Donut Wars

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One of the first things I noticed after moving to southern California was the perplexing number of antique stores, dentists, and donut shops. In the past ten years, most of the antique stores have closed, but the dentists are still there, and we like to joke that they’re kept in business by the proliferation of donut shops. You’ll pass one of each, every three blocks or so. In fact, the average number of donut shops in America is one per 30,000 people, but in southern California it’s one in 7,000 — over four times as many as the national average.

These are tiny little stores with names like “Donut Star,” “Christy’s Donuts,” “DK Donuts,” and “Randy’s,” an icon near LAX, with its giant fiberglass donut on top of the small drive-through building. You’ll find a Winchell’s once in a while, left over from the 1950s and ’60s, but corporate giant Dunkin’ Donuts has been kept at bay by Ted Ngoy, “the Donut King,” and his empire of Cambodian donut bakers. It is a remarkable tale of immigrant success, told in an inspiring documentary called, appropriately, The Donut King.

These refugees seldom spoke English. But they could clean, they could count change, and they could fry donuts.


Cambodia was a collateral casualty of the Vietnam War, and when Bun Tek Ngoy’s parents and wealthy inlaws saw how the educated and successful class of Cambodians were being persecuted, they begged him to take his wife and young children out of the country, knowing that they would likely never see their children and grandchildren again. (It’s probable that they never did.) Finally arriving in America, Bun Tek Americanized his name to Ted and he began working many jobs, as a gas station attendant, an “Emporium” clerk, and a janitor in a church.

And then, while pumping gas one night, he smelled the aroma of donuts wafting from the Winchell’s Donut shop next door. The aroma was intoxicating, and the sweet fried dough reminded him of home. Soon he began working at Winchell’s, learned how to bake the donuts, became a manager of the store, and within a couple of years found a small independent store that was for sale. He continued managing Winchell’s while overseeing his own shop, enlisting his wife and his four children in the endeavor. His daughter says, “I thought everyone got up at 4 a.m. to make donuts.” The Ngoys expanded their little donut empire and became quite wealthy, moving into a gated community near Newport Beach.

But the story doesn’t end there. When Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge, another purge was inflicted on the wealthy class. Cambodians were evicted from their homes, sent to labor in the fields, and virtually starved as their crops were confiscated and traded for weapons of war. The lucky ones made their way out of Cambodia, but where to go? “Uncle Ted” was the answer. As refugees escaped to surrounding countries, the US State Department contacted Ted Ngoy and asked if he would be willing to sponsor his desperate relatives. Over the years he has sponsored over 100 Cambodian families, paying their airfare, locating housing, and helping them find work. How does he do it? Donuts.

When you bite into these soft little pillows of textured goodness, your teeth encounter a crisp, satisfying crunch of freshness, creating a symphony of sensations in the mouth.


Because he was their sponsor, Ted was motivated to find jobs for them. And because of the frightful conditions they had endured in Cambodia, the refugees were motivated to work. These refugees seldom spoke English and didn’t recognize American foods, money, or cars. But they could clean, they could count change, and they could fry donuts. Ted says, “If you can bake, and you can take care of payroll, you can run the whole store. You can be successful.”

Ted helped many Cambodian-Americans lease his stores so they could run their own businesses. He became a multimillionaire, owning 70 donut shops at one point. His lessees became self-sustaining entrepreneurs with nice homes and steady income. Some of them have moved beyond retail sales to invent and sell equipment and supplies. Others have graduated from college and moved into other careers. Family businesses can operate more efficiently than corporate franchises, according to Ted, who estimates that a Dunkin’ Donuts store needs to gross $50,000 a month to be profitable, while a small owner-operated shop can be profitable at $10,000 per month.

But an empire built of donut shops? How? Why? Unlike the people who work for Dunkin’ Donuts, who primarily purchase their donuts pre-baked off-site and shipped fresh or frozen to their retail stores, Ted’s proteges still fry their donuts by hand in fresh oil, deftly flipping them over with chopsticks and then lifting them from the sizzling oil on racks and letting them drip dry before frosting them for sale. And they are delicious! When you bite into these soft little pillows of textured goodness, your teeth encounter a crisp, satisfying crunch of freshness, creating a symphony of sensations in the mouth. It’s hard to eat just one. The DK shop next door to our post office is always busy, no matter what time of day or night. Many of the shops are known for their sophisticated artistry as well, often topping their confections with a sprig of orchid or rose petals and presenting them to the customer in Ted’s signature pink box. Social media influencers often stand in line, just to take photos of the displays.

Ted Ngoy isn’t the only restaurant king. Restaurant work has often been the stepping stone to success for refugees from foreign lands. Many years ago, we lived up the street from a lovely Korean family. Our son went to school with their son Freddy, and they often played together. Freddy’s house was always full of cousins, aunts, and uncles — though never the same cousins, aunts, and uncles. Freddy’s parents were the first to emigrate to America, starting a Korean restaurant for the purpose of helping the extended family come here. Korean families cycled through their home in the way Cambodian families cycled through the Ngoys’ mansion. Like “Uncle Ted,” Freddy’s parents were generous, kindhearted, and rich. They are responsible for the success of countless Korean-Americans. Capitalism makes everyone’s life better. Sponsorship makes immigration safer. And the DK Donut shop near our post office is a little slice of heaven — for the family who owns it, and for the customers who stop by for a sweet pillow of deliciousness.

Review of The Donut King, directed by Alice Gu. Scott Free and Greenwich Entertainment, 2020, 90 minutes.

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