut holes. He kept experimenting with different flavors, different flour mixes, always up late at night, texting his neighbors to come try a new batch.
Around this same time a friend gave him some advice: ‘It’d be better for you to try ten things and fail at them–and learn from that–than to never do anything at all.’ Mark pretty quickly realized he could take the camaraderie he’d created around his own kitchen table, and bring it out into the world.
Bigwig Donuts started as a long-term series of popups at various coffee and tea shops throughout the Willamette Valley. Mark had perfected his recipe for a couple of base cake donuts and set to work proving that a high quality product doesn’t require fancy, expensive equipment. To this day, even now that Bigwig has a brick-and-mortar location, the donut holes are all still made on little electric cake pop machines.
After several years of popups Mark’s unique ability to connect with people through food amassed him a loyal following. When a small space in downtown Salem came available, Mark took a deep breath and pounced. Even with a strong customer base, the risks of opening a more permanent location, one that would require a fairly involved buildout, loomed large. One thing Mark was pretty clear on from the beginning: avoid going into debt if at all possible.
Here again, this creativity born out of limitation gives Bigwig a unique vibe. When Mark was building out the brick-and-mortar, he ended up doing most of it himself with the help of family and friends. The result is the perfect antidote to the polished, overly-contrived cafes. The Bigwig space has a warm simplicity to it. The uniqueness born out of limitation doesn’t just apply to the interior design either. When it came time to think about the coffee setup, Mark opted to forego the classic, and expensive, espresso machine setup. Instead he’s rigged up kegs of extra strength cold brew that he can pour on tap. He uses it to make non-traditional, but amazingly smooth cappuccinos and lattes, and it’s led him to develop all manner of creative drink recipes with unique flavors, nitro smoothness, and alternative milks (none of which cost extra, given Bigwig’s mission to create treats for everyone). The donuts themselves are also always being reinvented. With seasonal flavors and special holiday designs, Mark’s creativity continues to shine.
Going to Bigwig gives this sense of visiting a friend where you’re incidentally ordering coffee and a handful of still-warm donut holes. In many ways, this is what helped keep Bigwig strong through the pandemic, despite having opened their brick-and-mortar space just months before everything got shutdown.
As the post-Covid emergence continues, Bigwig is carrying on creating a beautiful community space. And, of course, Mark’s creativity is starting to ping with new ideas. This creativity springs from a place of simplicity and community, two things that make up a big part of what he loves about his Ratio Six, ‘I love the one button simplicity of the brewer and having a thermal carafe is perfect for entertaining at home.’
As Mark mulls his next venture, he’s enjoying spending time with his kids as they get closer to young adulthood, but just as much he’s excited that they get to see him take risks and follow his creativity, ‘my kids seeing that I’ve tried something whether it works or not, is very important.’ For now, you can find Mark warmly welcoming one and all to his donut-filled table.