Duck Donuts CEO: Goal is to serve ‘edible rings of happiness’ worldwide

Keynote speaker Betsy Hamm talks tradition, innovation at recent BPOY event

Headshot of Leslie Heimbaugh

By Leslie Heimbaugh

Knightly News Reporter

Let’s face it: When you have the chance to use “quacktackular,” “duckorative” and “fantasduck” in a sentence, you’re going to take that chance and milk it for all it’s worth.

That’s one of the joys of having the opportunity to write about Duck Donuts’ newly named CEO Betsy Hamm, who was the keynote speaker at Central Penn College’s 17th annual Business Partner of the Year (BPOY) Breakfast on Sept. 1 in Central Penn’s conference center.

Betsy Hamm addresses attendees of the Business Partner of the Year at Central Penn.
Photo by Leslie Heimbaugh

Although the franchise was initially named for its birthplace of Duck, North Carolina, that hasn’t stopped Duck Donuts from embracing its inner fowl. The company’s mascot, a quirky, loosely sketched duck sporting a jaunty red sun visor and matching red-striped swimsuit, perfectly captures the kitsch of the chain’s fun-loving image.

Even as Hurricane Ida slammed her way into Central Pennsylvania, she failed to dissuade CPC’s dedicated staff, students, faculty and guests from slogging through the heavy rain and wind to see UPMC named this year’s Business Partner of the Year for supporting the college, and its career services and development center.

And just as the proverbial duck lets water slide off its back, the dynamic Hamm didn’t let Hurricane Ida dampen her spirits, either. She showed up for breakfast—bearing doughnuts, of course—eager to share her insight and experience with the hearty crowd.

“I can already feel the energy in the room, and I’m sure part of that may be due to the doughnuts and coffee,” she said with a wide grin as she began her remarks.

Putting ducks on a bus

When Hamm joined the company as director of marketing in 2016, Duck Donuts had 22 locations and 12 corporate employees. She noted that she was probably the first person the company hired who was not a friend or a family member.

Hamm said she spent her first few months observing the operation and learning the franchise model. Priority number one: identify the strategy and structure necessary to get the company to the next level.

“I quickly knew that we had a terrific product and a unique concept, but that there was still an untapped market of those who didn’t know about us,” Hamm said.

Up to that point in the franchise’s history, positive word-of-mouth was the primary form of public relations. From Hamm’s perspective, this blank slate was pretty much a marketer’s dream come true. Early on, she spotted one of the first “opportunities” (a term Hamm prefers over the more negative “problems”).

“We had these beautiful, photogenic doughnuts, but the company was using illustrated doughnuts and a duck!”

From that revelation came a swift and productive plan that would completely change Duck Donuts’ image. At that point, Hamm swiftly began assembling the perfect team to create a system that would support the growing list of franchisees.

“One of my favorite sayings is that I want to get ‘the right people on the bus and in the right seat,’” she said.

Planning the company’s new marketing campaign was not all smooth sailing.

“Change can be scary, and we received mixed reactions from the original employees as well as the original franchise partners,” said Hamm.

An idea hatches, and flies

In 2007, Duck Donuts began as a small family-run business with two struggling seasonal storefronts in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. However, once those two locations began to prosper, people started clamoring for the warm, fresh, completely customizable treats to be available year-round.

Founder Russ DiGilio wanted to oblige, and although he opened a few more stores, it took him until 2013 to offer Duck Donuts as a franchising package. After all, as Hamm pointed out, only about 60 percent of franchised operations make it to 100 locations.

“We needed to become more sophisticated,” she said. “We had franchisees investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in Duck Donuts, and our job was to give them the tools they needed to succeed.”

Hamm’s newly assembled team stayed the course despite some initial reservations with the marketing changes, which quickly paid significant dividends.

“Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity—not a threat,” she said. “People being resistant to change is nothing new. It’s easy to become comfortable with what you know.”

And now …

Some Duck Donuts custom-built delights, clockwise from upper left:
Maple Bacon, Sunrise Lemon with raspberry drizzle,
S’mores, Strawberry with rainbow sprinkles,
Blueberry with raspberry drizzle, and Vanilla with Oreos and chocolate drizzle. Photo by Leslie Heimbaugh

Fast forward to today—Duck Donuts has a total of 104 locations in 23 states. In addition to opening a store in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in September 2020, the company opened in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in August. Plans call to open in Cairo, Egypt, and in the province of Ontario, Canada, by year’s end.

“You must think big and think ahead,” Hamm said. “What’s your one-year, three-year and five-year plan? I’m talking high-level here. At Duck Donuts, we plan for 300 locations to open in the next three to four years.”

As Duck Donuts made its way to international locations, Hamm expressed surprise at how much other countries love American culture.

“These are things we didn’t learn in our international business classes. In Dubai, they wanted everything to be exactly as we do it here in the U.S. They didn’t want to change anything—except, of course, the pork bacon,” Hamm continued, referring to Duck Donut’s incredibly popular maple-bacon doughnut.

Hamm says the store in Egypt did want one noticeable change: the chairs.

“In the U.S., people buy their doughnuts, and they leave,” she said. “Some people might stay to eat one doughnut, but this isn’t Starbucks. People don’t hang out, because our chairs aren’t comfortable.”

The Egyptian location, however, wants people to stay, so the chairs and the store layout will allow for that luxury.

“Our goal is to serve edible rings of happiness around the globe,” Hamm said.

The pandemic also presented Duck Donuts with “opportunities” to show innovation. During this time, the company hatched the Duck Donuts Decorating Kit, which customers could grab and then safely decorate their own doughnuts at home.

“During this unprecedented time, we had signs in our shops that read, ‘The optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist sees the hole,” said Hamm.

This Duck dynasty isn’t going away anytime soon.

Have a comment or a story idea? Contact KnightlyEditors@CentralPenn.Edu.

Edited by media-club co-adviser and blog editor Professor Michael Lear-Olimpi.