Jack Marcum, the third in his family to carry that name, likes to be called by his middle name, Lee. Growing up as the grandson of the Jack for whom Jack's Donuts is named, Lee dreamed of striking out on his own at 18.
"I had been working there all my life. The last thing I wanted to do was spend another minute in that shop," Lee laughed. But that all changed when the possibility of letting the family business go became a real threat.
The donut shop had been languishing for some time when Lee's dad called him to let him know he had a buyer in mind. All of a sudden, Lee wasn't so sure he was ready to see the family business go. So he called his father back moments later and told him not to sell the business. At 24 years young, he was going to buy it.
Lee calls himself a "community college dropout" with a bit of a chuckle, but the joke's on business schools nationwide, as his natural business acumen has helped transform the business from a single neighborhood donut shop to a franchised, rapidly-expanding brand.
The turnaround began when Lee walked into a Five Guys Burgers shop and noticed that brevity seemed to be the key to their success. It was right there in the name: Burgers and fries, which is all they serve. So Lee decided to pare down the menu to two things: Donuts and coffee. No more muffins or Danishes or, as they had once sold, pizza. Lee also canceled distribution contracts in other states, and made quite a few enemies both inside and outside of the family in the process. People who had known Jack's Donuts since its inception in 1961 accused Lee of "ruining" the family business and messing with what they thought wasn't broken. He took it in stride with a larger goal in mind: Not just survival, but expansion. Malcolm Gladwell would probably call this his David and Goliath moment, one that hinged on his willingness to be momentarily hated for the greater good of the family business.
"They told me I was screwing everything up. But they didn't see the books," he said.
Before the intervention, the business was stretched too thin for a one-shop operation. After turning the proverbial Titanic around, the Marcums are now enjoying a huge boom in business. Lee has found a way to sneak a little Jack's products into new consumer awareness through an adept social media presence, their signature giant donuts, and by being the only visible brand of coffee on the studio kitchen shelf on IndyStyle.
Their latest move finds Jack's Donuts on the edge of a franchising explosion. The business that started over 50 years ago saw its first franchise get started in 2013, with tons more planned for locations spread across the 465 loop. As soon as they can find storefront space downtown, they're going to go for it.
Well, the franchisees will. Such is the secret to Lee's formula: To run as few brick-and-mortar restaurants as possible while selling the franchise rights to the new, simplified setup. The secondary beauty of only needing a few pieces of equipment is they can get a Jack's Donuts ready to open in much less time than your average restaurant. Good thing, too, because the donuts are awesome and so is the coffee. And both are almost as good as their "not just for cops" t-shirts.
It's all part of a much larger plan, but one with a simple goal.
"The product speaks for itself. All I have to do is find a way to get these donuts in the hands of hungry people, and they'll come back," which is why you are much more likely to see Lee Marcum out on the town with his signature purple and gold boxes, doing just that. The Jack's brand is homegrown proof that there is no greater recipe for success than smart business and honest sweat — well that, and a hot cup of coffee to dunk your donut in.
Profile: Jack's Donuts
Where: 2410 S. 14th St. (New Castle), 1522 N. State St. (Greenfield), 13578 E. 131st st. (Fishers), 516 Carmel Drive (Carmel)