At 5 a.m., a light shines through the window of a Hampden rowhouse with a bright pink door and a large faux doughnut attached to the frame. Inside, Courtney Fix has been awake for hours. The sound of her rap music cuts faintly through the sleepy street.
With unwavering focus, she quickly and methodically works into the daylight. Expertly, she rolls fresh, homemade dough — one mound in each palm — into dozens of fluffy, identical puffs.
At Full Circle Artisan Palace, the menu includes doughnut flavors like oyster brine caramel, chocolate goat cheese, pickled blueberry and goat cheese, Vietnamese coffee, pizza, French toast, raspberry lemonade and chocolate milk for $3 or $3.25 apiece. It’s not the first wacky doughnut shop to hit the Baltimore market, but to some extent, it’s braving new creative territory with a self-described “queen” at the helm.
“They’re kind of like f— — you doughnuts,” Fix, 29, said. “It’s my way of saying f— — you to all the people who told me ‘you’re not going to be able to do it.’ ”
Fix wants to make everyone who enters the Chestnut Avenue space feel like royalty. The walls are adorned with crowns and messages of encouragement — to her customers and to herself. She calls it “queening,” and to her, it means unconditional positivity and fierce independence.
“I’m doing what everybody told me I wasn’t going to do,” the Pikesville resident said.
Artisanal doughnuts and baked goods have long been staples in Hampden; Full Circle Artisan Palace occupies the same space as predecessors Center Cut and B Doughnut, and the latter employed Fix as its head chef.
But while other bakeries have closed or moved on from Baltimore, Fix feels confident — and is determined — that hers will outlive the others.
“I care so much,” Fix said. “It’s been 10 years of nonstop work. I don’t party, I don’t go out, I don’t have many friends.”
Fix strives to outdo her competitors with one-of-a-kind creations that, to her knowledge, haven’t been attempted before. Every week, she experiments with new flavors, testing customers’ limits each time with concoctions like cereal-milk flavored doughnuts — filled with a rich cream that she describes as “too basic” for her taste — or the savory scrapple, egg and cheese breakfast favorite sandwiched between two slices of homemade doughnut bread.
For those itching for salty, the Cheeto-powdered doughnut might just do the trick. Sweet-toothed customers looking for a seasonal outlet? The Gingerbread doughnut, topped with peppermints and a gingerbread cookie, may soon come in handy.
And for true Baltimoreans, there’s a soft shell doughnut available during crab season, made with real crabs and a jalapeno corn slaw presented between two buns.
“It’s really easy for me to make doughnuts [by] just seeing what’s trending and then putting my own spin on it,” she said. “I’m not looking at what every other shop is doing.”
Without a business or marketing degree, Fix makes up her strategy on the fly. She spent years as a sous chef, taking great care to refine her pastry-making skills. Under the leadership of many male chefs, she said she grew accustomed to having her ideas rejected.
“They said, you know, ‘People aren’t going to like that, people aren’t going to buy that,’ ” she recalled.
But 10 months into playing by her own rules, she’s “kicking ass” like she always suspected she would. She’s expanding production to accommodate growing sales and will soon add another employee and a delivery service.
Fix relies mostly on social media and word of mouth to reach customers, even drawing visitors from as far away as Canada this summer.
On a recent Friday morning, Gabi Wurtzel stopped by “the palace” for the first time. The Federal Hill resident found Fix’s shop on Instagram and recognized her from her previous ventures in the doughnut community.
“The doughnut shops before, like B Doughnut, I was not a fan,” Wurtzel, 27, said. “I think you’ve been doing a really great job. I’m glad I’m here.”
Though Fix acknowledges the power of visual promotion — especially via Instagram — to expand her reach, she refuses to hire marketing help.
“I don’t want somebody who’s getting paid to come and promote this,” Fix said. “This food-influencer community isn’t sincere at all and [it’s] the craze right now in Baltimore.”
While doughnuts make up the bulk of the menu, the sandwiches, coffees and beverages, cinnamon rolls and dog treats help woo more patrons. She plans to grow by continuing to listen to customers’ feedback, even though she might not always agree with their tastes or preferences.
When a flavor sells out, she takes it as a sign to make it again, even if it’s too sweet or plain for her liking. If she senses customers aren’t warming to a new creation, she’ll try it again and again until she finds a middle ground.
In a food community that she describes as lagging behind the times, Fix relishes in the opportunity to expand Baltimore’s palate. It’s a hefty task, but the pursuit of something that others deem unattainable only adds fuel to her fire.
“I’m really trying not to compete with anyone,” she said. “I just like defining the rules, or changing the rules, I guess.”