by Mark Van Streefkerk
When it comes to Rainier Beach landmarks, King Donuts is one of the most easily identifiable. Located in a bright blue-and-pink shop at the southwest corner of the Safeway parking lot on Rainier Avenue South, King Donuts houses a laundromat, a teriyaki kitchen, and a donut shop.
It’s a unique and ambitious business model for a relatively small space. Almost as if to reassure passersby, the sprinkled, crowned King Donut mascot painted on the side of the building exclaims, “It’s a Real Place!” from his perch atop a washing machine, a bowl in one hand and chopsticks in the other.
Owned and operated by the Chhuor family, King Donuts will continue to be a special place in the community far into the foreseeable future, but after weathering a pandemic and assessing what they can realistically sustain long-term, the family had to make some hard decisions.
King Donuts will be closed from Aug. 5 to Aug. 17 while the family takes a much-deserved vacation. When the business reopens on Aug. 18, it will be as a donut shop, without the teriyaki offerings or the self-service laundry, which has technically been closed since 2019. The other change is to the shop’s hours: It will be open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday and on weekends from 7 a.m. until the donuts sell out.
“We did a lot of thinking,” Hong Chhuor said about the difficult decision to pare down the business. “This wasn’t something we decided to do just out of the blue. We’re only human. We had to make hard choices to figure out how to stick around.”
At the core of King Donuts is Travis and Hong Chhuor and their mother, Kim Sok. Travis is the resident donut maker. Every single one of the raised donuts, cake donuts, and apple fritters has passed through his hands. Hong has a day job, but he works at the shop and takes care of the family’s bookkeeping on evenings and weekends. They usually employ a fourth person as a counter cashier, but the mainstays have always been the Chhuor brothers and the indefatigable Kim.
“She’s there six days a week from six in the morning till eight at night — no joke,” Hong said about his mom. “She’s working 14 hour days, six days a week, and then on the day off she is still there catching up on stuff she couldn’t do during work hours.”
Kim and her sons 一 and their families 一 will finally get a break during their annual vacation in August. It’s one of their slowest months when customers typically want ice cream or cold drinks — items not offered by King Donuts. When the Chhuor family took over King Donuts from former owners Heng Hay and Chea Pol in 2017, they inherited the business’s three branches housed in the brightly colored shop. Hong was told that the donut shop, teriyaki restaurant, and laundromat used to be three separate businesses in a strip mall where the Safeway now stands. Knowing the strip mall would be demolished to make way for the grocery store, the then-owner bought washers and dryers from the laundromat and took on recipes from the teriyaki restaurant to consolidate all three as one business in the present location. Continuing all three helped meet important needs in the community.
“Fast forward 28, 30 years later, the world is a different place,” Hong said. “Of course we are thinking about the legacy of the business in terms of the place it has had in the community, both in terms of meeting their needs as well as the [sense of] nostalgia it has.”
But maintaining the laundromat and hot food components proved to be unsustainable in the long run, an awareness that grew during the pandemic. The laundry machines were aging, the Chhuor family weren’t experts on troubleshooting mechanical issues, and buying new machines was costly. Concerning their hot food offerings, Hong acknowledges the “dearth of food options in the Rainier Beach area,” but the family was also grappling with rising food costs and struggled to find kitchen staff to shoulder some of the labor.
Hong admitted, “It’s amazing that we’ve held out for so long with such a skeleton crew.”
Hong said the Chhuor family’s donuts reflect the Los Angeles style of so many Chinese- and Cambodian-owned donut shops: raised ring donuts, bars, and twists with glazed, frosted, or sprinkle toppings. The selection at King Donuts is consistent and inexpensive: $1.50 for ring donuts and up to $2.50 for apple fritters “the size of your face.”
Hong referenced The Donut King, a documentary about Cambodian refugee Ted Ngoy who built an empire of donut shops, working alongside his family and employing other refugees. In the 1990s, 80% of donut shops in California were owned by Cambodian families. “In many ways, that documentary is the story of my family,” Hong said. The Chhuor family doesn’t have a donut empire in the way Ngoy had, but their origin stories are similar.
The ethnically Chinese Chhuor family hails from Cambodia. During the Khmer Rouge genocide, they fled “… under cover of night, on foot, across the border into Thailand into a refugee camp, where my brother was born,” Hong said. From there, the family went to the Philippines, a staging area for many refugees, before landing in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s.
In Los Angeles, Hong’s parents quickly made connections with donut shops. For new immigrants who spoke limited English, the consistency and repetition of making donuts was a welcome task, Hong said. It is also an isolating job, requiring bakers to work graveyard or early morning shifts, sleeping while the rest of the world is awake. For immigrants enduring the trauma of genocide, that isolation might also have been comforting, Hong pointed out.
After achieving donut mastery in Los Angeles, the Chhuor family owned and operated a shop in the small east-Texas town of Jefferson before taking on King Donuts in 2017.
This year, the family vacation is especially meaningful. Hong has a younger brother in the Air Force stationed in O‘ahu whom the family hasn’t been able to visit due to the pandemic. “It’s not just a regular trip to Hawai‘i, it’s that I maybe haven’t seen him in two or three years because of the pandemic,” Hong said. “We haven’t been able to just gather as a family and see him. It’s going to be extra wonderful to do that.”
Hong hopes the vacation will be an ideal time to reset for his family, and their business.
Make sure to swing by King Donuts before they close on Aug. 5, and follow them on Instagram.
📸 Featured Image: The Chhuor family owns and operates King Donuts with mother Kim Sok (pictured) working up to 14-hour days, often every day. (Photo: Mark Van Streefkerk)
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