Recipe Calls for Kindness

Story by Caroline Yablon

Photos courtesy of Nightlight Donuts

Illustrations by Trong Mai

“Kindness, not sugar or flour or a special spice, is our secret ingredient and the thing that we believe so strongly in.” Even during a global pandemic, one local Waco business was able to uphold this mantra. While many businesses suffered economic challenges during COVID-19, Nightlight Donuts owner Jackson Wren not only found a way for Nightlight to stay afloat through quarantine, but he also used his business to give back to the greater Waco community. 

Even though Nightlight Donuts is a start-up, Wren was not concerned about the money. He was more focused on his employees: about a quarter of his staff rely on Nightlight as their sole income. 

“It put [Nightlight] in a weird position because I feel responsible for all of our staff and their financial wellbeing,” Wren said. 

He began thinking of what Nightlight could do during that time that would keep his staff employed, help the community and keep Waco’s award-winning donut company alive. 

When the pandemic first happened back in March, masks were selling out worldwide. As a result, medical professionals and hospitals treating COVID-19 patients were running low. 

Wren then called up one of his investors, a Waco physician, and asked what the primary need in hospitals was. When Wren heard that there was a deep need for masks, it sparked an idea: “What if we basically got our staff to start making masks?”

Nightlight’s surgical investor had mentioned to Jackson that a lot of surgical instruments that the hospital ordered came wrapped in N95 material, which is what surgical masks are made of, and that most of it gets trashed. He managed to collect all he could so that Nightlight could use it to make masks. 

“We picked up like four trash bags full of [N95 material] and then we used a big chunk of our cash reserve to purchase a number of sewing machines and we basically watched this YouTube video on how to make face masks,” Wren said.

And just like that, Nightlight Donut’s staff temporarily said goodbye to frying donuts and hello to mask making. 

Each week for about two months the staff made masks all day and then went to hospitals around Waco to drop them off. 

Nightlight’s Chief Operations Officer Kathleen Kooiker, who is experienced sewer herself, recalls her time making masks. 

“It was kind of therapeutic,” she said. “I would just set my sewing machine up and get a little station on my porch and I would just sew all day.” 

By the end of the mask operation, Nightlight Donut’s staff donated over 500 face masks to Waco hospitals. 

Since 2018, when Nightlight had its first event at Balcones Distilling, Wren has felt the love and support from friends and the Waco community, but he recalls feeling this even more during the pandemic. It was important to Jackson that Nightlight not only used its brick-and-mortar business to sell donuts, but also used it to be a “vehicle of kindness” for his staff and customers;  Nightlight has managed to live out this mission in a unique way. 

Nightlight has invested time in training the staff to live out kindness with something they like to call an “employee kindness bank account.” Wren said every Nightlight employee receives $50 a month to do random acts of kindness for customers and the Waco community.

Whether a customer has experienced a loss and needs some cheering up or is just having a bad day, Nightlight employees have money to show them an intentional gesture. 

“I think people supported us incredibly, so we expect them [Nightlight employees] to use all $50 for something to show kindness,” Wren said. 

And just when a customer is cheered up with a box of buttery layered cronuts, they now have a sweet message in giant block letters waiting for them inside that says, “Be kind.” 

Nightlight Donuts has come a long way since March of last year. With a hardworking staff and the support of the Waco community, Nightlight was able to progress from operating solely out of a food truck, to opening its storefront in Woodway on Oct. 23. 

“Customers supported us and employees supported us, banks supported us, landlords supported us – it really is crazy,” Wren said. “There’s not a chance we would be in business if it wasn’t for friends and friends of friends just telling people like, ‘Hey, come support this donut business’… There’s not a second I sit here and think, ‘Oh, we’re a strong business because of our donuts.’ I think we’re a really strong business because of the way the community has built us to be that way.”