It’s a Tuesday morning, 30 minutes after Shannon’s weekly set at Dante’s with his Karaoke From Hell band. Shannon—the co-owner of Voodoo Doughnut, the nightlife ringmaster of Old Town, and the man about to unveil a mysterious second venture called the Portland P Palace—is sitting in the back of his 1992 Mercedes 300E in his reserved parking space on Southwest Ankeny Street, bitching that Willamette Week did not endorse his run for mayor in 1992.
He looks for the bright side.
“Thank God, I don’t have to hang out at City Hall and deal with the Occupy Portland shit,” he says, adding without a pause: “What we should go do is go to the Port and see what the fuck’s going on. I’d love to go do that. You wanna go?”
This is a good place to mention that Shannon has spectacular weed.
“Hard right,” Shannon tells his designated driver—whose name is Colby, but Shannon calls him Cheese—and we roll east across the Steel Bridge. We have to slow down on Northeast Broadway because Shannon has dropped his roach in the passenger seat of his car.
We coast down to Swan Island, where Shannon says Occupy is blocking the Port. The car stereo blasts Rolling Stones bootlegs at top volume. The windows are open and freezing air slaps me in the face and it feels good.
“The Stones!” Shannon says. “Are our lights on, by the way?”
Tres Shannon is riding high.
Those responsible for promoting local tourism have a hard time explaining why Voodoo Doughnut has become a phenomenon.
“Personally, I couldn’t name another doughnut spot in another city that has national recognition,” says Megan Conway, vice president of communications for Travel Portland. “When you talk about Portland, there’s always someone in the room who says, ‘Oh, have you had a Voodoo doughnut?’”
Voodoo will celebrate its millionth customer by March, though it’s probably had more. This summer, Voodoo sold a million doughnuts in June, July and August. Pink boxes are a common sight in the security lines of Portland International Airport. The shop’s website gets 60 million hits a year. In 2009, according to Shannon, Voodoo Doughnut was the eighth most-searched place name in the world on Google.
“We struck gold with Voodoo,” says Shannon’s business partner, Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson. “The worse the economy got, the longer our lines got. We are kind of the rock stars of the doughnut world. We show up with the pink box, and it’s like the parting of the Red Sea.”
At age 45, Shannon is proof that not only are there second acts in Portlandian lives, but the encore can be far more celebrated and lucrative.
Born Richard Shannon III in Portland Adventist Hospital in 1966, Shannon was nicknamed “Tres” by his parents. They split up when he was 4, and Tres moved to Colorado with his dad.
As a teenager, he made money in the summer by hanging out at a Dairy Queen and challenging tourists to banana split-eating contests. He attended only one day of college.
He moved back to Portland in 1984. Six years later, he and Benjamin Arthur Ellis opened their riotous all-ages club the X-Ray Cafe, an alterna-kid destination where the walls were covered in black velvet paintings and acts ranged from Green Day to Ernest Truly’s Bare Bottom Spanking and Salvation.
“He literally would give anybody a chance, no matter how little talent they had,” says Tony Green, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Justice who used to play gigs at the X-Ray. “What most people didn’t see was that he took very seriously being an Old Town business owner.”
Shannon and Ellis shuttered the X-Ray Cafe in 1994 for lack of cash. For the next decade, Shannon supported himself by booking shows at rock club Berbati’s Pan, and with his Karaoke From Hell gigs.
For 19 years after returning to Portland, he rented a room from his mother.
In 2003, Shannon and Pogson opened Voodoo Doughnut because they wanted a business and were too burned out on nightlife to open a bar. They served doughnuts 24 hours a day from an Old Town hole-in-the-wall. Originally, Shannon wanted to theme the shop after Rod Stewart and call it Every Picture Tells a Story Doughnut.
Instead, Voodoo painted its walls in the same Day-Glo colors as the X-Ray, and served its pastries in neon pink boxes festooned with dancing witch doctors. It performed weddings ($300 still buys a legal Universal Life ceremony, plus doughnuts and coffee for six people). It created a doughnut topped with M&Ms called the Marshall Matters, and the phallus-shaped, cream-filled Cock ’n’ Balls.
The Multnomah County Health Department banned the Nyquil Glazed and the Vanilla Pepto Crushed Tums doughnuts. The city named the Portland Cream the official doughnut of Portland. This summer, Shannon and Pogson set a Guinness world record for the largest box of doughnuts: 666 pounds. They held a wedding ceremony for two housecats.
The company now has three locations—it launched Voodoo Doughnut Too in a former Autoland used-car dealership on Northeast Davis Street in 2008, and Voodoo Doughnut Tres in Eugene in 2010. The original Old Town location reopened this summer with a renovated interior carved from the closed Berbati’s Pan, complete with three stained-glass windows and a large neon sign featuring a pretzel-stick Voodoo doll.
Like any successful roadside attraction, all three shops are mostly dedicated to roped-off, curling queues.
Shannon and Pogson declined to release their annual revenues, but they say they sell at least 10,000 doughnuts a day at the three locations. A little math suggests they could be grossing up to $7 million annually.
That’s a lot of money for fried dough.
“The magic at Voodoo is not in rolling a doughnut in Cap’n Crunch,” says Kohel Haver, Shannon’s lawyer. “That ain’t the magic. People come to Voodoo Doughnut because they want to be part of something.”
Standing inside Voodoo on a weeknight—with Lou Reed playing on the speakers and customers lined up beside the collages of New York Times obituaries—it’s easy to see the appeal. Visitors can dabble in bohemian decadence and emerge with a harmless 95-cent treat.
But the success also remains counterintuitive: In a town where foodie culture is king, a doughnut isn’t pushing the exotic envelope. Even the Voodoo motto suggests the secret isn’t the doughnut: “The magic is in the hole.”
So what is the uncanny allure in the center?
“We get to run a circus,” Pogson says. “That was our plan all along. And my friend Tres can run a circus.”
Shannon, whose mayoral bid wasn’t even mentioned by name in WW’s 1992 primary endorsements—though he came to the interview with a bullwhip and finished fourth in a field of 12—is now commonly known as the mayor of Old Town.
He’s the closest thing Portland has to a mascot. Voodoo has made appearances on Leno, Conan, the Travel Channel, the Food Network and The Simpsons’ 20th anniversary special.
Shannon gets a cameo in January’s second season of Portlandia. He plays God.
When I call him to ask for an interview, Shannon asks what the piece will say. I cite a scene from the movie Almost Famous, where the young reporter protagonist responds to a rocker’s request to “Just make us look cool” with the reply, “I will quote you warmly and accurately.”
He says we should go out drinking.