L.A.'s Doughnut Scene is Fried and Joy

How have L.A.’s mom-and-pop doughnut shops beaten out corporate competition? We meet the people behind their success. 

L.A.'s Doughnut Scene is Fried and Joy

Photography by DYLAN + JENI

Drive around L.A. long enough and you’ll spot businesses that are endangered species elsewhere in the country: mom-and-pop doughnut shops—lots of ’em. Most neighborhoods have at least one family-run establishment, and locals are rabidly loyal, making for a tradition that stands out against the homogeneity of national chains. “As America inches toward national sameness, plenty of people in L.A. still favor homegrown, family-run, indie businesses,” says Joshua Lurie, an L.A. food writer who blogs at FoodGPS.com and eats plenty of local doughnuts. But to really understand the charm of these eateries, and their survival, you have to get to know the owners, each of whom has fried their way to the American Dream as the shop changed the trajectory of their lives, provided opportunities for their children and allowed families without much money to become entrepreneurs. Here’s a look at five wonderful L.A. doughnut shops and the independent spirit that keeps them going.

PRIMO’S DONUTS

Ralph and Celia Primo (above) are old-school. They call themselves Mr. and Mrs. Primo. They know their customers’ names, they ask children when their birthdays are, they beam with pride and joy when they see multiple generations of families come into the shop. “Everybody’s great here,” says customer Jesse Flores, who drives over 20 miles to West L.A. for his beloved treats. “The owners greet you every single morning.” Flores loves the buttermilk doughnuts, one of the many classic flavors Primo’s serves.

The shop, which puts out hot, fresh doughnuts made with pure vegetable shortening every morning, dates back 61 years. “I like to say that it’s terrific to be young and stupid because nothing can hold you back,” Ralph says.

In 1956, Ralph and Celia had bid on a house, but the owner decided not to sell. “I had this $500 cashier’s check I was going to use as a down payment,” Ralph says. While they were driving around town, their eldest son, a toddler at the time, spotted a doughnut shop and screamed, “Doughnut! Doughnut!” Ralph went inside, asked about the possibility of getting a part-time job and found out that the owner was going broke and wanted to sell the place for $2,000. Ralph offered the $500 check as a down payment. The owner declined, but gave Ralph two days to come back with $2,000. “It’s almost like a fairy tale,” Ralph says.

The Primos bought the shop and almost went broke themselves a few times, but they got help from family and built a business that allowed them to buy a house, investment properties and a lot more. “It’s been a great joy to say that it’s all because of Primo’s Donuts and because he and I devoted our life to doing what the customer wants,” Celia says.

As for their eldest son, Ralph Jr., he helps his parents run the shop and is looking at expansion. This family business now spans three generations as Ralph Jr.’s son runs Primo’s Facebook account, and his nephew is in charge of Snapchat and Instagram. “Without boasting, I think we are the epitome of the American Dream,” says Ralph.

 

Teresa Ngo (right) with her parents, Hugh and Sue Ngo. The family immigrated from France after fleeing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.


BLINKIE’S DONUTS

Blinkie’s Donuts in Woodland Hills dates back to the 1950s, so it’s not surprising that it’s known for throwback flavors. “Generally, I gravitate toward classic options like blueberry old-fashioned, chocolate raised and crumb raised,” says food blogger Joshua Lurie, who’s been visiting Blinkie’s since 2004 and even served their doughnuts at his wedding.

But owner Teresa Ngo, who’s operated the shop with her father/baker, Hugh, since 2002, is keeping things modern and multicultural with new flavors like mango Tajin (inspired by Mexican fruit carts) and Thai iced tea.

“I just wanted to be a little different,” Ngo says of her new flavors. “I used to have this mentality of, ‘Just do one thing and do one thing right.’ But all of a sudden, everybody’s a foodie, which is great. Doing one thing just gets boring. I can’t have a chocolate doughnut every day, as much as I love chocolate. I need something new.” Judging from the crowds, everything they serve is popular—and often sells out before the posted noon closing time.

