A collage with an older Cambodian man in an apron holding a tray of doughnuts with Cambodian flags, with neon signs in the background.

442: The Doughnut King’s Cambodian American kingdom

How one man provided a path for Cambodian refugees in their new country

Ted Ngoy is known as the Doughnut King in the Cambodian American community.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

Have a historical tidbit you’d like to share? Let us know!

If you’ve ever visited a mom-and-pop doughnut shop in the United States (and who among us hasn’t?!), odds are more than likely that if the person behind the counter was Asian, they were Cambodian. And nowhere is this truer than California.

That’s because in California, there are nearly 1,500 Cambodian-owned doughnut shops. In Southern California alone, about 80 percent of doughnut shops are owned and run by Cambodian refugee families. To put that in perspective, Dunkin’ (formerly Dunkin’ Donuts) only has 143 locations in the Golden State. In comparison, the industry giant has roughly 1,400 shops in New York and 1,000 shops in Massachusetts—states that are about one-third and one-twentieth of the size of California, respectively.

Dunkin', which began in Massachusetts in 1950 and was essentially an East Coast company for its first few decades, first tried expanding in California in the 1980s, but they couldn’t gain a foothold and the chain closed all 15 of its stores by 2002. Their second attempt to break into California came around 2012, with plans to open upwards of 1,000 locations, according to California Sunday Magazine. A dozen years later, Dunkin’ has yet to meet that goal.

Cambodian doughnut shops have been so prolific in California—and as a result across the country—thanks to Ted Ngoy, also known as the Doughnut King. Like many Cambodians in the United States, Ngoy was a refugee, fleeing the Khmer Rouge. He arrived in 1975 at Camp Pendleton in San Diego with his wife Suganthini and their family. In Cambodia, Ngoy had been in the military, but like many refugees the world over, he was starting over in his new home.

It all started with a single question

One of Ngoy’s first jobs was working at a gas station, and that’s where he discovered doughnuts. A coworker had brought in a box of the sweet treats from the DK’s Donuts across the street, and Ngoy got his first taste. He quickly became a regular at the shop, and noticing its steady stream of customers, asked the women working the counter how he could open his own shop. They recommended the manager’s training program through Winchell’s, the major doughnut chain in California at the time.

Following his training, Ngoy began managing his own Winchell’s store in Newport Beach. In 1976, he bought his first doughnut shop: Christy’s Donuts in nearby La Habra. Suganthini (who would change her name to Christy when she became a U.S. citizen) ran the new shop while Ngoy continued at the Winchell’s store. Eventually, they were able to buy a second shop. By 1980, Ngoy’s doughnut kingdom had expanded to 20 Christy’s locations (all independently operated) throughout Southern California. According to the BBC, Ngoy would actively look for doughnut shops to buy and lease to fellow Cambodian refugees. He and his wife sponsored more than 100 families over the years, hosting them in their home before setting these families up with homes, loans, and of course, doughnut shops.

All in the family

Cambodian doughnut shops became the definition of family-owned and -operated, as everyone was expected to contribute.

Siemny Chhuon’s parents bought their first doughnut shop in 1984. That ended up not working out, and they had to sell the shop. But they tried again and bought another shop in 1986 in North Hills, California. Within a year, Chhuon’s family was living down the street from the shop. And that was when Chhuon officially became a doughnut shop kid. As a second grader, her first job was folding the pink doughnut boxes. (Those boxes, which fit a dozen doughnuts perfectly and are now iconic, are the result of Cambodian shop owners opting for the cheaper pink boxes rather than pricier white boxes).

“As I got older, I started helping customers, selling doughnuts and drinks, and even helped to make the doughnuts,” Chhuon says. “I took pride in making the prettiest doughnuts I could, making sure the frosting and sprinkles were just right.”

Her parents bought their second shop, a few miles from where they lived, in 1989.

“Though it was very hard work and the hours grueling, owning the doughnut shops was a way for my parents to support our family with limited English and education,” she says.

She looks back on her time at the doughnut shop with fondness, but Chhuon, now 44, admits she was resentful at the time. She wanted to spend her afternoons and weekends hanging out with friends—not working. But it gave her a strong work ethic that she says helped her excel in school and pursue her eventual career in journalism.

She also now recognizes and appreciates the sacrifices her parents made: Someone was always working, which made it pretty much impossible for them to spend time together as a whole family, or go on family vacations. Operating a doughnut shop—especially one that was open 24 hours a day—could also be dangerous. Chhuon’s family’s shops were held up by armed robbers a few times and that made her worry for her parents’ safety.

“I know my father is proud of that time because he feels he was able to help provide for the community during a time of need. I saw firsthand the importance of small business and how a small business could be a lifeline for the community.”

In 1994, the Los Angeles area was hit by a 6.7 magnitude earthquake. Many people lost power, but Chhuon’s family’s second doughnut shop, while extensively damaged, still had electricity and gas. While her parents were cleaning up, customers—desperate for food—began pouring in, asking if they had anything for sale. Chhuon says her parents began selling their day-old doughnuts and beverages, and within hours, her father began making new doughnuts for the steady stream of customers, who were “grateful for the fresh food.”

“I know my father is proud of that time because he feels he was able to help provide for the community during a time of need,” Chhuon says. “I saw firsthand the importance of small business and how a small business could be a lifeline for the community.”

Her parents sold that doughnut shop in 2005.

As more relatives began emigrating from Cambodia, Chhuon says the doughnut shops were a guaranteed place for them to work as they got settled in their new country and her parents ended up selling that first shop to relatives in 2015.

A modern-day kingdom

Chhuon’s family wasn’t the only one to follow in Ngoy’s footsteps and use doughnut shops to help family and friends who were new to the country and give them a path to owning their own businesses. So it wasn’t long before Cambodians dominated the Californian doughnut market—peaking at about 2,400 in the early 1990s, according to the Los Angeles Times. They bumped Winchell’s down to second place, something Ngoy does feel bad about.

“They’re a good company and I owe them gratitude,” he told the BBC. “Cambodian people owe them a lot.”

Ngoy’s kingdom has since expanded beyond California—with Cambodian-owned doughnut shops in big cities and small towns alike across the country—but his reign as Doughnut King came and went. He had acquired a great amount of wealth, enough to be able to purchase a 7,000-square-foot mansion in Mission Viejo. But he also acquired a gambling addiction in the process. By the early 1990s, Ngoy had gambled his fortune away and was riddled with debt, which also led to him and his wife divorcing. He sold what doughnut shops he had left and moved back to Cambodia. According to Food & Wine, Ngoy is heavily involved in Cambodia’s political scene.

The Doughnut King’s legacy continues, even without a monarch. As many of the original shop owners from the early days approach retirement—and doughnut shop kids like Chhuon seek careers outside the industry—Cambodian doughnut shops nowadays are often run by immigrants who are newer to the country.

That’s not to say there aren’t second-generation owners. In many cases, these grownup doughnut shop kids (often Millennials)—like Mayly Tao, owner of Donut Princess LA and Ngoy’s great niece—are combining their lifelong experience of working in the business, with tech and social media skills to ensure Cambodian doughnut shops stay relevant in the modern era.

Published on June 7, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.