Long time doughnut lovers Corey Smale and Tyler Fenwick bring their love of doughnuts to…
Strange Donuts founder turns a second chance into success.
Jason Bockman grew up living in group homes. Now he owns a half-a-million dollar house in West County.
Jason Bockman went from a troubled adolescent with no hope, to a successful businessman and owner of a line of donuts called Strange Donuts. Bockman said he cannot believe how far he has come.
“I always grew up thinking that the world was just going to (expletive) on you, and now it’s the exact opposite. No matter what happens, I’ll be okay,” Bockman said. “If I would have met myself when I was a kid or saw my house, I would have said, ‘man, that dude’s awesome.’”
Holden Martinez met Bockman several years ago and works as a co-manager for Strange Donuts’ Creve Coeur location. Martinez said Bockman has been committed to marketing himself as a serious businessman and expanding Strange Donuts.
“He’s really trying to make Strange Donuts a brand that is known not only in St. louis, but nationally,” Martinez said. “He wants it to be a brand known not just for making some fun donuts, but making a positive impact in the communities we’re serving.”
Bockman struggled to get along with other kids as achild and often engaged in fights that led to several suspensions. Bockman stopped going to traditional school in seventh grade and received his education in group homes.
Bockman said a lack of a support system within his family partly led to his erratic behavior.
“ I just had a screwed up view of the world,” Bockman said. “My home life wasn’t so stable, but I ultimately made the choices to act the way the way I did.”
As a teenager, Bockman engaged in drugs and alcohol that led to several other criminal offenses.
He said the low point came for him when he was arrested and convicted of drug and gun related charges.
A judge sentenced Bockman to 10 years in prison.
Bockman’s public defender recommended he go to rehab before going to prison in an attempt to show the judge he could clean up his behavior if he got the opportunity.
While in rehab, Bockman said he got a chance to get away from the lifestyle he lived and work toward maintaining sobriety.
Bockman appeared in court again after spending weeks in rehab. This time, the judge saw a change in him.
“The judge said, ‘there’s something different about you, and I’ve never done this before, but I’m going to throw this case out,’” Bockman said. “He said that if he saw me back again for even a traffic ticket, I was going to get my whole sentence.”
Bockman said the fear of facing substantial jail time was not what convinced him to change his behavior. The feeling of loneliness took a toll on him. In rehab, he wasn’t able to see friends or family. He was forced to just spend time alone where he could reflect on the poor decisions he had made throughout his life.
“The people who cared for me had understandably distanced themselves from me, and I was just alone and so unhappy,” Bockman said. “There was a guy in this rehab that had a life similar to mine who had overcome that stuff. I related to this guy and thought for a little bit that if he could do it, then I could do it.”
Bockman makes a change
Bockman decided to go back to group homes and rehab centers after being sober for a few years to work as a drug abuse counselor. He eventually decided to go to college and was accepted into the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL).
He majored in international business. Bockman said he still didn’t know what direction his life would go in despite mustering up the courage to pursue higher education.
“I didn’t really envision myself doing anything,” Bockman said. “There were no dreams or aspirations, or anything like that. I was just trying to do the best thing that was right there in front of me.”
Bockman had his first experience in business and finance during college. He organized a hot dog stand outside of sports arenas where attendees could buy refreshments before and after games.
“There was a guy when I was living in Phoenix for a while working at a rehab that had a hot dog stand outside of a hockey stadium, and I just saw all these people eating hot dogs, and I ate them all the time,” Bockman said. “At the time we didn’t really have anything like that in St. Louis, so when I came back here, I thought maybe I could do that here.”
Bockman received the money to start his hot dog stand from Jim Winkleman, one of his friend’s father. Bockman came up with a business plan to explain what he needed to get his hot dog stand started and the projected revenue he would receive if everything went according to plan.
After he saw the creativity Bockman put into creating his business plan, Winkleman knew he had a knack for business.
“Jason had a vision that few people have early in life,” Winkleman said. “I just saw that he saw things so differently, and I knew he would go on to do bigger and better things.”
Bockman said he is appreciative of Winkleman giving him his first start in business. Over the years, he said the two of them have grown very close.
“I just didn’t have a lot of confidence because I was this hoosier with a record, and to me he was rich, and always encouraged me,” Bockman said. “He gave me this shirt one time that said, ‘Inside the shirt beats the heart of a champion.’ I almost cry every time I say it.”
After developing his business skills in the U.S., Bockman decided to join the Budding Scholars program at UMSL that allowed him to travel to China. Through presentations and meetings, his job was to negotiate relationships between American entrepreneurs and Chinese businesses.
