It took two years for Danette Kuoch to convince her parents to begin accepting credit cards at California Donuts, her family’s 40-year-old doughnut shop on Third Street in Koreatown. Next came new toppings and fillings, like Fruity Pebbles and whole Snickers bars, a departure from the shop’s classic sugared rings, glazed twists, and craggy buttermilk bars. Launching a social media account soon followed, and designing branded boxes and bags not long after. Since joining the family business in 2003, Kuoch, along with her younger sister Stephanie Kudo, have tripled California Donuts’s sales, amassed 365,000 Instagram followers, and made their family’s humble shop stand out in the Southland’s crowded doughnut market. The shop’s runaway success gave their parents — Cambodian refugees who escaped the Khmer Rouge, mastered the doughnut trade, and raised their families within their shops’ four walls — the peace of mind that they needed to finally retire in 2020 and to leave the business in their daughters’ hands.
Meet the “doughnut kids,” second-generation Cambodian Americans who grew up bathing in commercial kitchen sinks as babies, selling lottery tickets after school, and folding endless stacks of pink boxes during summer breaks. This new class of doughnut entrepreneurs witnessed their parents working early mornings and late nights, seven days a week — and internalized both the struggles and successes of running a small family business.
With minimal startup costs and little English proficiency required, operating doughnut shops gave Cambodian refugees a foothold in the American economy in the ’70s and ’80s. Ted Ngoy, whose life was memorialized in the 2020 documentary The Donut King, learned the ins and outs of the doughnut business by enrolling in the manager-training program at Winchell’s after fleeing Phnom Penh in 1975. He helped to popularize the trade within the Cambodian American community, creating a vast network of independently owned doughnut shops that have proved to be formidable competitors to national chains. It is estimated that roughly 80 percent of Southern California’s doughnut shops are Cambodian-owned.
As the retirement-age owners of Los Angeles’s beloved doughnut shops grow ready to hang up their aprons, some doughnut kids, like Kuoch and Kudo, are eager to carry on their family’s business and transform it into a household name. Other second-generation kids, however, grapple with how their family’s demanding mom-and-pop shops fit into their busy lives. These stores, operating in nearly every strip mall across the city, confirm that doughnuts are an indelible part of Angeleno food culture — steeped in its economy, its history, and its landscape. But the future of LA’s doughnut shops, it seems, rests in the hands of the next generation — an inflection point which will change how these businesses operate, stay relevant, and survive moving forward.
The last thing Kuoch and Kudo’s parents wanted was for their daughters to work alongside them at California Donuts. Their parents emphasized the importance of education and asked them to strive toward something “quote-unquote ‘better,’” Kudo says, not realizing that Kuoch and Kudo considered the work of running the shop not only valuable but a way to honor the sacrifices their parents made after immigrating to America to give them more opportunities. In spite of their parents’ persistent push toward careers beyond doughnuts, the two sisters found their way back to the business after trying their hands at other pursuits.
Kuoch, who worked for a few corporations throughout college, remembers the moment when she decided to dedicate her career to her family’s business. “Somebody at school said something along the lines of, ‘Why did you go to college if you’re just going to work at a doughnut shop?’ That lit a fire in me,” she says. Kuoch returned to California Donuts immediately after finishing her degree in business management from Cal State Fullerton. “I just realized that I can continue to work for somebody else and allow them to drive nice fancy cars or I can do it for my parents,” she says.
Kudo launched her own clothing line before joining her sister and parents a decade ago at California Donuts when sales skyrocketed as the result of her sister’s marketing efforts. “When my sister and I started really getting into the business, I remember my mom saying that she never really wanted us to work as hard as she did,” says Kudo. “It was a pro and a con, like she was really proud that we joined the family business, but at the same time it kind of hurt her to have to see us work long hours as well.”
Passing along the family business was never part of the plan for many aging parents of doughnut kids. “I don’t think a lot of doughnut parents want their kids to be in the doughnut business because it’s a hard life — it really is,” says Adam Vaun, who took over his family’s business, DK’s Donuts in Orange, in 2007. “I had an epiphany where I was just like, my parents are getting older and I’m gonna have to really step up just to make sure that they’re taken care of.”
For Mayly Tao, working at DK’s Donuts in Santa Monica (unrelated to DK’s Donuts in Orange) was more about practicality than passion at first. Though she lent a hand at the shop on weekends while attending school in San Diego, she only returned after graduating from college in 2012 due to narrow career prospects. “I just felt so defeated coming back,” she says. “But as I started to work my normal shifts, I actually had a different vision. Going to college opened my eyes to the possibilities of what this doughnut shop could be. And at that point I decided, ‘Hey, you know what? I’m going to make sure that people from all over LA and all over the world know this doughnut shop.’ That is my goal.”
