Siblings Douglas and Stephanie Hem are rewriting the recipe for success at the south Sacramento doughnut business started by their mother in 1985.
At Baker’s Donuts on Florin Road, there are all kinds of inventive flavors and styles, including croissant doughnuts, the top-selling maple-bacon doughnut and a new creation made with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Those who want to splurge can plunk down $3.50 for a doughnut sandwiched around ice cream.
The siblings post dozens of eye-catching photos of their products on Instagram, where they have 9,500 followers and counting. Their social media brings in customers from as far as the Bay Area who often post online photos of their own. The Hems have even figured out a way to attract hard-core fitness enthusiasts, once seen as the arch enemy of deep-fried sweets. Turns out, bodybuilders love to post pictures of their so-called “cheat day” meals, and Douglas encourages them to do.
Their mother and stepfather, Sivkun Tun-Hem and Randy Chheng, devote most of their energy to making the treats and leave the newfangled concepts to the kids.
“My sister and I grew up in this doughnut shop. This is our second home,” said Douglas, who graduated from UC Davis in 2012 with a degree in animal biology but opted to work at the family doughnut shop to bolster its business after a Krispy Kreme franchise opened across the street in 2013.
“We knew Krispy Kreme was opening, so I told my mom we had to step up,” Douglas said. “It actually helped us. Our sales increased. Now, we’re always trying to make something innovative that people want to try. We ask people to take pictures and post them on Instagram. That’s how we’re modernizing it.”
Faced with all kinds of new competition and hurdles – everything from artisan doughnuts to anti-carb enthusiasts – the Hems have taken what was once a rather mainstream doughnut shop and transformed it into a hip business that attracts a new and often significantly younger generation of customers.
Their efforts are making the cash register ring. More often than not, specialty doughnuts sell out quickly and customers traveling long distances for specific styles are encouraged to call ahead.
The brother-sister duo perhaps represent a new chapter in the story about doughnuts in California, a business that is dominated by Cambodian refugees who arrived here beginning in the mid-1970s, looking for ways to make money with limited language skills. While there are no official figures for such things, several publications have estimated that Cambodians own close to 90 percent of the 2,400 independent doughnut shops in California. The Hems say those numbers reflect what they see in the Sacramento area.
The Cambodian-owned doughnut shop phenomenon is a lesser-known part of modern food lore. There is no specific cultural reason Cambodians and doughnuts go together, and doughnut shops in their homeland are almost unheard of.
“It’s funny because Cambodians don’t love doughnuts,” said Douglas. “But when people ask what I am, I say I am Cambodian and I own a doughnut shop. I am very proud of that.”
Stephanie, who is taking classes at Cosumnes River College and helping run the doughnut business, echoes the sentiment. “I was raised by an amazing, strong Cambodian mom. I just know that if I want the finer things in life, I have to work hard for it, whether it’s at school or at a doughnut shop 24/7.”
“My mom told us that she doesn’t require anything of us except to work hard,” added Douglas. “She left a country where educated people were being killed, so she wanted a better life for us.”
Indeed, Cambodians arrived by the thousands in the United States to escape the widespread genocide of 1975-79 at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. More than 1 million were slaughtered by the genocide and many more from disease and starvation. Tun-Hem has painful memories of her mother’s cruel death in 1976.
“No medicine. No food,” she said softly.
“When Cambodians came here, owning a doughnut shop was a way of being self-employed,” said Douglas.
A 2013 article in Lucky Peach chronicles the Cambodian doughnut connection. Written by Richard Parks, “Khmerican Food” won the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award from the James Beard Foundation.
“Overwhelmingly, the new immigrants did not start making the kind of food they grew up with, at least not in restaurants,” Parks writes. “There are just four Cambodian restaurants in the city of Oakland – granted, that’s probably four more than in most American cities – but it’s almost impossible to find a chocolate glazed here that isn’t rolled and fried by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge.”
