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.