Sweet smarts: The Instagram doughnut sensation coming to Sacramento’s R Street

The soon-to-open Milk Money makes funky doughnuts and milkshakes like you’ve never had them before

Edward Martinez, pastry chef at Milk Money.

Edward Martinez, pastry chef at Milk Money.

Photos by Jasmine Lazo

Milk Money will open up at the Ice Blocks, 1715 R Street, Suite 100. Follow the shop on Instagram at @milkmoney916.

The ingredient coiling into a pool of powdered sugar and cream is technically banned, but that doesn’t faze pastry scientist Edward Martinez because desserts are what saved him from jail.

Inside Block Butcher Bar’s glass-encased kitchen, Busta Rhymes’ “Break Ya Neck” blasts, and Martinez stirs to the beat like a hip-hop Willy Wonka. The brown tonka bean oil swirls into white icing, a tempting snake that tastes intensely of vanilla and cherry, but it’s a source of the deadly chemical coumarin. (So are cinnamon and lavender. Chefs are advocating to lift the ban on the bean that’s only as toxic as nutmeg.)

Mixed with smoked salt and maple syrup, the glaze is tinged with citrus but also savory. The gossamer icing crackles atop a brioche doughnut that’s more like a cake.

It’s the best fucking doughnut I’ve ever had.

Martinez jokes, “It’s technically illegal, but don’t tell people about it—like drinking and driving,” repeating a punchline he would tell patrons at his previous workplace, the Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant Lazy Bear.

Last year, Martinez moved back to Sacramento from San Francisco to get away from rigid kitchens chasing after three-star perfection. He was also drawn by the promise of working with his friend, chef Brock Macdonald, to run a dessert shop that could expand to fit the shape of Martinez’s excitable imagination. At the Ice Blocks on R Street, Macdonald heads up the restaurant Beast + Bouncy, where Martinez serves as the executive pastry chef in addition to LowBrau, Block and the much-anticipated “gangster-ass ice cream and doughnut shop” Milk Money.

Ahead of a storefront opening that could be any day now, Milk Money has launched a series of pop-ups that have drawn crowds numbering up to 200 people waiting in line on cold mornings. Doughnut hopefuls have been driven into a frenzy, sometimes getting frustrated when Milk Money sells out, as it did in roughly 20 minutes at an event the morning of the Women’s March.

“I know our pop-ups are popular, but that was freakin’ ridiculous,” Martinez says.

His social media followers are drawn by the doughnuts, of course, but they’re also captivated by Martinez’s story. As a teen, he got cozy with a gang in Fresno and narrowly missed going to jail for eight years. Pastry school rescued him.

Unsavory gang

Martinez says his sweetest childhood memories are of baking Pillsbury boxed cakes with his mother for birthdays. She died when Martinez was only 7, and his family moved to Fresno to be closer to her relatives who were heavily involved in gang life.

“My way of being close to her was to hang out with her side of the family,” Martinez says. “The only logical step for me was there: gang members, I should become one, I should be there, be with them. That’s basically how it happened. It wasn’t the greatest idea.”

As a teen, he went to juvenile hall for small-time crimes like possession of firearms and narcotics. After starting a fistfight with a man flirting with his girlfriend, Martinez had two strikes and was staring down a sentence of eight years when he was 20. His dad spent a chunk of money on a lawyer, who advised Martinez to give the judge a solid reason to let him out.

The lawyer asked what brought him joy. “I thought about baking with Mom when I was little, right before she passed away, and that’s what made me happy,” he says. “I told my lawyer, ’OK, I’ll do the culinary school.’ And he was like, ’Are you serious, that’s what you want to tell him?’”

Martinez spoke honestly, and the judge granted him a shot.

“He was giving me enough rope to hang myself,” he says. “He assumed I was going to get out, and I was going to mess up and do my years and take those two strikes because basically that’s what I was: I was a screw-up.”

Instead, Martinez approached all of his teachers on the first week of classes at the Institute of Technology in Fresno and asked them how he could be the best. They offered to let him come in early and spend extra hours at school.

“I ended up finishing the top of my class, never missing a single day,” he says. “I never got less than a 98 on anything.”

The Bill Murray sprinkled with Butterfingers and pretzels.

Photo by Jasmine Lazo

After graduation, Martinez climbed the restaurant ranks, whipping up complicated confections at Napa’s Bistro Jeanty, Sacramento’s Enotria and Mill Valley’s El Paseo, among many others. Then, he reached a pinnacle that many chefs aspire to but never reach. He won a national award in 2016, the StarChefs Rising Star Pastry Chef, before landing at Lazy Bear in San Francisco.