In California, the Cambodian doughnut shop juggernaut can be traced to Southern California and Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee and former janitor who built a doughnut empire after working in one and mastering the business.
“Ted Ngoy made a fortune in doughnuts,” according to a 2005 story in the Los Angeles Times. “Over the years, he led thousands of his countrymen into the business. Through doughnuts, many Cambodians stepped out of isolation and into the American mainstream. And a new figure emerged on the California business landscape: the Cambodian doughnut-shop owner.”
Ngoy is no longer the doughnut king. In fact, he lost his fortune and a 7,000-square-foot mansion to gambling and wound up homeless for a time, relying on the charity of others to survive, according to the L.A. Times story. Now in his 70s, Ngoy has made something of a comeback back in Cambodia by investing in real estate and trading on his “Doughnut King” reputation to serve as a business consultant.
Despite Ngoy’s shattered dreams, the Cambodian doughnut legacy lives on in the Golden State. But Douglas and Stephanie Hem worry its days may be numbered. They say few second-generation Cambodians like them are staying in the business. The hours are too long, the work too demanding, the profits too small. Many Cambodian Americans who grew up in the doughnut business saw how hard it was and sought less-demanding lives.
That was the case for Soreath Hok, who earned a degree in English at California State University, Fresno, and works as a producer at KCRA Channel 3. She also writes a blog, Ayah!, which focuses on Asian food, culture and social issues.
“My parents had to sacrifice a lot to open the doughnut shop because they were fresh immigrants coming from Cambodia,” Hok said. “They came here without any skills. My dad got into the doughnut business as an odd job, but he saw it as a chance to make money and really build something for his family.”
Her parents’ first doughnut shop was in Tehachapi, a town of 14,000 people southeast of Bakersfield.
“All of the sudden, I was the popular kid in school – being the only Asian kid and being the kid with the doughnut shop,” she said. “Every time there was a special function at school, we came bearing boxes and boxes of doughnuts and we became known as that family with the doughnuts.”
Her parents went on to own a doughnut shop in Fresno, and they still work there. They make a comfortable living and own a home in a middle-class neighborhood, Hok said.
“I feel really proud that I was raised by such hardworking people who really had a drive to succeed and thrive and try to make a good life for us,” Hok said. “They were building our success a dollar at a time. It’s all hard work. It’s every day, night and day. You don’t get vacations. It’s thankless work. People walk in and walk out and they don’t realize the hard work that went into that doughnut.”
It’s something that Curtis Ly, 23, knows all too well. He works at his parents’ Fancy Donuts and Ice Cream in Natomas, but he intends to finish college and find a job with more reasonable hours and income. His parents are of Chinese descent but landed in the United States via Cambodia.
“My plan is not to stay in the business because I understand how tedious and arduous it is,” he said. “My parents work extremely hard. They’re here more than they are at home, which is unfortunate. The amount of money they make at the doughnut shop, I really don’t think it reflects how hard they work.”
But some second-generation Cambodians such as Hok and the Hems see an opportunity in easing their parents’ businesses into the 21st century without jettisoning the tried-and-true business practices that kept their shops afloat for decades. Sure, the long hours and high volume sales will always be there, but why not modernize? While Hok is busy with her own career in Sacramento, she is working on creating a website for her parents’ Fresno doughnut business. But Instagram and Twitter? That may take some convincing.
“They’re very stubborn and they don’t understand what it is, but we have to make them understand that this is the way people are consuming,” she said. “It’s a new way of advertising and it’s free.”
Douglas and Stephanie Hem said they grew up watching their mother work up to 16 hours a day to keep the business afloat. The doughnuts she made were always of the traditional varieties found at nearly every other shop. But now Mom realizes that her kids are onto something, even if she thinks some of the new doughnuts are over the top and she still has no idea what a hashtag is.
“We still have a few arguments about some of the doughnuts,” said Douglas, smiling. “But now that the money is coming in, she is a believer.”
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.