Bockman said the culture shock he experienced when he went to China was tremendous. While in China, he got to see some of the hardships that people face.
“I went to a place where it was definitely like child labor, it was horrible,” Bockman said. “We went to a place where it was these kids working around open chemicals, painting eyeballs on frogs that we use as party favors here. It made me really sad and it made me start thinking about, one, how fortunate we are, and two, maybe someday I could do something to help.”
It was also in China that he learned an important life lesson. For someone like himself that spent most of his childhood engaging in fights, he witnessed an experience that made him realize that fighting is not always the answer.
“I was talking to this girl, she was standing really close to me, and somebody came by and bumped her, and knocked her back like six feet,” Bockman said. “She did not stop talking though, she didn’t even look at him. I was like ‘Oh, we choose to be tough or be offended
by stuff like that.’ It never occurred to me that you could just let stuff slide.”
Bockman graduated from UMSL in 2007. He felt ready to take his business career to the next level.
Bockman’s rise to success
Bockman sold his hot dog stand after graduating college and worked for a construction company that built schools and hospitals. While working in construction, Bockman saw another golden opportunity for entrepreneurship.
“I saw that these schools and hospitals were all buying furniture, and I knew where to get the furniture,” Bockman said. “That’s when I started BT Furnishing, when I saw the opportunity.”
BT Furnishing supplies furniture to mostly colleges, and for the past few years, it has been one of the go-to places for schools to get furniture for classrooms and dorms. After running his furniture store for a while, Bockman started to miss his hot dog stand.
His hot dog stand was his way to sell snacks while also getting to socialize with people.
Bockman was thinking of buying a donut shop with the money he had made from BT Furnishing, but Corey Smale, a friend from college, had a better idea.
“I was talking to him about it and he basically said, ‘why don’t we start our own brand?’” Bockman said. “Instead of buying another shop, we started our own, something new and different.”
This led to the rise of Strange Donuts. He launched his first store on Oct. 11, 2013 in Maplewood. He then began the process of hiring employees and figuring out what kinds of donuts he would like to sell.
Although his signature store eventually turned into a success, he said he encountered some struggles in the beginning. In order to effectively run his store, he had to learn a lot of new things.
“There was a lot of long hours, I didn’t know how to make donuts so it was like learning how to run a whole new business,” Bockman said. “I had to figure out personnel, the division of labor and who was going to do what, so it was tough in the beginning.”
Smale left Strange Donuts shortly after it launched. Bockman said at times, the hard work that went into starting this business put a strain on the relationships between him and the friends who helped him build it.
“We worked sometimes for three days straight, not sleeping, and when you don’t take care of yourself, you have some fights amongst yourselves,” Bockman said. “Money was tight when we first started out, so it was like, ‘Are you going to pay the rent or the light bill?’”
Bockman has since opened two other stores in Kirkwood and Creve Coeur. It has become one of the most popular donut shops in St. Louis, earning him hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.
He will often show up at each of his locations a few times a week to check on how each store is doing. Matt Damrich is an employee at Strange Donuts’ Kirkwood location. He said Bockman has done a great job of being personable and supplying them with everything they need to run the store.
“He’s been very supportive, he listens to us for suggestions with things that we need on the ground fronts,” Damrich said. “He’s really personable, he’s really friendly, we all like him.”
Bockman also started a nonprofit charity organization, Strange Cares. It offers scholarships and fundraising to children in the ‘Big Brothers, Big Sisters’ program, and the ‘Girls on the Run’ program. Bockman often serves as a mentor to a lot of the kids in these programs.
He said it is important to encourage kids who grew up similarly to him, that there is still hope.
“I think that’s everything, I think that’s our responsibility as humans,” Bockman said. “When I talk to kids, I talk to them about how much money I make, the things that I have and how far I’ve come.”
Executive Director of Girls on the Run, Courtney Berg, said Bockman’s passion for bettering the lives of young people has helped Girls on the Run continue to prosper.
“Jason very wisely saw that he had a tremendous opportunity to make a difference in the community and he has a very powerful story of how and why that can happen,” Berg said. “Jason is incredibly authentic, real, sincere and intentional. All of those things align with who we are as an organization and what we hold up as our core values.”
Bockman is successful now and hardly ever passes up the chance to give encouragement to someone who may be down on their luck.
“I was at the airport with my family and there was this guy that had on the clothes you get when you get released from prison,” Bockman said. “He had this laundry bag, and I just went and talked to him for a second and I said, ‘I carried that laundry bag once, and things are good for me now. You can go through anything, and still be okay.”