Blueline Donuts: Not your average fritter

FLINT, MI – On a frigid January morning, Bruce Sowles, 53, and Randall Thompson, 50, carefully walk down a loading ramp, carrying four dozen donuts headed out for delivery. Today’s donuts are headed to Foster’s Coffee in downtown Flint, the newest account for Blueline Donuts—a donut shop operated by and located within Carriage Town Ministries. 

Both Sowles and Thompson are employees of Blueline Donuts and residents of Carriage Town Ministries, the largest homeless shelter in Genesee County. Sowles, who previously owned a bakery, serves as Blueline Donuts lead baker. With more than 30 years experience, he brings expert leadership to the donut shop where homeless people are employed, taught commercial kitchen skills, and build relationships with local police officers.

“We’re creating this program to teach others and here comes one of our own and he’s teaching us. It’s really neat. Definitely appreciate that experience,” Nic Gatlin says of Sowles. “Using Bruce’s knowledge and skill and his art to making donuts, we got to the point where we’re at.”

Each Wednesday morning, Carriage Town Ministries opens from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. selling the eight to 10 dozen donuts. Blueline Donuts also supplies donuts Monday through Friday to Foster’s Coffee (the exclusive home of Blueline’s espresso donut) and Heyday Coffee. 

“The sole purpose of this operation is not only to achieve that success with the baked goods that we make—and just growing a business in that sense—it’s to grow this job training program,” says Gatlin, 35, food services director and program director for men’s services at Carriage Town Ministries.

Blueline creates fritters, standard glazed donuts, custard donuts filled with chocolate and a twist glaze as well as a seasonal flavor—cherry this past summer, blueberry in the fall, and now cranberry filled. 

One unique twist to the program is that it specifically markets the donuts to police who patrol the surrounding neighborhood. It’s a way to say thanks as well as build relationships. Inspired by the Lansing Rescue Mission, the donut shop helps encourage positive, non-confrontational interactions. 

Randall Thompson considers himself “donut curious.” His excitement is nearly palpable as he pours over the pages of a magazine showcasing new trends in donut-making. There are images of savory donuts with avocado, a fried chicken donut sandwich and an iced donut covered in sugary breakfast cereal. “You can create almost anything you want with donuts,” he says. “Sometimes you’ve got to go outside that traditional box.”

Thompson, a chef with kitchen experience, has been helping Blueline find its feet. He has also put his creativity to work in regard to the donuts. With a surplus of cranberries from the holiday season, he concocted a cranberry filling for their current seasonal flavor.

Currently, they create yeast donuts and fry them but will soon be receiving a new, three-tier oven which will open up opportunities to create healthier donuts and other baked goods.

In the long run, Gatlin envisions Blueline becoming a full-featured bakery, maybe even with a storefront. For now, his goal is to continue to add more commercial accounts to become a completely self-sufficient program that helps participants leave the shelter with money in their pockets as well as employable experience, confidence, stability and independence. 

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