Donuts, genocide, and the American dream

Most visitors to Los Angeles and the west coast are struck by the number of donut shops, but few know that the vast majority of local donut shops are owned by Cambodian refugees who fled the killing fields of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. This is also the case in many other parts of the west. Through an interesting set of circumstances, Cambodian families got a foothold in the market, then helped other families through traditional loan systems and sharing of knowledge so they could earn their own piece of the American dream. These are people who have experienced unspeakable atrocities in their immediate families, and bust their asses (often 364+ days a year) to make a better life for their children in North America. So go enjoy a decadent donut sometime soon, and be extra friendly to the remarkable people who make these deceptively quotidian treats. The best documentary on the subject is Cambodian Doughnut Dreams , although the hygiene-averse dude in The Darkside of Donuts teaser trailer best articulates my own relationship with that quintessential American delight. [Video link]

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  1. This is perhaps why all donuts types from any donut shop anywhere in the US taste alike. Apple fritter, crullers, sugar, apple fritters. I’d like to know the single recipe each donut shop uses for each donut type.

  2. I grew up in Long Beach and had several Cambodian friends. One good friend of mine’s parents owned a donut shop, and she taught me how to order donuts in Khmer. Fun parlor trick.

    Cambodian Doughnut Dreams showed on the local PBS station when I was in high school, I think, which would have been about 20 years ago. Good documentary.

  3. It’s quite remarkable, human beings’ ability to adjust to new surroundings. Some of these people went from just working in pre-modern rice fields to living in a Khmer Rouge hell-on-earth to living in a refugee camp to running a donut shop in California. And the brain can process it — the Pol Pot time leaves a lot of emotional trauma, but if you just look at the start point and end point, you’re looking at someone basically leaping several centuries of technology and societal reorganization within a single lifetime.

    Knowing that makes me skeptical of claims that the Singularity will come and, like, totally blow our minds because we can’t handle that much technology.

  4. Really great video. And regarding the immigrant experience, something dawned on me in the past few years: American men nowadays are very “macho” when it comes to them doing what is perceived as “women’s work.” Meaning, making food or even cleaning.

    Looking at this video it’s pretty clear there are no solid gender lines drawn between the dad making the doughnuts and his wife working the front counter.

    I mean I know there are male celebrity chefs, but have you ever been a guy and said “I’m going to cook [this/that/other].” A lot of times folks will not accept a man cooking something just as much as they wouldn’t accept a woman doing woodwork.

    Rambling a bit: It seems like immigrants are really the only groups that freely don’t care about who makes the food and who does what when it comes to businesses. American’s who have been here for more than a few generations seem to forget that and gender roles come into play.

    Yes, not the most well worded thought, I think immigrants are vastly more resourceful in American when compared to non-immigrants. Less judgmental as well.

    1. 2 Things i don’t understand (well there are more but this relates to people not doing stuff)
      People who don’t cook and people who don’t read

      I’m a guy i’ve cooked at least 2 nights a week since i was 16 still living at home with my parents. with 2 flat mates now i cook 6 nights a week.

      As far as i can tell for me it’s a mostly selfish thing. I like cooking and i like eating good food. cooking means i get to pick what to cook :)

      1. Are you serious?

        I’m the husband and I make 95% of the food in the house.

        My sister-in-law and her husband share the chores fairly evenly, including cooking.

        The same goes with several other couples I know…

        Maybe it’s because I’m in my early 30’s, perhaps if I was 50 that might apply a bit more, like my parents. But times are changing.

        1. I’m in my early 30’s, my wife won’t let me cook anything because I tried to fry some onion rings when I was a little tipsy and burnt the bottom of one of the pans. Oh, I forgot to mention, I’m also an idiot.