Though he enjoyed his success, the city demanded long hours and large sums for rent, and he hardly had time to spend with his children. Martinez had initially left Sacramento for the Bay Area to learn techniques like fermenting, curing, pickling and “all the classic French stuff.” But even when he was leaving Sacramento, he knew he would come back.

“In Fresno, I felt like anybody who saw me would automatically judge what I was, and I’d have to blow them away with what I can do in the kitchen off the bat—I don’t consider Fresno home at all,” he says. “I consider Sacramento home because when I started cooking out here, I was accepted right away.”

Powdered sugar lines

The Instagrammers are hungry. For months, they’ve watched the #doughnutporn glazing their screens. And now, another pop-up gives the crowds just a tease of the funky, funny and somehow also sophisticated desserts by Milk Money.

While the Instagrammers are just rousing from sleep on the Saturday after Groundhog Day, Martinez continues to dress up doughnuts at Block. He calmly dips brioche into chocolate ganache and lets the liquid gold drip. His flow is smooth, confident, zenlike, as if 100 of his followers aren’t about to line up demanding a treat worth waiting an hour for.

The name of this particular doughnut is the Bill Murray, a play on the movie Groundhog Day. “You know the scene where he’s crushing breakfast and eating whatever he wants?” Martinez says. On top of the ganache, he sprinkles a mixture of crushed pretzels and Butterfingers with the elegance of that other social media phenomenon, Salt Bae.

Each doughnut is an edible wink to pop culture or domestic nostalgia. The day’s menu includes Tide Pods that look like the laundry capsules but are actually vanilla brioche cake covered with a blueberry glaze. They are the essence of fruit, what you imagine Violet Beauregarde must be tasting when she balloons into a blueberry. He also prepares Maui Wowie doughnuts inspired by his trip to Hawaii that ended just days before. Each treat balances the savory with the sweet.

His dessert philosophy is hard to find in Sacramento.

“I don’t want to play up that super-sweet dessert thing, it’s not my style,” he says. “I hate desserts that you can’t eat the whole thing, where you take a couple of bites and you don’t want to finish it. I like to play with my desserts, with bitter acidic components that make you get a bite of it and it cleanses your palate and it makes you want to go back in for more.”

Martinez’s scientific approach and quick wit will be on display on Milk Money’s menu, where he says the doughnuts and milkshakes will change daily. But for now, the Instagrammers wait outside.

At the Groundhog weekend pop-up, Brenna Kiniry and John Millard had driven from Davis to queue up an hour before the official start time. Ever since his first taste at September’s Sacramento Donut Festival, Millard says he’s attended every Milk Money pop-up.

“We’ve always been pretty committed to doughnuts,” Millard explains. “These are special.”

Kiniry adds, “Most doughnut places are just the generic batter. Voodoo Doughnut [from Portland, Ore.], for example, they use the generic batter and they pile a whole bunch of cereal on top, there’s nothing special with the pastry or the flour itself. And I think a lot of doughnut shops follow that model, and this is the only really unique one where the actual doughnut itself is incredibly tasty.”

With each pop-up, Millard says he’s watched the population grow. He theorizes that fans are responding to the nostalgia, the ’90s hip-hop playing at each pop-up line, the dessert names like Sonny Bono, Riff Raff and John Ritter Apple Fritter.

Despite the hype, Martinez says, “It’s fucking doughnuts. No one expects it to be super serious.” At the same time, he wants to expand people’s ideas about what this no-big-deal dessert can be.

“Expect the unexpected,” he says. “I’m trying to blow people’s minds with my desserts every time they take a bite of something, and it’s just—that’s who I am. I want them to go home and be like, ’That meal was awesome, but that dessert was like weird, but I really liked it, I don’t know what I liked about it.’ Something that they’re going to think about for a while.”

Co-owner Hargis overhears this and says, “I think I have even more of a man crush on you now.” Hargis helped to coordinate the Beast + Bounty + Milk Money operation.

“From a restaurateur perspective, you want to work with the best, you want the culture to be awesome and you want people to have fun,” Hargis says. “I couldn’t think of two better guys to work with than Brock and Ed.”

Martinez is not only excited to work with his friends and spend more time with his family, but also to have a blank menu to rewrite every day. As he bakes odes to pop culture from the past, he’s tapping into memories of his mother.

“That’s kind of why I play on that nostalgic thing,” he says. “Like OK, boxed desserts and crappy frosting and it’s like, how do I make that more elevated and more cool?”