Buckling down for the pandemic, the Queens donut destination kept baking and slinging via delivery and their newly installed takeout window.
By Donnie D’Alessio as told to Zagat Stories
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Seamless. Celebrating the Perks of being a NYer, Seamless is delivering New York restaurants to your door with Presto! Resto! curated by The Infatuation—including Comfortland. Find out how to win a visit. Plus get free-delivery on Seamless orders from Comfortland between 4/16 – 4/25.
Donnie D’Alessio is co-owner of Comfortland donut bakery in Astoria, Queens, along with his sister Montana D’Alessio Barbier and partner Jackie Legge. Previously, the team also operated the beloved but now-closed restaurant Queens Comfort in the same neighborhood.
Luckily we had installed a takeout window in fall 2019, which was ironic because we had just missed the warm weather in the spring and the summer. It was in preparation for the next spring. When the pandemic hit, we were able to use the window instead of letting customers inside. We didn’t close throughout the whole lockdown. We had three guys that were on board to work. There were some staff that lived in other boroughs that didn’t want to commute, so they dropped out. We all held it down and kept Comfortland going.
Surprisingly, we had a lot of customers doing the walk-up. They were ordering at the window and also picking up orders just to help and support us. Deliveries definitely shot up.
We cut the menu by 75 percent for awhile. We had two bakers. I was the only one in the kitchen. And then I had three baristas. We had to cut the hours of operation down, so we opened later, closed earlier, and we were open five days a week. But it was insanity trying to keep up with the demand. We would just get in line and rock every day. Everyone was into the challenge.
We definitely didn’t want anyone coming into the restaurant during the whole lockdown. During the pandemic, we’ve been trying to come up with systems so that delivery drivers don’t have to come in and hang out. That being said, we didn’t have any interest in doing indoor dining. We just wanted it to be as safe as possible for everybody.
We’re still just doing the window right now. That’s a little bit challenging for us at this point. The first time around when they opened up indoor dining, I had an idea that it would eventually close again, so I didn’t want to go back and forth. I felt it would be easiest for us to keep on doing what we were doing.
The dining room also has transformed. We had to get more freezers and more refrigeration and more storage, so the dining room is like a storage unit. It’s a mess. I’ve got four freezers, two refrigerators, four shelving units, and boxes everywhere. It’s a vibe.
We have a bus stop right in front of us, so we weren’t able to create an outdoor identity. We just had some patio tables set up. We did try providing tents and some protection from the weather. We’ve probably gone through six tents by now. They all got destroyed by the wind. Right now we’re thinking that we’ll build overhead structures for some coverage.
Since the beginning, the community and the people in the neighborhood were supporting us. People have been starting to come here from other neighborhoods. We have a little bit of a destination vibe now. Whether it’s the lack of competition or because we were open when everyone else was closed, it helped us gain new customers here.
We change the donut menu seasonally, but we’ve done a rainbow cookie crumb cake since we opened. It’s always been our best seller, and now it’s gotten even more popular. Right now we’re doing a Funfetti Twinkie made from scratch. That’s been really popular. In the spring we’re going to be doing a strawberry shortcake donut as a play on a Good Humor ice cream bar. We have a tres leches old-fashioned donut that we soak in the three milks that’s been crazy popular too.
People do like the convenience of a window setup. We’ve been throwing ideas around of not really having indoor dining again. We’ve been feeling it out with people who are traveling here, and they express that it’s tough for them to make the trek over here if they don’t have any place to eat. We’re trying to be more mindful of our customers. So we’re thinking of transitioning to a Gray’s Papaya model or a pizzeria model, where there are little counters and stools, but not so much “dining.”
When Seamless first came to us about the Presto! Resto! truck, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was under the impression that we were going to be turning Comfortland into a food truck. When I heard that we had to turn it into a dining room, I was like, “But we just have the window. The dining room is a mess.” It was funny. They’re cool with taking the original design that we had though. I’m always down to try something new. I’m all for it. That’s what we do here on a daily basis—have fun and create new foods.
They have a team that came here taking notes on the key elements and characteristics that made this place unique—the color palette, the materials we used. We have a giant mural on the wall. That’s a big element of our brand. There’s an artist, Kevin Lyons, who we were lucky enough to have come and paint the mural in the dining room. He’s also responsible for our logo.
The idea behind the original dining room design was to have an open kitchen. We wanted the openness of the making of the donuts and the cooking of the food to be shared with the diners. We wanted to keep that creative energy, that fun vibe. We used all bright colors, a lot of hand-painted signs. We still work with Dick Muller, the sign artist, who has his office down the block. He’s here pretty much every day. He’s contributed hugely to our brand by creating all our signage for our donuts and food. There’s a warmth to those old-school hand-painted signs. He uses our bright color palette, the pastels and everything. It’s been an amazing experience working with him.
From what I’ve seen of the Seamless truck, it looks like they nailed the overall feeling and vibe of the space. They had a really cool oversize donut case built, too. I think that’s perfect to convey what we’re doing. It looks like they had a lot of fun with the donuts.
Even though it was extremely casual during the first couple of years that we were open, people did love coming here and hanging out. People loved the music. I put something on Instagram a couple weeks ago saying that we were thinking about not doing indoor dining again and evolving into something different. A lot of our regular customers expressed that they would be upset if they didn’t have a place to come and hang out on the weekends.
I definitely miss our regular customers. I miss seeing people enjoying the food. I really do have a connection to the diners in the dining room eating the food. We would have DJs come in. I could get instant feedback on the food. I could go out and talk to them and see how they were liking everything. That’s all gone now, which is sad.
That said, the community had our back throughout this whole thing. They sensed that we were in danger, and they had to help us get through this. We were seeing customers every day. And the size of the orders was crazy. They were massive orders. I swear that they were ordering breakfast, lunch, dinner, and breakfast for the next day. When you see something like that—when it’s just absurd the amount of food that they are ordering—you really get the feeling that they are giving us a huge amount of support and love.