The story behind Habits Coffee & Mini Donut Co. in Dubuque

Mini donuts spinkled with chocolate Rice Crispys.

The mini donuts are made fresh.

A spin on strawberry shortcake.

Mini donuts with whimsical sprinkles.

Mini donuts topped with Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Mini donuts with apples a la mode.

Cocoa Puffs add to the chocolaty goodness of these mini donuts.

At Habits Coffee & Mini Donut Co. in Dubuque, good things come in small packages.

Colorful Fruit Loops atop mini donuts.

Cap’n Crunch adds the flavor to these mini donuts.

Sheri and Robert Willmers’ love story came full circle this year without them even realizing it.

At the heart of their tale: Coffee and donuts.

The couple met at a quaint Italian bakery in Seattle 23 years ago. Every morning, Sheri went for coffee, and Robert went for donuts.

Even though Sheri was getting ready to move to Europe, she felt compelled to ask him out. The pair spent the next two weeks together until Sheri moved halfway across the globe.

“I ended up coming back three months later,” she said. “I knew he was the one, and we got married three years later.”

Fast forward to this summer.

Sheri’s food truck business expanded to open a brick-and-mortar storefront June 5 on Dubuque’s Locust Street. Its name: Habits Coffee & Mini Donut Co., which sells coffee and made-to-order gourmet mini donuts.

“We didn’t realize the irony when we started the business, but our daughter pointed it out,” said Sheri, of Peosta, Iowa. “It’s crazy the way life works out, and I’m crazy about him.”

How it all started

Sheri was drawn to the Seattle bakery’s unique atmosphere and sense of community it provided. Opening a café had been in the back of her mind ever since.

“I loved the whole feeling of community at a small café,” she said. “You feel comfortable going in, and I wanted to re-create that for myself and other people.”

When the Willmers and their three children moved to the Dubuque area about six years ago, Sheri took a corporate job. But she soon grew antsy and wanted to start something of her own.

Her husband suggested making donuts, along with the coffee she wanted to sell, to help her business stand apart.

Never mind that Sheri had never fried donuts before. And the last time she worked in the food industry was when she was 13 years old. Her background is in computer training and technical editing.

Sheri accepted the challenge.

She turned to Pinterest for inspiration, gathering information on coffee shops, menus and decorating ideas. She wanted to go beyond the typical mini donut — looking to also create gourmet toppings mimicking desserts like Boston Cream and Apple Pie.

She found a fryer company and trained on the equipment. Her fryer is relatively small and extremely automated, dropping in the mix, flipping the donuts when one side is done and even moving them onto a pan at the end.

Sheri decided to start with a food truck to test her business model. Habits Coffee & Mini Donut Co.’s food truck made its debut at the Dubuque Farmers Market in May 2017.

More than coffee and donuts

In her second year, sales skyrocketed. At her family’s prompting, Sheri left her full-time job to focus on her business. Soon, she was ready to scale Habits again, and she found a storefront on Locust Street.

“I’ve always loved coffee and community, and I want to make people feel at home and make something fresh and good,” she said. “My habit was always going into a local coffee shop I like — not just for the food and drink, but for the camaraderie. We want to be a consistent happy part of your day.”

Robert built all of the furniture inside the store. And the first piece he created was a child-size, bar-style table for children.

“I miss that age, and I want children to come in and feel comfortable here,” said Sheri, whose three teenagers work alongside her. “Now my son is towering over me making donuts for me.”

It’s not your typical donut shop. You won’t find donut s on display, because Habits decorates them after you order them. The counter contains a glass guard, allowing you to watch as your treats are created.

“That’s what people love about them; they’re definitely warm and fresh,” Sheri said.

Habits serves more than a dozen varieties in addition to plain, cinnamon sugar and powdered sugar. Some of the toppings give a nod to the area — like Mississippi Turtle (chocolate glaze, caramel glaze and pecans) and Iowa Sunset (vanilla or chocolate glaze and sprinkles). Habits also serves a variety of drinks, from iced and hot coffee to chai and smoothies.

Sheri continues to runs her food truck at the market on Saturdays. Otherwise, she’s at her storefront. Business is slowly growing as more people find out they don’t have to wait until the weekend for gourmet mini donuts.

“It’s pretty surreal,” Sheri said. “To see it all come together has been pretty cool, and my family has been really supportive. They know I’ve wanted to do this for a long time.”

Emily Kittle is a former Telegraph Herald reporter and freelance writer from Madison, Wis.

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