Photo by Darrow Montgomery
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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Rob Krupicka never considered himself a doughnut guy. “That’s the big irony of it all,” he says. But now the former Alexandria city councilman and Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates is opening a Sugar Shack in Shaw early this summer, his third, to complement his existing stores in Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia.

It’s the drive to make the most of life—not a passion for the confection itself—that motivates a successful and respected local politician to open not one, but three doughnut shops.

“My career has always been moving toward, ‘How do I maximize happiness?’” Krupicka says. “For myself, for my family, and for the people around me. We all get to a place sometimes where we work too hard. We figure fun will come at some point later, and my view is, why should you have to wait?”

Krupicka lives in the Old Town neighborhood of Alexandria, where one of his shops is located. There you can browse the doughnut selection, which features everything from basic glazed to mud pot—a chocolate glazed doughnut with crumbled Oreos and gummy worms. 

Krupicka arrives for work relaxed in a hoodie and flip flops. He has a 5 o’clock shadow, a departure from his clean-shaven days in office, and greets every customer because his desire to listen and engage is something he has carried over from the political realm.

“He never hid from residents and the constituents who elected him,” says Justin Wilson, the current vice mayor of Alexandria who worked on Krupicka’s first city council campaign in 2003 and later served on the  council with Krupicka. “He constantly engaged with them, responded to emails, talked to them.”

Krupicka is a keen observer of happiness, especially the reactions of his youngest customers as they nibble away on his confections. “Sometimes they go from the side and they work their way in and they literally go around it like a squirrel or something,” he says. “There’s the other ones who eat the top off first. And then there’s the other ones who start at the bottom, and that’s very rare.”

When a staffer brought Sugar Shack doughnuts to their office in Richmond three-and-a-half years ago, it was only natural for Krupicka to learn more about the sweets that had people from both sides of the aisle lining up for a taste in the state capital.

“I visited [Sugar Shack] for a while,” Krupicka says. “You’d see people coming in with their kids and you’d see grandmas and you’d see construction workers and firefighters and everything else. And everyone left with a smile on their face. There aren’t many businesses that make most of their customers that happy.” 

Krupicka suggested Sugar Shack open a store in Northern Virginia, but Ian Kelley, the founder of the original store in Richmond, told him he was too busy and that Krupicka should do it.

“He’s very much an ideas guy who can turn them into action,” Wilson says. “When he originally told me, ‘Hey I’m gonna open a doughnut shop’ I was like ‘Are you sure? You’re a little crazy.’ I’ll admit I was a little skeptical, but he’s done it.”

Three months after opening his first store in January 2015, Krupicka announced he wouldn’t run for re-election to the House of Delegates. “I thought I could do politics and doughnuts at the same time, and then I realized that running a small business is actually a lot more work than I thought,” Krupicka says. 

“Rob did what a lot of people in politics dream about doing, which is he left on his own accord and he left with people wanting him to stay,” Wilson says.

Krupicka championed several issues, including education, mental health, and public transit. Then-Governor Tim Kaine appointed him to the state board of education from 2009-2012. He was nominated to serve on the board of the Virginia chapter of the National Association of Mental Illness. And he and Wilson revived the Potomac Yard Metro station project.  

As a true public servant, he continues to find ways to use his business and time to advocate for his community. For example, Sugar Shack will deliver about 2,000 doughnuts to participants of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in D.C. on June 17. 

He’s also hired five graduates of Together We Bake, a local job training and personal development program for women in need of starting over, to be a part of his initial staff at his first store in Alexandria.

“I like being able to give jobs to people who need a second chance,” Krupicka says. “I think more businesses should do it. There is an assumption that you’re signing up for more work and management oversight than you want to do and, in my experience, that’s not true.”

Stephanie Wright, co-founder of Together We Bake, agrees. “If [businesses] take a chance and really get to know somebody, even just through the interview process, I think they’ll be very impressed with the incredible resiliency, strength, and really incredible work ethic that comes along with having been in difficult situations,” she says. “Rob’s done a great job of creating that feeling of ‘this is part of our community.’”

To serve the Shaw community and provide a fresh nightlife option, the new Sugar Shack (1932 9th St. NW) will experiment with late-night hours and sidewalk service through its front windows. It has a 17-seat cocktail bar, Nocturne, beneath it, much like Captain Gregory’s, the speakeasy-like bar and restaurant that accompanies the Alexandria Sugar Shack.

“My dream is after shows end at the 9:30 Club, the bands all wanna come over and hang out in my bar downstairs,” Krupicka says.

Captain Gregory’s Executive Chef Brandon McDermott and beverage director Sam Brooks are working to make Nocturne a unique experience featuring “tapas-style” cocktail flights and creative bar fare. Krupicka says that he takes an “artist’s approach” to his shops and bars.

“Art does not mean inaccessible. We want the cocktails and food to be unlike anything you’ve had, but we also want them to appeal to a broad range of people,” Krupicka says.

Once the Shaw shop is in full swing, Krupicka will turn his focus to expansion, but his experience as a small business owner has shifted his policy perspective.

“I think politicians in general—both parties—have a complete lack of understanding of what it takes to run a small business,” he says, “The marketplace and the way we set up our laws really advantage a Starbucks and not the small guy.” 

Krupicka says the permitting process in D.C. took six months compared to the one month it took in Alexandria. “Government can be so cumbersome. The big guys can muscle through it with money,” he says. Despite that, Krupicka has a deep love for the District, calling it beautiful and even comparing it to Paris.

“At the end of the day, we usually have doughnuts left over, so I’ll grab boxes and go to bars and just drop them off and talk to people,” he says. “You meet people from all over the world.”

“If I were to knock D.C. at all, I’d say we work a little too hard and we don’t have enough fun,” he continues. “There’s not enough smiles in D.C. I’m not suggesting that I think it’s my mission to fix that, but I think we can help a little bit,” he says.

As for Krupicka, is he happy? 

“I can honestly say, since I started this business, there hasn’t been a day I haven’t had fun. There’s been days where it’s been hard. Really hard. Small businesses have hard days, but I haven’t had a day that hasn’t been fun.”

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