Dianne Pao watched fretfully as doughnut shops closed down all around San Diego: the nearby Krispy Kreme, the Yum Yum Donuts down the street, and family-owned shops in Hillcrest, Coronado and Santee.
To avoid a similar fate, she and her husband last year expanded their small Point Loma doughnut shop into a full service Cambodian restaurant, one of the few in the city. Khmer-style Tum Yum soup and curries sustain their business now, but the couple still arrives each day at 4 a.m. to make more than 150 glazed twists, maple bars and jelly doughnuts they put on display in a glass case at the edge of the dining room, hoping they’ll catch the eye of a passerby who might then stay for lunch.
“He makes a good doughnut,” Pao said of her husband, Nimol Sam, who taught her the labor-intensive trade five years ago as they prepared to open their shop. “That is why we are still here.”
But the local doughnut industry, once a Cambodian family’s assured pipeline into American society, is changing, forced to respond to consumer preference, tough economic times and the trickling away of the younger generation of Cambodians to more professional career paths.
Like nail salons to the Vietnamese and dry cleaners to Koreans, doughnut shops have long been the economic turf of immigrant Cambodians. They have dominated California’s doughnut industry since not long after they started arriving to the United States in larger numbers in the early 1980s. Beginning in 1978, more than 200,000 refugees fleeing the killing fields of the oppressive Khmer Rouge were resettled in the United States. Roughly half came to California.
A refugee named Ted Ngoy learned to make the pastries while employed at a Winchell’s and left to establish his own shop, Christy’s, which expanded into a Southern California chain, including several in San Diego that still bear the name. By tapping into networks of family and friends for loans and know-how, Cambodians slowly penetrated the business, and at the height of their dominance during the mid-1990s, owned as many as 80 percent of the state’s independent doughnut shops.
The city of San Diego alone has more than 40, most still owned by Cambodian families. San Diego County may have as many as 100 shops, said Mike Brzezinski, president of Lakeside Bakery Supplies, a wholesale vendor that sells ingredients to the region’s bakeries.
But they’re slowly shuttering — the industry’s recession-driven self-correction for the proliferation of shops that saturated the business during the 1990s, said Lincoln Watase, president of Yum Yum Donuts, which also owns Winchell’s, California’s two largest doughnut chains.
“There was a unique historic moment with the end of the Vietnam War when there were a lot of Cambodians, and this is what they knew how to do,” Watase said. “They learned in their uncles’ shops, wanted their own, and may have oversaturated the market.”
The price of a dozen doughnuts still costs more or less what it has for several years, between $5 and $8, despite higher costs of wheat and other ingredients.
Now, Watase said, “independent stores are closing or their licenses are expiring and are not being renewed.”
In other immigrant-dominated industries like dry cleaning, nail and hair salons and taxis, customers will always need clean clothes, haircuts and rides to the airport. Not so for doughnut shop owners, who’ve had to contend with changing consumer food preferences and a greater concern with healthy eating.
Chy Yam, 38, who owns the Golden Donut in North Park that was owned by her brother, then her sister, then a younger sister before her, has a dedicated clientele of regulars.
“But they’re older, and they can’t eat doughnuts every day either,” she said. Yam, whose brother bought the shop in 1983, said she will be the last in her family to run it. A child when her family fled Southeast Asia, Yam had an American upbringing but left college to take over the family business, which she has owned for 12 years. “I’m kind of in between generations,” she said.
Her children, she said, will not make doughnuts. “The line stops here.”
That trend pervades across California’s Cambodian-run doughnut industry, but especially in San Diego. Unlike the state’s largest concentrated Cambodian community in Long Beach, San Diego’s is small and dispersed.
Doughnut families here, because of the absence of a large Cambodian community and the pre-dawn to nighttime hours, know few other Cambodians who might take up the reins.
“You just don’t see anywhere close to the activity of new doughnut shops where the new owners are Southeast Asian,” Watase said. “That’s because the kids of the owners of yesterday’s doughnut shops all went to school.”
Since 2003, according to city business license records, more of the doughnut shops that have opened are owned by Latinos.
Many Cambodians don’t lament the fact. “You think we wanted to do this?” Yam said. “We did this because when we came, we had to find something to do, and this is what we were able to learn from our friends and family.”
Nimol Sam, who started the restaurant in his Point Loma doughnut shop, arrived in Los Angeles in 1983, and within days learned to make doughnuts from his brother, who worked for Winchell’s. Sam hopped around Southern California making doughnuts before moving to San Diego in 1992.
“This was the easiest thing,” he said. “If you don’t have language, it’s OK. People point to the doughnuts, and ask for the coffee.”
Over the decades, the adopted food, which Cambodians knew nothing of before resettling, became one of the most recognized cultural markers of being Cambodian in the United States.
“We all make fun of how we know someone or own a doughnut shop ourselves,” said Natalie Becavin-Tan, president of the Cambodian Student Association at UCSD, whose family owns a doughnut shop in Northern California. One of her cousins plans to take it over.
She is studying international relations and economics. “I have something else in mind,” she said.