Arts & Life

SPECIAL ISSUE: How Cambodian-Americans dominated the Long Beach doughnut scene

Melissa Eap of Simone’s Donuts has known doughnuts her entire life.

Simone’s. School. Simone’s. Sleep. Repeat.

Star Wars themed divorce party doughnuts saying, "May divorce be with you"
Melissa Eap creates special designs for customers such as custom Star Wars themed divorce party doughnuts.

Since age 12, the shop manager spent her time before and after school at her parents’ doughnut shop on East Stearns Street and Palo Verde Avenue.

Now 26 years old, Eap specializes in customized doughnuts, creating delectable designs ranging anywhere from brightly colored birthday spreads to Star Wars inspired divorce party doughnuts. Eap’s unique creations are an example of ways that traditional Cambodian doughnut shops have tried adapting to the increasing competitiveness of the Long Beach doughnut market.

According to Yelp, Long Beach is home to 37 doughnut shops. If you choose one of these shops at random, there’s a good chance the owner is Cambodian.

Much of the concentration of Cambodian doughnut shops in Southern California can be attributed to Ted Ngoy, otherwise known as the “Donut King.” Ngoy opened scores of doughnut shops throughout the mid-1970s and ‘80s, and sponsored visas for hundreds of Cambodian immigrants escaping the Khmer Rouge.

More than 140,000 Cambodians came to the United States as refugees after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. In the wake of the homeland devastation plagued by both Pol Pot’s regime and U.S. bombings in the country, Cambodians entered the States and relied on the country’s humanitarian programs for sponsors to help jumpstart their new lives in a foreign nation.

Born and raised in Cambodia, Eap’s father, Kong Eap, sought refuge in the United States in 1980.

“My dad got sponsored by a family in Michigan through the Red Cross to come to America,” Melissa Eap said. “He lived in Michigan for a year and a half, but … he wasn’t having much luck with finding a job and making a living there.”

The U.S. Census cites the first wave of Cambodians to Long Beach in the 1950s when Long Beach State enacted a student exchange program between the United States and Cambodia. Decades later, the presence of an already-established Khmer-speaking community enticed Cambodian refugees to enter the city and open up businesses.

“[My dad] kept in touch with a friend who came to California and his friend told him, ‘Come to California. They have a lot of jobs and opportunities available here,’” Melissa Eap said.

And what’s more American than setting up a doughnut shop?

According to Sinara Sagn, a business navigator for the nonprofit social services agency United Cambodian Community, Cambodians who entered the U.S. in the 1980s set up doughnut shops due to the sweet treat’s easy-to-make process and low cost.

“After the Khmer Rouge, a lot of Cambodians moved here and [taught] their friends and family how to sell doughnuts, how to make doughnuts and they began to [open up] stores. That’s how it spread,” Sagn said.

Despite the pastry’s popularity among the Cambodian community, the doughnut industry is not very widespread in Southeast Asia.

Sagn said there are only a handful of unique doughnut businesses in Phnom Penh, a stark contrast to the blooming amount in Southern California.

The market offered refugees with limited English the opportunity to succeed in America.

Heang Khauo, 44, owner of Donut Island on the corner of East Wardlow Road and Cherry Avenue, became involved in the doughnut industry through his parents, who had friends in the business.

“When we first came here from Cambodia, my parents’ English was limited, [and] so was mine when I was little,” Khaou said. “[But doughnut shops are] one way of not needing to know too much English. People would just come here and point to whatever doughnut they wanted.”

The Cambodian entrepreneur has been in a business-savvy environment almost his whole life. After his family was sponsored in September 1981 to enter the country, Khaou’s parents opened up a sewing factory in downtown Los Angeles prior to establishing Donut Den in Torrance, California ,just in time for the doughnut renaissance.

A 1992 U.S. Census report counted 26 doughnut shops in Long Beach alone at the time, which accounted for the steadily increasing number of Cambodian-owned businesses in the city.

But long gone are the days of the doughnut heyday. Opening shop in a competitive environment with a high concentration of doughnut shops left businesses like Knead Donuts & Tea and Donut Island to tread in choppy waters in their infancy.

After opening Knead Donuts & Tea in 2017, the Behuynh family experienced trouble early on with reeling in customers.

They set up shop along Seventh Street in an ever-changing location that once primed Gladstone Donut Shop and then a transitional housing complex. After struggling for its first few months, Knead found its footing after a glowing review from Brian Addison at the Long Beach Post.

Previously, the Behuynh family owned Khmer restaurant, Siem Reap in Cambodia Town for 26 years before closing it in 2015. Not only was the restaurant a staple in the community, but it also served as a staple in the family’s assimilation to the U.S.

“Growing up, I was trying to assimilate between American culture and our Asian culture,” said daughter Amy Behuynh. “There were language barriers at the restaurant, but you just try to work with the scenario … I was born here, but it’s very hard for us, especially for older people to learn a new language and then like assimilate to American culture.”

Behuynh is just grateful to be working in her family’s doughnut shop in Long Beach, where she is able to meld her Cambodian and American cultural identities.

For her, adding unique ingredients is a reclamation of her Cambodian identity. Departing from the traditional raised and cake doughnuts, Behuynh, alongside her father Huey, infuse an Asian zing in their pastries, most notably a Thai Tea filling in their creme brulee. She’s also trifled with the traditional French cruller by infusing the icing with pandan, a common Southeast Asian flavoring ingredient.

“I try to put a little more Asian dishes [to show our] Asian roots for Americans to try too,” Amy Behuynh said. “Long Beach is so chill. They’re willing to try anything new.”

For the new Cambodian American-raised doughnut connoisseurs, experimenting with the iconic ring pastry is what sets them apart from chains.

Introducing creative items to the menu keeps the community buzzing. It’s what helped secure Knead Donuts & Tea a spot on LA Eater’s “20 Most Delectable Doughnut Shops” list.

Despite the ever-changing landscape of the doughnut market in Long Beach, what remains the same among family-owned Cambodian doughnut shops is the value of family.

“You know how [it’s like in Asian culture,] we value family, sometimes a bit too much,” Amy Behuynh said. “But [my parents have] sacrificed so much to bring us here so I try to remember that.”

The Eap family is the third family to own Simone’s Donuts and owner Kong Eap has expressed his desire for his daughter to carry the shop forward. After being trained by her father and gaining more insight on the ins and outs of the family business, Melissa Eap has gained a greater appreciation for the work her parents have put into supporting the family.

“Once I started to learn more about how much responsibility [my dad] had. How much he was doing and working to keep the shop together, I was like, ‘Holy crap, it’s a lot of work’,” Eap said. “And I think that knowing that he trusted me enough to take on that work, made me feel like I have more of a purpose.”

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