Educated, business-minded, and well-versed in social media and technology, doughnut kids like Tao possess ambition that was unheard of a generation ago. Whereas their parents operated doughnut shops as a means to an end, doughnut kids are using social media to expand their reach beyond neighborhood regulars and transforming the Southern California doughnut industry as a result. With doughnut kids taking the helm — and the tandem rise of Instagram food culture and gourmet doughnuts — some mom-and-pop doughnut shops transformed seemingly overnight into singular destinations.
Crystal Quach, who grew up frosting doughnuts, brewing coffee, and selling lottery tickets at her family’s doughnut shop Mr. Steve’s in Rosemead, encountered similar parental pushback. Even though Quach knew from an early age that she wanted to follow in her parents’ entrepreneurial footsteps, they refused to entertain the idea until she graduated from Cal State Los Angeles and gained some real-world experience. Only after checking those two critical boxes was Quach able to dedicate herself full-time at Fresh Donuts in Lake Perris, one of her family’s two current doughnut shops. “I always gravitated toward doughnuts because watching my parents run their shop, it’s more than just a business — it’s a community,” she says. After seeing her thrive amid the shop’s difficult customers, demanding inventories, and even plumbing mishaps, Quach’s parents gave her their blessing to open a shop of her own, Class One Donuts in Glendora, in 2019.
When Quach initially bought the shop from its owner of two years, winning over the loyalty of regulars took time and effort. The first six months were “tough” as locals adjusted to seeing a different face and a different array of doughnuts behind the counter. “We had to deal with a negative vibe at first,” she says. “But I won them over. I learned their names, learned their kids’ names, and learned their orders. Over time, the regulars that were used to the previous owner became our regulars.”
Marketing was another big change for the business. “You just have to keep up with the times,” says Quach. “Back then, my parents didn’t have the opportunity to market it freely in the palm of their hands.” Maintaining an online presence keeps regulars up-to-date on the latest flavors while attracting curious newcomers, she says. Tapping into Instagram and its vast network of content creators back in 2013 — an era before pay-to-play algorithms, paid advertisements, and influencer management firms — proved to be pivotal to expanding the reach of both California Donuts and DK’s Donuts in Santa Monica. After a friend of Kuoch’s started California Donuts’ Instagram account, she “studied” closely how businesses grew their audiences by providing free food to influencers. “They wanted our doughnuts on their feed and we wanted them to post about us, so it was a nice trade back in the day,” she says. “It helped us push the business into the next generation,” says Kudo.
Both shops also benefited from the attention of local food media. The Santa Monica DK’s Donuts attracted long lines for years after Jeff Miller wrote about its take on Dominique Ansel’s Cronut in Thrillist in 2013. “My mom and I actually worked 20-hour days just to make sure that everybody got a fresh Cronut,” says Tao. Crowds similarly descended on California Donuts after Kristin Hunt swooned over the shop’s Snickers-stuffed doughnuts, also in Thrillist, a year later.
Tao understood the importance of eye-catching branding for social media. “When I stepped in, we still had our old sign in the groovy ’80s font,” she says. Like many Cambodian-owned doughnut shops that opened in the ’70s and ’80s, DK’s Donuts packed its dozens into plain pink pastry boxes. Though customized packaging emblazoned with the shop’s newly designed logo cost six times more than the pink ones, Tao says that they also served as “walking advertisements.” “Now it’s aesthetically pleasing for Instagram and to show off like, ‘Hey guys, I’m at this cool doughnut shop, they make the coolest flavors,’” says Tao.
Lily Ung creates custom doughnut designs at her family’s 33-year-old shop Fantastic Donuts, located on the southeast edge of Koreatown. The story of the family’s shop is one of stark resilience: Fantastic Donuts burned down during the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. While insurance covered a quarter of the cost to rebuild the shop, Ung’s father worked as a baker at another doughnut shop and a cook at a hamburger stand to raise the rest of the funds. With his determination, the shop was able to reopen a year later.
Ung joined her father behind the counter in 2015 specifically to keep up with trends. “I pushed this branding of spreading happiness with doughnuts because I really love when clients share our doughnuts with everyone and I really love that reaction, ‘Oh my god, this is so cool, this is so different,’” she says. “I did not expect to come back to the doughnut shop but I wanted to show [my parents] I can do something different. I definitely can bring something to the table with social media, with the new era.” Ung plans to take over Fantastic Donuts once her parents retire in the years ahead.
With hundreds of thousands of social media followers and a rising demand for specialty doughnuts, the doughnut kids add fuel to the frenzy by frequently introducing exclusive flavors. Out-of-the-box, hard-to-get doughnuts feed perfectly into the trend of eating highly coveted foods and sharing the experience online. “Someone coined us ‘the Willy Wonka of doughnuts’ because we just have an endless supply of flavors,” says Kudo, who takes credit for introducing the now-ubiquitous panda doughnut made with Oreo cookie ears to the world.
