To the small towns of Northeast Texas, Cambodian families bring a sticky niche business. Set your alarm and work up an appetite.
Kheang Chheng at noon, day’s end at the Donut Box, Gladewater, TX
Photo: Bill Bishop
The state’s Heritage Commission calls it The Forest Trails Region ““ this chunk of Northeast Texas barely rolling from the Arkansas line to down around Lufkin. But anyone with half an appetite will miss the forest for the donut signs.
There’s a new heritage happening here, as Cambodian immigrants have blazed a Donut Trail. In every town from Mt. Pleasant south and west to Athens, there seem to be donut enterprises on most every corner. All the shops we stopped in were Cambodian-owned.
“In Cambodia they don’t know what a donut is,” said Kheang Chheng. But they sure do in Gladewater, Texas (pop. 6100). It’s about noon, closing time; Chheng, who’s been here at the Donut Box since 3 a.m. rests his elbows on the big and nearly empty glass case. His aunt who lives in Kilgore, a couple of towns east, has owned the business four years. “We bought it from an American owner,” Chheng explains. “It was a barbecue shop,” a reconverted Sonic drive-in.
In Pittsburg, Texas (pop. 4347), Sereavocith Kep is in his fifth year at the Donut Palace. He learned donut-making in Houston and now runs his own tiny store, with lucky bamboo by the cash register. Kep says he buys all his ingredients from a supplier in Dallas. On down Highway 271, Kosal Sok runs Daylight Donuts in Gilmer and has competition only six blocks away.
Rural Texas seems an unlikely place for Cambodians to settle, and the donut trade a mighty tight niche business, but the Lone Star State is becoming home to more and more Cambodian Americans, and the sweet shops have come with them. A U.S. Census study in 2005 reported an estimated 12,000 Cambodians in Texas (the fourth largest state population, after California, Massachusetts and Washington). Mark Pfeifer , examining the American Community Survey, found “some of the strongest percentage growth in Cambodian-American populations” since 2000, “in the states of Texas, Florida, Georgia and Connecticut.”
Immigrants from this Southeast Asian nation poured into the U.S. in the early 1980s, once the U.S. government granted haven to Cambodians fleeing their country’s holocaust. The Khmer Rouge and murderous regime of Pol Pot forced many thousands of Cambodians into slave labor camps; an estimated million people died of starvation, torture, and execution. By 1980, large numbers of Cambodian refugees in Thailand began relocating to the U.S. From their first scattered settlements in this country, Cambodian immigrants created large communities in Lowell, Massachusetts, and especially Long Beach, California, now home to 170,000 Cambodian Americans.
Why would so many Cambodians, striving to support themselves in a new country, reach for the dough ring? Their business pioneer was Ted Ngoy, an ethnic Chinese Cambodian, who arrived in the U.S. in 1975. Working as a janitor in Long Beach, Ngoy sampled his first donut, and then managed to get hired by Winchell’s, a donut chain in southern California. Two years later, he had saved enough to buy the first of many dozens of donut stores.
“Ngoy is the one who found a way for Cambodian immigrants to become part of the American dream of owning their own business,” said Dennis Wong of the Asian Business Association. “Taking a loan from an Asian loaning society, Ngoy was able to buy two stores, operate them for awhile and then sell to someone in the community or a family member who wanted to buy them. That’s how they got into it.”
Southern Maid Donuts
in Chandler, Texas
Photo: Julie Ardery
Though Ngoy gambled away his pastry fortune, his legacy rolls on; Cambodian Americans own an estimated 80% of the donut businesses in Los Angeles today. Wayne Wright, a professor of educational policy and scholar of Cambodian American culture at University of Texas, San Antonio, estimates that in Houston it’s more like 90%. The same, apparently, holds true along the Forest Trail in Northeast Texas.
The basic ingredients for donut making — flour, sugar and shortening — are inexpensive, frying is easy to master, and the space required for a salesroom is minimal. Southern Maid, a spiffy shop in Chandler, Texas, is just a little wider than a ping-pong table. Though a 50-cent glazed donut only nets a shopowner about 10 cents profit, according to Wayne Wright earnings are still preferable to wages in the old country. “It’s a sad fact,” he says, “you can make more money in a donut shop in San Antonio than as a government worker in Cambodia.”
Many Cambodian immigrants were illiterate in their native Khmer, and learning a language as alien as English is extremely difficult. Ly Yiv, a California donut shop owner, told the New York Times, “Some people can’t write and can’t tell the name, but they can smell the flour and they can make the doughnut. This is a good business for people who don’t speak too much English. They can say, ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?’ and count the money.” In Texas, many Cambodian shop owners also bake kolaches and sell this popular Tex-Czech pastry alongside all their varieties of ring and filled donuts.
Wares at the Donut Box, Gladewater, Texas
Photo: Bill Bishop
One might think that opening a small business would help immigrants assimilate into a new society. But in the donut trade, which demands rising at 2 a.m. and retiring about 5 in the afternoon, that’s not really so. “It puts a damper on their social life,” says Wayne Wright. The long, odd hours tend to insulate Cambodian families from the larger community. Wright says, “That donut shop is their life. They practically sleep in “˜em.”
By the same token, Wright has found that donut shops across the state — urban and rural — are reliable networks of Cambodian information. He was recently traveling toward Galveston in search of a particular Buddhist temple, wandering out lonely and unfamiliar highways south of Houston.
“The way I found it, I stopped at all the donut shops and asked directions,” Wright laughs. Even when he’s not lost, he routinely stops at donut shops, “just to practice the language (Khmer) and to gain some weight.”
Lance Rasbridge directs Parkland Hospital’s refugee outreach program in Dallas. He writes that since most of the older generation of Cambodian Americans “came from an agricultural background, and they kept pretty extensive gardens even in the urban area, it wouldn’t surprise me that there would be some attraction to the wider lots of the rural and semi-rural areas as well.”
Wright knows of Cambodian-owned donuts stores all around rural Texas, from Llano in the Texas Hill Country, to Seguin north of San Antonio, and Alvin on the outskirts of Houston. And then there’s Northeast Texas”¦ Recently one of Wright’s Cambodian friends left Boston to open a convenience store and donut shop in Texarkana, Gateway to the Donut Trail. Wright says he thinks many Cambodian shop owners “go someplace where there’s not much competition,” and small towns may look like the best prospects.
Actually, the competition is tough. Shipley’s Donuts in Tyler is one of the very few shops that stays open past noon. Anything to get an edge. “There are too many donut shops,” said a worker there wearily, and indeed 14 establishments in a town of 83,000 sounds like donut
saturation. This donut chef, who asked not to be named, said he’d been in the U.S. nine years, learned the business in Houston and moved out to Tyler to run this Shipley’s franchise. Why did he think so many Cambodian Americans had gotten into the donut business? He shrugged as if it were too obvious. “White people don’t like to get up early.” Friendly, he clearly was ready for us to move along. It was 2 pm and getting on toward bedtime.