If you make the trip to Cranky Al’s, you’ll probably see owner Joey Carioti clearing tables or chatting with customers. As a community staple in the Milwaukee area, the donut-and-pizza shop draws a staff of mainly local high school and college students. Joey trains them personally, knowing they may graduate or move on, but the restaurant’s commitment to service never fades. “We work with them, and we work around their schedules too,” he said. “We know that this isn’t their forever job, but I tell everyone I hire: This is my forever job.”
At Cranky Al’s, donuts are forever. Joey, who took over the business from his aunt and uncle, Susie and Al, has preserved the family-run atmosphere and flavors that locals love. The menu is such a draw that many customers can recite “the one”—the donut that made them a regular.
For Yelp reviewer Chadrick J., it was the tequila lime. “It’s a hearty bismark that is filled with El Jimador tequila and key lime buttercream, topped with vanilla icing, graham cracker crumble, and lime drizzle on top,” he wrote. “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.”
Fueling donut lovers across the Milwaukee area remains a core part of Cranky Al’s business. But being able to adapt to change is just as crucial for its longevity. Over the years, the business has evolved in both its offerings and operations. For example, Joey expanded the menu to include other breakfast foods, which has helped increase profits. “We’ve really grown through the last 11 years with our breakfast, but obviously the donuts are the [star of] the show,” he said.
Joey has also helped grow the restaurant’s reach through partnerships, starting with local coffee shop Valentine Coffee Co. “For the longest time, we were like, we’re good with ours,” Joey said. “And then all of a sudden, the kind of the coffee that we were getting we weren’t as happy with.” The two businesses agreed to sell each other’s products, raising both their profiles in the process. The collaboration even caught the attention of food personality Alton Brown, who listed Cranky Al’s among his favorite donuts in the country.
Not every adaptation has gone smoothly, however. The pandemic prompted Cranky Al’s to offer online ordering, which has made it difficult for staff to predict what supplies they need. “It has hiccups along the way, but to me it’s more like a challenge,” 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.”
Luckily, Joey and his team are willing to rise to the challenge. Their genuine care and effort—and memorable flavors—keep customers like Chadrick coming back year after year. Additional tips from Cranky Al’s include:
- 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.
Photos of Cranky Al’s on Yelp; editorial contributions by Alisa Gao and Emily Moon
These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear the conversation with Joey and Chadrick, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.
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