“There were nights where I would lay down to go to sleep and I’m like, ‘I gotta try this flavor tomorrow,’” says Kuoch. “With that, plus social media, it just kind of spiraled. One day we ran out of doughnuts so early in the morning and we just kept adding more and more and more [to replenish].”
Tao says that prior to taking the marketing reins at DK’s Donuts, the “craziest” flavor the shop offered was a cinnamon roll. She takes credit for creating the first-ever ube-flavored doughnut in Los Angeles and single-handedly bringing the Cronut craze to the West Coast. DK’s Donuts produced over 25 different croissant-doughnut hybrids ranging from Nutella to cookie butter at the height of the Cronut phenomenon. Seeing her creations fly off the shelves inspired further innovation, including savory pizza and hot Cheeto flavors. “It was like a high person’s dream,” says Tao. “People like these weird, crazy flavors.”
At Knead Donuts in Long Beach, founder Huey Behuynh works closely with his wife, Lynn, and their 27-year-old daughter, Amy, to keep the shop’s doughnut selection current and enticing. In addition to riffing on flavors and styles made popular at other local shops, like the Donut Man’s Tiger Tail and Sidecar Doughnuts’ huckleberry cake doughnut, the trio dreamed up wholly unique combinations like Thai tea creme brulee, cinnamon sugar churro, and even pungent durian.
Others are giving classic raised and glazed doughnuts a modern makeover by applying artful designs to them. Ung began intricately icing animal-inspired doughnuts at Fantastic Donuts in 2015 and has since expanded her repertoire to include holiday- and character-themed doughnuts, like Easter, Pokémon, and Pac-Man.
Linda Ngoy Cuff — who took over B.C. Donuts in Pasadena from her parents, allowing them to retire in 2017 — created a line of festive doughnuts timed with Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day celebrations. “I would work a little extra when it came to decorating special things,” she says. While the financial benefits of these efforts weren’t immediately reflected in the shop’s bottom line, Ngoy Cuff was willing to devote extra time decorating doughnuts in order to market the business differently and to bring in more customers.
Some doughnut kids have even found a niche for doughnuts beyond breakfast. When Tao’s parents originally opened their Santa Monica shop, it was mainly geared toward “the working people to come in and grab something.” But now, she says, DK’s Donuts has become a “destination” at all hours. Kudo has also experienced this phenomenon: “We still have our morning rush, but it’s actually more busy in the evening now. Everyone is starting to come out for desserts,” she says.
Doughnut kids have also branched out into other opportunities like custom orders, including for large-scale events. Doughnut letters that spell out “happy birthday” or “get well soon” can be ordered online and delivered to doorsteps. The popularity of Instagrammable moments at large gatherings like baby showers and weddings led to doughnut shops creating elaborate doughnut displays that adhered to specific themes and color schemes. Corporations and movie studios hopped on board the trend by gifting branded doughnuts to influential tastemakers that coincided with film or television promotions. California Donuts, for example, recently partnered with Pixar to offer doughnuts decorated to look like red pandas as part of a campaign for the release of Turning Red.
The increased demand for doughnuts at all hours has also changed the rhythm of running and staffing shops. “When my parents opened [California Donuts], it was one baker and they would bake in the evening. All the doughnuts they had in the morning would sell all day long,” says Kudo. “Now, to create all the flavors and the quantity that we need, we have a back kitchen staff of like five people per shift. In the front, my mom used to be the only one working and now we have four or five people in the front at one given shift.” Additionally, the shop staffs a number of shift managers and even has an employee dedicated to filling custom orders.
While California Donuts continues to operate 24 hours a day by juggling three to four different employee shifts, many doughnut kids are rethinking their hours of operation to prioritize rest and avoid burnout. When Ngoy Cuff and her older siblings, Ken and Annette, took ownership of B.C. Donuts, they agreed to move away from 24/7 operations to six days a week and closing at 4 p.m. on weekdays, with even shorter hours on weekends. Their parents, along with nearly every doughnut shop owner of their generation, kept extended hours for fear of missing out on a sale, a practice that was driven in part by a kind of scarcity mentality characteristic among refugees. The siblings also scheduled time away from the shop so that each person could tend to life matters.
“I want to attend my children’s school events and spend the weekend with them,” says Ngoy Cuff. “Growing up my parents didn’t do any of that. My brothers and sisters and I did not expect parents to show up for back-to-school night, to help with homework. Now, it’s different.”