          1. Don’t worry Squid my wife is in the same boat. Much more than pasta and a canned sauce and you probably aren’t going to want to eat it…

    2. “I think immigrants are vastly more resourceful in American when compared to non-immigrants”

      Unless you’re referring to Native Americans then you’re all immigrants … quite recent immigrants at that ;)

    3. Hmm… I’m not sure how accurate this is. My wife’s parents are immigrants to this country and over the years have owned & run several restaurants. It’s true that my father-in-law did most of the restaurant cooking–but at home it is my mother-in-law who cooks.

      In my own household, I am the one who cooks the most. Mainly just because I enjoy it more and have more practice at it. My wife, has been cooking more and more frequently lately–but it certainly isn’t because I’m macho :)

      1. i am a foreigner. my husband as well, from different countries. I do the cooking by choice. I love cooking. Who said it pertains to a certain sex? old fashioned… by the way I am a housewife and oh so proud of it!

    4. I haven’t found that. I am a 4th-8th generation American male and I say “I’m going to cook [this/that/other],” several times a week. And my father-in-law is the best (amateur) cook I know. I never got the impression that that was especially unusual, either. Do you live in a very conservative area or something?

      1. Okay, okay I hear you. I like to cook as well and do the dishes. Just sayin’

        But now that I am well rested here is a better statement on what I was saying before: In the U.S. women are given more leeway into being cooks than men are. Yes, there are men who cook and own restaurants and few give them crap. But women seem to be instinctively accepted as cooks whereas men doing the same is given some resistance depending on where they are and who they are with. The immigration point is a bit muddled, but from what I understand the reason why there are so many Chinese laundries and Chinese restaurants in the U.S. is because that was the only work Chinese immigrants could get and only businesses they could safely open. Which connects back to the Cambodian donut connection at the top of this post.

  5. Interestingly, in Australia, a standard donut is a deep fried batter ring dusted with sugar and cinnamon.
    Much nicer than “iced” donuts.
    We also have a lot of cambodian immigrants here in Australia, but I’m not aware of any donut shop ownership trend.

  6. In Khmer culture, cooking is not men’s work. However, if it is part of the family business, men and women freely participate. Don’t read too much about gender egalitarianism into it- Cambodia still largely has arranged marriages, if that is any indication of the state of gender affairs.

    Source: Discussion with a Khmer man, July 2010.

  7. I wrote:
    “Cambodian Doughnut Dreams showed on the local PBS station when I was in high school, I think, which would have been about 20 years ago.”

    Now that I think about it I think I was in college, like around 1994 or so.

  8. in TX, most of the donut shops I’ve been to are owned by Koreans…same reasoning as for Cambodian ownership?

  9. This is one of the things I think about when my job gets me down: working 365 days a year in a donut shop (or most places) is still better than starving in the jungle in a forced labor camp.

  10. In the Western New York area, the well-known and excellent Wegmans chain of grocery stores all have a cafe area with subs, pizza, etc (all very good, as an aside). Most in the past ten years or so have added a sushi section. The guy that runs the sushi operation across all the stores is a refugee from Burma – and now makes 200K+ a year. It’s all hard work – and of course getting access to the opportunity in the first place. Heard a really interesting local NPR interview with him.

    What I wonder is, how do they get these opportunities? You don’t just start from nowhere and get into running a large and successful business, no matter how hard you work. Seems most Americans don’t get the opportunity (not that they’d work hard enough to take advantage of it in most cases). I’d love to start my own local business, and have it all planned out… but it’s basically hopeless. I really can’t imagine how refugees who came here with just the shirt on their back can get so far – not that I’m not happy for them, there’s just something I’m missing here.

    The donut shop I went to a few times when I lived in SoCal was run by Mexicans – I didn’t realize all the donut shops were a Cambodian thing. Perhaps out in the suburban wastelands surrounding LA itself others have taken over where Cambodians hadn’t expanded yet.

    1. What I wonder is, how do they get these opportunities?

      The reality is that, most times, you just have to ask… but “ask vigorously” and not be afraid.

      Retail and catering are horrible businesses to get in: cut-throat competition, incredibly-long hours, very thin margins. Most “natives” won’t even contemplate them, so the field is open for immigrants with little capital, good business sense and tremendous drive.

