Sally & Mike Miller are an ordinary couple brought together by backpacking, Elvis and an extraordinary passion for wildly delicious, artisan donuts. We talk to the couple about marriage, children and – of course – the business of donuts.

Sally: I was travelling around Canada and started working in an Aussie pub. I was the waitress and he was the chef, that’s how we met. How clichéd. We met in November, then in December he asked my sister if he could marry me. She said no. It sounds so lame, but we just knew it was right. He proposed in St Paul’s Cathedral in London in the Whispering Gallery at Christmas. He pulled out this giant box and I was like, “That had better not be a f*** Pandora bracelet…”.

Mike: As a joke, I convinced her that instead of engagement rings, engagement bracelets were in. I kept saying ‘you’re not a ring person, so you wouldn’t be upset… right?’

S: Anyway. It was a ring. Thank god. So, we went and had a bottle of champagne and then to dinner and it was just a comedy of errors. The restaurant sewerage backed up, they were playing some godawful hardcore music in the background, the food was diabolical and they lost my coat.

M: But it was great… sort of.

S: My visa was about to expire, so we decided to go back to Vancouver, finish work then get married in Vegas before heading back to Australia. 

M: And I organised everything. Which is funny, because… well, look at our lives now. She organises everything. But this time, I did it. I booked the flowers and an Elvis and a chapel that wasn’t totally cheese ball. The chapel was actually heritage-listed – it was the one in which Elvis got married in the movie Viva Las Vegas. Flowers, photography, the reception was chicken wings and beers at Hooters. $600. Bargain.

S: Mike even found some coupons and got us five nights at the Bellagio Las Vegas. Romantically, I then resumed my travelling while Mike went back to Wisconsin to wait for me! He couldn’t wait, of course, and caught a Greyhound bus to meet me in New Orleans.

M: All the way from the top (of the US) to the bottom. On a bus. That’s love.

S: It was about then that I’d started telling Mike about Port Douglas and how wonderful it was. We had planned to arrive in May, and coincidently it was on Carnivale night. Our plan was to stay for six months for season, then move to Melbourne, then back to the States to live. We got in here in May, but I was pregnant by July… so we stayed. Life seemed a little simpler to navigate here. Mike walked into a job at Salsa, and I got a job at On The Inlet. When our son Beau came along, we couldn’t sustain Mike working nights. Beau was a difficult baby – very colicky, crying for 13 hours a day and was inconsolable. It was brutal. So not only did we start to look for day jobs, but we also thought we’d just have another baby, to roll the non-sleeping all into one. 

M: We walked into Mocka’s Pies and asked if there were any jobs going for Sal. Cheekily she asked if there was one for me too, and the owner, Nigel, said yes. I had no idea about baking. What could possibly go wrong? It was just pies – no breads or sandwiches, and I was his first real employee.

S: Then we had Waylon, and he was a premature baby. That was fun. He was born at 34 weeks and spent time in NICU. Our third, Luke, was even better - he was 29 weeks when my waters broke. For 51 days, I was living across the road from Cairns Base Hospital. My waters broke 17 times and was admitted to the birthing suite eight times. Mike was at home looking after both Beau and Waylon and trying to work; the kids got croup, it was a nightmare. But during this time, the people around us were extraordinary. We had friends coming around to the house to clean, to change sheets, to bring food, to come over in the middle of the night to mind the kids when Mike would inevitably get a call from the hospital. 

M: I got home one day and there were three people in the driveway with groceries, including someone from Salsa with their staff meal.

S: It was then we truly realised what it means when they say it takes a village to raise a child. We would never have asked for this kind of help, and to have people extend that was extraordinary. By this stage, my mental health had really deteriorated and to top it off I got pneumonia and had to go back to hospital, leaving Mike at home with three children this time. We had no money left after day care and hospital bills. By the time I returned home, we were in some fairly significant debt, with no way of seeing our way out. Mike had been making doughnuts at home for a while by this stage, just playing with recipes. We thought if we could sell them at the markets while he was still working at Mocka’s, it would get us out of trouble. We sent a few samples out to friends in lined cereal boxes for packaging. 

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M: I made some doughnuts for a chef mate for his birthday and sent them to the restaurant where he worked. The restaurant owner (who I also knew well) happened to be there, and the next time I saw my mate he told me that the owner had eaten the lot! The owner called me a couple of days later and said “So, what’s the story with those doughnuts?”. The owner then offered up his shop at night after they were closed for us to make doughnuts under his food licence, asking nothing of us except some doughnuts in exchange. We had no idea at what was going to happen – maybe they’d sell, maybe they wouldn’t. Within a week, the cafe was getting phone calls asking when the doughnuts were arriving, how many, could they order some. People were literally waiting at the front door each day for doughnut delivery. I would start making them at 2am, deliver them,, go to work, head back to make dough… then go to bed and start the cycle again. We took some samples around to a few restaurants who jumped on them straight away. We started at one dozen for each venue, then it quickly grew to two and even more. We were still working out so many kinks, like how long the doughnuts would keep for, how long the glaze would last, but people just couldn’t get enough.