In addition to limiting Class One Donuts’ hours to early mornings and afternoons, Quach is dedicated to taking a day or two off each week to recharge, and provides the same opportunities to her employees, including her husband, who quit his full-time job in the health care industry to run the shop alongside her. “Rest is so important because when you’re working in this industry, you have to be there 100 percent and give your best customer service,” she says. “[Rest is] a rarity for my family. All my uncles and aunts and my parents work seven days straight and they’re always tired. They don’t have the balance of enjoying life outside the doughnut shop.” After seeing strong sales at Class One Donuts in spite of reduced hours, Quach’s parents followed suit and limited their shops’ hours in Lake Perris and at Daily Donuts in South LA; longtime customers have adjusted their routines to accommodate the new schedule.
Though success and stability can be gratifying for doughnut kids, the grueling realities of the doughnut business can be difficult to balance with life’s unpredictable twists. Running B.C. Donuts became untenable for Ngoy Cuff and her siblings when COVID hit and their father’s cancer returned in 2020. Overseeing remote learning and spending time with an ailing parent, all while making sure the shop’s employees could pay their mortgages, proved to be too much, and the siblings decided to sell the shop.
“It’s a family business, but now we have to be in the business of what’s best for the family,” Ngoy Cuff says. “I was in tears about it, but then I said to myself that currently I am 60 percent business owner, 60 percent parent, and 60 percent being present as a daughter for my dad when he was sick and needed me. I felt like at that point with the pressure, something had to give.” Their father passed away a month after the shop was sold in early 2021. After selling the shop, Ngoy Cuff gave birth to her third child and relishes traveling with her siblings, which wasn’t possible while running the doughnut shop together.
When Tao’s mother, Chuong Pek Lee, announced that she was ready to retire in 2021, Tao was initially taken aback by the news. “This has been a part of my identity, a part of my life since I was a little girl. It has been something I view as my passion, being the doughnut princess at DK’s Donuts,” she says. Even though Tao raised the shop’s local and national profile and tripled the store’s sales during her tenure, Lee was an essential piece of the puzzle when it came to executing recipes and running the back end of the business. “The [Cambodian] family that bought it could buy any doughnut shop for a lower price, but they wanted to buy DK’s because of the branding, because of the following, because of what’s already been set up for them,” Tao says.
Even though Tao is no longer running DK’s Donuts daily, her hands remain in the doughnut business through her company Donut Princess, a service that offers consulting to doughnut shops looking to “change with the times” and to increase sales through branding, marketing, and social media. Tao also sells bespoke doughnut bouquets and hosts a podcast called Short N’ Sweet where she explores entrepreneurship and celebrates small businesses. “During my time at DK’s, I developed plantar fasciitis from standing for 20 hours a day. And so now it’s all about healing and making sure that whatever business I do is more of this balance, there isn’t this feeling of super burnt out and high-stress,” she says. “My priorities have shifted as I’m getting older now and realizing that time is actually the biggest form of wealth.”
A few years ago, Quach wondered aloud to her father what would happen to all the doughnut shops once their owners retired. “The new wave of immigrants from Cambodia are coming. We’re gonna teach them the doughnut business,” Quach recalls him saying. “If you’re immigrating from Cambodia in this generation, your opportunity is the doughnut shop,” she says. Quach has witnessed her father’s prediction come true, with newly immigrated relatives working in doughnut shops to learn the business and to save money to open stores of their own. Doughnut shops change hands often within the local Cambodian community between new immigrants and Cambodian Americans. Both Quach’s and Behuynh’s doughnut shops were owned by ready-to-retire, first-generation entrepreneurs, while Ngoy Cuff sold her Pasadena-based shop to a distant cousin.
Kuoch’s three children, ranging in ages from a recent college graduate to a current high school student, all have one foot out the door of California Donuts — at their mother’s insistence. “As much as I want them involved, I also want them to explore other options because running a doughnut shop, running a family business, running any business is a sacrifice, and for them, they have a chance at just seeing what’s out there,” she says.
Vaun at DK’s Donuts in Orange is currently opening a second doughnut shop called Downtown Donuts in Brea along with a business partner. He likens the new shop’s high-end and design-forward aesthetic to luxury fashion label Louis Vuitton. “I feel like my parents have built this legacy of sacrifice, blood, sweat, and tears,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in continuing their doughnut legacy because that represents what happened to them in Cambodia and what they built here. Our goal is to push the doughnut industry to new heights.”
After finding their own voice and purpose amid an older generation’s American dream, doughnut kids are preserving, innovating on, and continuing a uniquely Khmerican experience. “Even though this doughnut shop may not necessarily be my dream, it’s my family’s dream and it’s our legacy. It’s our story,” says Kudo. Though it’s impossible to predict the future of LA’s independently owned doughnut shops as the next generation weighs whether to take control of their family’s business, to pass on the torch, or to reimagine the doughnut business altogether, one thing is certain — the doughnut kids are all right.