"Before we opened the business, I didn't eat doughnuts at all," said Dorra Yonn, the owner of Star Donuts in Lodi.
Her husband and co-owner Jim Yonn, learned everything about the doughnut-making business for a decade before he took a chance and opened Star Donuts in 2002, redesigning a storefront on Kettleman Lane that once housed a sandwich shop.
These days, Dora Yonn said she just has to have a steaming cup of coffee and doughnuts each morning. Her favorite? Raised doughnuts, with maple icing.
The Yonns, like most doughnut shop owners locally and throughout California, are Cambodian immigrants who learned the trade from fellow refugees who entered the United States in the 1970s and '80s.
None of the area's doughnut shop proprietors could think of a doughnut shop that isn't operated by Asian immigrants.
The Cambodian-born owners of doughnut shops in Galt and Lodi said they came to the United States without knowing a word of English, without knowing what to expect, and without modern work skills.
Dora Yonn said one of the few desserts she enjoyed as a child was sweet rice, although her husband recalled eating doughnuts in a refugee camp. Kong Caeng, whose son Phanna Ouk owns J and D Donuts in Lodi, said she first tasted a doughnut from American aid workers in a Thailand refugee camp.
Dora Yonn said she arrived in Texas and started work picking cucumbers. Farm work was familiar, as many Cambodians worked in rice fields, she said. Jim Yonn traveled to several states, chasing after jobs promised by acquaintances.
Others said they tried to learn new skills, or use what they did know to get jobs mainly in the service industries. Some said even those positions were hard to come by, especially with the language barrier.
Even though doughnuts were uncommon in Cambodia, many of them found promise with doughnut companies.
A 2000 report from "Asian Week" magazine said the number of Cambodian-owned doughnut shops started increasing in Southern California about 1976. The article said 90 percent of doughnut shops in California were owned by Cambodians.
Mark Say, owner of Fancy Donuts at the Galt Plaza, said his father learned the business from a Thai friend who was a baker. Getting into doughnuts was inexpensive, Say said, and Cambodians were eager to train others who found themselves in a strange land with few other opportunities. Doughnut-making equipment and even entire businesses were sold from one Cambodian to another.
"We had no experience. (With) the language barrier, it was a way to make a living," Say said.
Say and other owners said the number of Cambodian-run doughnut shops is decreasing because there are fewer Cambodian immigrants. But they said Filipino and Vietnamese immigrants are the ones now taking over the industry.
Local shop owners agreed that running a business can be a gamble. They work long hours without the promise of profits, but it has been worth it. They start making dough and shaping doughnuts in the middle of the night. They fry and sell doughnuts until it's evening again, forcing couples to sleep odd hours and trade shifts to watch their children.
Say, who has a degree in criminal justice from California State University, Sacramento, said he has enjoyed working with his wife, Anna Say. They took over the Fancy Donuts name about six years ago, from another Cambodian couple.
"You should enjoy what you do, and I really enjoy making doughnuts," he said.
Doughnut-making proved to be more than just a source of income, but also a way for the immigrants to embrace new freedoms. They also found an opportunity to teach their children about working hard in order to succeed.
"Back there we had no plan for our future. We just were out in the farms, picking rice, fishing," Jim Yonn said.
Chi Lim of Village Donuts in Lodi said he realized owning a business meant he would never again work for anyone else.
When Lim arrived in Texas, he worked as a mechanic in a shipping yard. After working at doughnut shops in California, he took over the Village Donuts company in 1991 from a Cambodian couple who opened up shop at the corner of Ham Lane and Lockeford Street in 1987.
"Doing a small business was my dream," he said. "I wanted to give my children bigger dreams … Now I work for myself, it's my freedom to work hard in the U.S."
History of the doughnutThere are dozens of shapes, toppings and glazes for the sweet, deep-fried pastries. The doughnut's history, however, is not as clear.
One story says that in 1874, Danish sea captain Hanson Crockett Gregory was eating a fried cake, undercooked as usual, and accidentally impaled it on a spoke of his ship's wheel.
The Salvation Army helped make doughnuts popular. In 1917, workers attending to soldiers in Montiers, France, made dough with water and leftover flour. They used a tube of Vaseline "Camphor Ice" lip balm to make the holes before frying them in soldiers' helmets.
There are two basic types of doughnuts, those with yeast and those without. The essential ingredients are flour, sugar, salt, milk and eggs.
Sources: FoodTimeline.org, inventors.about.com, epicurious.com.
First published: Tuesday, February 6, 2007