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For reviewer Chadrick J., the drive down to Cranky Al’s in Milwaukee is worth it for one donut alone: the tequila-lime flavor. “It’s a hardy bismark that is filled with El Humidor Tequila and key lime buttercream topped with vanilla icing, graham cracker crumble, and lime drizzle on top,” he described. “Not sure how you top this donut as this is the one that puts the Crank in Cranky Al’s and the one that made me fall in love with this place.”
As a family-owned shop, Cranky Al’s (and its extensive menu) has become a community staple in the Milwaukee area. If you make the trip there, you’ll probably see owner Joey Carioti clearing tables or chatting with customers. The house staff consists of mostly neighborhood high school and college students, who are trained by Joey. “We work with them, and we work around their schedules too,” he says. “We know that this isn’t their forever job, but I tell everyone I hire: This is my forever job.”
Even for long-standing family businesses, recognizing the need for change is something that can help businesses thrive. As times have progressed, Cranky Al’s has evolved in both its offerings and operations. Joey—as the nephew of the original owners—has taken what his aunt and uncle have built and put his own spin on things.
At Cranky Al’s, maximizing profit and creating demand is key. One major change Joey made as owner was expanding their offering of breakfast foods, which have customer favorites. And while this change has helped increase business, the core focus for Cranky Al’s has stayed the same: “We’ve really grown through the last 11 years with our breakfast, but obviously the donuts are the show,” he said.
Evolving the business also meant adapting to unforeseen circumstances, such as a global pandemic. In addition to taking necessary safety precautions, Cranky Al’s adapted to different forms of ordering, including both in person and online. While online purchases allowed Joey’s team to predict what they’ll need, he admits that sometimes they don’t have everything quite figured out.
“It has hiccups along the way, but to me it’s more like a challenge, right?” Joey said. “And that’s how we approach everything. It’s a challenge. Things are going to go wrong. It’s just how well you don’t mess them up.”
Business growth can sometimes mean more than just changing your internal operations. One way that Cranky Al’s has strengthened its business presence is through collaborations and partnerships. Valentine Coffee Co., a local coffee shop, had been asking Cranky Al’s to sell their coffee for a while. “For the longest time, we were like, we’re good with ours,” Joey admitted. “And then all of a sudden, the kind of the coffee that we were getting we weren’t as happy with.” After working out a partnership, Joey also convinced Valentine to sell Cranky Al’s donuts, which eventually garnered the attention of food personality Alton Brown.
The genuine care and effort that Joey and the staff put into Cranky Al’s is noticeable, and it translates to the quality of food that they serve. It’s what keeps customers like Chadrick coming back year after year.
Joey and his team live by these additional tips to help Cranky Al’s thrive:
- Maximize free opportunities to promote your business. An easy way to generate content and engage customers is resharing their posts and encouraging them to share their experience with your business on social media.
- Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. It’s perfectly fine to look to other businesses for inspiration. See what’s working for others, and put your own spin on the ideas you like.
- Take advantage of new tools for a more seamless experience. For Joey, this meant keeping online ordering as an option for customers, who may have very specific or large orders.
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Joey and Chadrick, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.