S: At our first market stall at Port Douglas Markets, we sold out within hours. Our only promotion was through social media and word of mouth. We blindly thought that it was a bit of a novelty, and anyone who’d wanted a doughnut had probably already got them, so next week won’t be as big. Wrong. Even bigger. Soon it was April and Easter, then school holidays. Every week just got bigger. In that time, we had gone from making a couple of dozen a day to almost 1000 a week. We then started supplying Cairns cafes and Rusty’s markets. 

M: That was the tipping point where I had to quit my day job.

S: Mike had worked 100 days straight, and life was just crazy. We started with absolutely nothing. We’d literally emptied our bank accounts to get the first weekend at the markets and for decent packaging – cereal boxes obviously wouldn’t do. The whole idea with the doughnuts was to get us out of debt, so there was simply no option for us to take out a business loan.

M: Fast forward to today and although it varies throughout the season, we’re making up to 2000 doughnuts each week. That’s just me, with Sally’s help one night a week before the markets. Everything we do is manual. Our dough is a sour dough base, not just a mix. The whole process takes two days. The dough needs to be mixed, kneaded and rested on one day, and be rolled out on another day with baking after that. This allows the yeast to really develop, giving it that sweet, ester flavour as the yeast continues to ferment. The glaze is adjusted according to the humidity during the year and flavours are based on events and popularity. I’m probably the only person who wishes it was the hot, sticky wet season all year round. Yeast likes 30C and 80% humidity.

S: Although business was booming, those were the dark days. We didn’t really know what we were doing and trying to balance home life and work life was practically impossible. We had three small and boisterous children, shoeboxes full of receipts and literally no time to do anything. We were scrambling trying to come up with websites, social media training, wedding orders. We’re not fools, we’ve worked in hospitality for a long time, but we really needed to learn to outsource. We were so far in it we couldn’t see anything. It was around this time we noticed Waylon was different to the other kids. We didn’t know what was going on, and I just thought we weren’t being strict enough on him. He was so different to Beau and Luke. Although not a toddler, he behaved like one. He couldn’t regulate his emotions and he appeared to have sensory issues with light and noise and stimulation. We had him on diets, tests for everything, until one day during an assessment a psychiatrist said, “He’s autistic and he’s brilliant”. She’d done an IQ test and he came back in the gifted range. She explained to us his brain simply didn’t turn off. To Waylon, it seems like Friday night Carnivale every moment of the day, while he was also trying to learn letters and numbers and the over-stimulation was extraordinary. He started ‘stimming’ – making repetitive noises to calm himself down. I’d be rocking him for hours on the bed to keep him calm. He needed to have heavy sensory experiences – weighted blankets, a dark room, noise cancelling headphones, heavy touch. We thought as soon as we’d have the diagnosis, someone would be able to give us the tools to help him.

M: What I wish they’d tell you is that there is no magic pill. You just need to learn what his triggers are, and those triggers will change at any time. I wish they would give you the heads up that you just need to adapt. 

S: When we finally got the funding through Autism Australia, we were able to get him an occupational therapist. Even though his brain is high functioning, he couldn’t hold a pencil or ride a bike. My sister suggested we try equine therapy. He was 4 years old when we first put him on a horse, and he loved it. He bonded with the horse, he bonded with the trainer and with the heavy sensory nature of it. He’s even fallen asleep on the horse several times. It’s the decompression time, and many kids don’t get that anymore.

M: I then did something crazy and decided to take a day off and discovered our world didn’t come crashing down. So, this year we decided to take two days off a week, and it’s been the best thing for our family and for our business.

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: But we seem to thrive on chaos. We’d been talking about foster care for a long time. When Waylon was born, there was a little girl in the NICU who didn’t have any family. We were desperate to get home and couldn’t, and she was ready to go home but no one came. We kept asking the nurses if anyone had come for her, social services were there trying to find somewhere to send her. It was heartbreaking. Mike looked at me and said, ‘We’ll take her’. We would have taken here there on the spot, but obviously the process was far more difficult than that. With the memory of this little girl in mind, we thought this year was the year to start getting the foster care paperwork together, so that by the end of the year we’d be ready to take on foster parenting. Again, not really how it worked out – foster care agencies are so desperate for assistance, and we got the phone call to take on a child imminently.

M: We look at our kids and think they’re happy. We’re not wealthy by any stretch of the means, but our kids live a pretty great life. To think there are others out there that haven’t got quite as good a deal is heartbreaking. We’ve got three, why not make it four? We know what we’re made of. And although the training was very confronting, we know we can make a difference. It’s all about breaking the cycle – a lot of these kids come from a long line of moving around from foster care home to parental home and back into foster care, some with the worst of case scenarios.

S: And here I was, feeling bad that Beau didn’t get the lunchbox he wanted to take to school, when others had almost insurmountable challenges. I feel like we worked so hard in order to get Duke’s Doughnuts up and running, but did it really make a difference to anybody? Don’t get me wrong, we love our community, and we love what we’ve created – people come and make Dukes Doughnuts their occasional or weekly treat, it’s an experience. They come to the markets, buy fresh fruit and veggies and a doughnut or two, have a chat - it’s really lovely. We believe if we can work that hard on bloody doughnuts, then we can work that hard to make a difference to a child.