  11. Donut shop “recipe” — Open 50 lb sack of donut mix, add water, roll out, cut, proof (let rise), fry.

    To glaze the finished donut — Open 50 lb sack of glaze mix, add water, and pour over donuts.

    It has become an increasingly rare occurrence to find a donut shop that does not use these sacks of donut mix. Here in San Jose, the wonderfully-named Lou’s Living Donut Museum finally closed because the owners just got too old and frail to run it.

    Artisanal donuts have become a lucrative field, catering to hipsters and foodies alike, and, thankfully, most of them serve delicious cakes from scratch. I’m not looking forward to the day when these places realize that they can charge $3 for a sack-based donut with a sprinkling of bacon on top.

    1. Yeah, I miss Lou’s Donut Museum. Have you tried Psycho Donuts? The regular ones are ok, but some of the specials are surprisingly good. No bacon, though; they go the other way and always have at least one vegan option.

  12. There has been a long running joke in my town (which is on the west coast) about a Cambodian donut cartel. I thought it was just a local thing that is seems like all the donut shops are owned by Cambodians, I had no idea it went beyond that.

  13. Not much of a donut eater (these days) though I do have some very good Cambodian friends. Some of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet are Cambodians.

    Good for them, finding their way in a new land.

  14. You really have to admire the work ethic and dedication, pretty far removed as one can imagine from the entitlement mentality that seems pervasive in SOME Americans

  15. This makes me want to find a Cambodian donut shop to visit, but they aren’t as pervasive in the Midwest.

  16. When I was growing up near Philadelphia, most of the donut shops were independent and run by Italians, and they gradually got muscled out by Dunkin Donuts. I don’t remember donut shops from the years I lived in New Jersey – they were probably Dunkin’s, but at street fairs you could get Italian zeppole, which were wonderful. Here in Silicon Valley, the zeppelin’s an actual Zeppelin, and the donut shops are independent or “Happy Donuts” and run by Cambodians; Krispy Kreme showed up when it was a fad during the Clinton Years, but hasn’t done very well, though I think they wholesale to the 7-11s.

    My wife had a fast-food job when she was in high school, back when job ads still discriminated between men’s and women’s jobs. Cooking was a boys’ job and running the counter was a girls’ job, and managing the store was usually a man’s job.

  17. Well the only donut shop around where I grew up was Krispy Kreme. But then again they have been around in this area a long long time.

    So my taste for donuts is probably skewed by the sugary coma inducing chocolate covered creme filled Krispy Kreme fair.

  18. Interesting. I’ve noticed that LA has soooo many donut shops and I’ve always wondered how they stay in business. And I’ve always thought they were run by Chinese immigrants from the handful I’ve been in. So I created a pretend story that they stay in business by laundering money from the Chinese mafia. Now if someone can get the history of the Louisiana Fried Chicken and Chinese Food combo restaurants in LA…

  19. One of many things I like about SoCal–the Cambodian mom-and-pop donut shops. Winchell’s has all but disappeared, but these keep on going. The East Coast can keep its mega chain.

  20. I once saw someone say that you should never start a business where success is predicated primarily on a willingness to work long hours if you’re going to be competing against people who speak less English than you do. They’re able to be successful because they’re willing to work hard, long hours every day and not take vacations. Hiring employees beyond immediate family members is a luxury.

    As for “OK, but why donuts?,” what I’ve heard is that one early refugee got successful in the donut business and then subsequent ones joined in just by spreading information about methods, suppliers, etc.

  21. I haven’t to read the actual content of this post yet, but I even bother I have to take a moment to declare this “Without a Doubt the Best Blog Post Title in the History of Blog Post Titles.”

  22. Cambodian donut shops are one of the best things about California. Because the donuts are made on-site overnight, they are almost all open 24 hours a day. There’s nothing better than showing up at 3AM and getting fresh, hot plain old-fashioned donuts.

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