King Donuts’ bizarre and endearing model has combined doughnuts, teriyaki, and laundry in Rainier Beach since 2003, as founders Chea Pol and Heng Hay added new components in an attempt to make rent and fill holes left in the community by the closure of other businesses. Now, with a fresh coat of mint-green paint on the outside to replace the original pink, a January reopening under its belt, and its third set of owners in as many years, the iconic eatery/laundromat’s future appears bright, despite the fact that it was recently on the brink of extinction.
“Like so many great things in life it was a little bit of a happy accident and coincidence of timing,” says Hong Chhuor of his family’s acquisition of King Donuts late in 2017. The original owners retired in December 2016 after decades at the helm (and following a brutal attack, whose perpetrator was sentenced last February to almost 12 years in prison). Only after they closed the shop did buyers emerge to revive it.
So when Hong’s mother and a cousin were in town for their youngest brother’s wedding last fall, they were chatting with King Donuts’ new owners, who made an interesting proposition. “There was some joke about ‘Hey, you wanna buy it?’ And my mom was like, ‘Actually, maybe,’” Hong laughs.
It’s not their first doughnut rodeo. Just like King Donuts’ founders, Hong’s parents are Chinese refugees from Cambodia who fled the Khmer Rouge slaughter in the 1980s. They landed in Los Angeles, where they helped Hong’s aunt and uncle operate a doughnut shop for years before opening their own in the tiny East Texas town of Jefferson. (They still own the shop but lease it to another operator now.)
This isn’t as coincidental as it sounds, as the story of Cambodian doughnut shops is well-documented. In 1995, for example, The New York Times noted that Cambodian refugees owned around 80 percent of the doughnut shops in California, thanks to a strong immigrant community inspired and encouraged by a refugee named Tony Ngoy, now known as the “Doughnut King.” (Talk about timing: His memoir, The Donut King: The Rags to Riches Story of a Poor Immigrant Who Changed the World, is being released on May 7, 2018.)
Good morning Seattle !! Ready for fresh donuts ? ☕️Posted by King Donuts on Sunday, January 7, 2018
Hong’s brother Travis is the family’s resident doughnut-maker. The recipes are all their own, and can go toe-to-toe with any other competitors in Seattle. The selection is wide, from chocolate- and sprinkle-coated to glazed or cinnamon sugar-coated rounds to cream-filled maple bars to doughnut holes, but has a definite focus on wonderfully puffy yeasted or raised varieties — typical of Cambodian shops for the cost and relatively low complexity, Hong suggests.
“When you’re making yeast doughnuts they’re not very expensive and don’t require a whole lot of technical skill. If you have the basics down of working with yeast and temperature and water, it’s relatively straightforward, unlike working with French pastries,” Hong says.
But Travis has expanded his repertoire over the years, adding crispy-edged buttermilk doughnuts and old-fashioned or cake doughnuts found more commonly in other Seattle shops like Top Pot and Mighty-O. “Recently he’s learned how to make French crullers,” Hong says. “If you go to [Vietnamese pho restaurant] Than Brothers and eat their cream puff but without the cream, that’s kind of what it’s like: fluffy, soft, chewy deliciousness.”
The savory food menu is limited to six or seven dishes including Seattle’s famous take on chicken teriyaki and a handful of Thai items, which were added by the previous owners. There’s fried rice and curry fried rice, with a choice of chicken, tofu, beef, shrimp, or a combination. Pad thai, pad see ew, yakisoba, and potstickers round out the selection. And of course there are laundry machines in the back.
Even though Hong’s family has no experience with teriyaki or laundromats, they decided to maintain and learn those aspects “because it’s what the community has come to rely upon and cherish.” For Hong, it’s all about being a good representative and steward of the longstanding business.
“When we were deliberating amongst ourselves about whether to move ahead with King Donuts, we had to ask, is it the right venue for us? I explained, if we take it on, it’s not just your run-of-the-mill space, it has its own history and community behind it, it’s a special place in people’s hearts whether because of their memories or just their practical needs in the Rainier Beach area,” Hong says. Unlike, say, Ballard or Capitol Hill, which have tons of meeting spaces to gather, eat, and drink, Hong doesn’t see many such places in Rainier Beach, and King Donuts has long filled that niche. “I said, if we move ahead, there’s going to be some expectations we have to meet.”
Hong says community members in turn have made the Chhuors feel welcome. “My mom and brother aren’t used to coming into a community where a lot of what is being said they can’t see and feel directly, but we have people who can be our eyes and ears and offer suggestions and coach us on how to handle these kinds of things,” like a misinformed blowup in a neighborhood group on Facebook early this year. “I can’t tell you how grateful my family and I are for how many people have come, whether we’ve known them for years or months or weeks,” Hong says. “They’ve been so protective and so supportive.”
The family is even discussing expansion, but that will present the challenge of hiring the right people from outside the family, something new for the Chhuors. “In the past they supported a town of about 3,500 (Jefferson), so it was enough to do it with just a few of them. Now it’s 3,500 people in one zip code, with people coming in from Bellevue, Renton; we’re not used to that, we can’t keep doing this and not drive ourselves crazy working 14 hour days.” Hong himself is communications manager for local nonprofit Asian Counseling and Referral Service, and handles what he can of business operations in the rest of his waking hours, a grueling schedule at present.
Once they’ve established a good team and bought themselves some breathing room, though, the Chhuors will decide on next steps, which might involve growing the eclectic product mix with more Asian food items or adding a new venue, whether truck or brick-and-mortar, for a pastry expansion. Speaking of family, one of Hong’s cousins is a trained pastry chef from France, so she’s eager to bring her expertise to the operation at some point.
In the meantime, the newly painted, deep-cleaned, and brightened up store is already a hit with locals. The grand opening drew hundreds of customers, with Travis making five times the normal amount of doughnuts and still selling out. The shop continues to attract a lot of diverse regulars, including groups of boisterous families with kids, older African-American men, and Filipino retirees who hang out and make the dining room their living room, Hong says. “My mom will test recipes on them, and just say, ‘Hey, if we sold this would you buy it?’”
Open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day but Thursday, King Donuts seems like it’s poised to serve the neighborhood exactly what it needs for many more years.
Correction, 2/9/18: An earlier version of this story incorrectly placed Hong’s brother at the scene of the discussion that led to the Chuorrs purchasing King Donuts; in fact Hong’s cousin was with Hong’s mother at the time. Hong’s job title has also been added along with the name of the nonprofit he works for.