“L.A. likes the mom-and-pop feel,” says Ngo, who is Chinese-Cambodian and whose parents fled Cambodia for France during the Khmer Rouge era. “Every single shop is so different in so many ways. Every place has something special. It’s a community hangout rather than a big corporation.”

Though her parents had made a nice life for themselves in France working in the jewelry business, Ngo came to L.A. because they were the victims of a violent robbery. “My parents were beat up in our house,” she says. “We lost everything in five minutes.” Ngo initially saw her doughnut shop as “a stepping-stone” toward a better life, but she now realizes it’s much more than that. “Honestly, it’s been so good, and we’ve gotten such love,” she says. “Our customers are like our family. We’re not going anywhere.”



THE DONUT MAN

Jim Nakano (above) was gainfully employed at J.C. Penney in the early ’70s when his wife, Miyoko, gave him a bit of a nudge. “Why don’t we start our own business?” she said. Jim tossed out a few ideas: “Hamburgers? Mexican? Pizza?” Then, she said, “I like hot doughnuts.” The rest is history. In 1974, they opened The Donut Man in Glendora, at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, a location that turned out to be serendipitous. “On the other side of the mountain over here, there used to be a lot of strawberry growers,” says Nakano. One year, after an extraordinary harvest, a grower approached him about making a strawberry doughnut, and he and a baker friend came up with an oversized version that featured a cluster of whole berries. Nakano started selling the vibrant red treats and quickly added a fresh peach variation as well.

Since then, his seasonal strawberry and peach doughnuts have brought big crowds from all over the L.A. area to his shop on Route 66, but he’s also known for his foot-long tiger tails, and customer Richard Kee drives over from La Verne regularly for chocolate glazed and Bavarian creams. “It’s consistent quality,” Kee says. “I know these are going to be good every time.”

Nakano is a third-generation Japanese immigrant, and Miyoko is from Japan. “She handled the front end for six years, then we had a kid,” Nakano says. “She’s the one who gave the Japanese service. She made sure the customers are taken care of. When she saw a car, she knew who it was. She had their coffee and doughnuts ready. She would talk to the customers and build great relationships.”



STAN’S DONUTS

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—that’s the mantra for third-generation baker Stan Berman, who’s been running his shop since 1965, when he took over an existing bakery that evolved into Stan’s Donuts. “I have the exact equipment. The only thing I’ve changed is the mixer. I have the same bench, the same doughnut fryer, the same glazing setup.”

This is a huge point of pride for the 88-year-old Berman, who gets a kick out of interviewing clientele about how much they like his classic offerings. “I’ve had customers come in and go, ‘Oh, my God, I was here 25 years ago, and I had a blueberry old-fashioned, and I walk in today and the blueberry old-fashioned is still here.’ Why would I change?” he says with a shrug.

So he’s still making his famous buttermilk doughnuts, including the blueberry old-fashioned. He’s still got his devil’s food and peanut butter iterations. And he’s still making memories. Berman has served movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Steve McQueen. He’s become good friends with Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is partial to apple fritters.

“I made an unbelievable life for myself,” says Berman, who started cleaning pans at his father’s Philadelphia bakery when he was in elementary school and whom you can still see at Stan’s Donuts on Saturdays. “I am still enthralled with the way my life turned out. The opportunity for others is still available. You don’t need to have $2 million to go into business. You just have to have an idea and persistence.”

 

Mayly Tao, left, with her mother, Chuong Lee, and brother, Sean Tao


DK’S DONUTS & BAKERY

Purple ube doughnuts, bacon doughnuts, classic doughnuts, waffle-doughnut hybrids and the always popular double-decker doughnut-croissant hybrids known as O-Nuts—the variety at DK’s Donuts & Bakery in Santa Monica is overwhelming. “There’s that wow effect—there are so many!” says customer Rayson Esquejo, who blogs about L.A. food at 2liveanddineinla.com. “Plus, Mayly makes the experience all that much better. She takes the time to converse with all the customers.”

Mayly Tao and her brother, Sean, run DK’s, which their Cambodian-refugee parents, who fled Khmer Rouge bloodshed, bought in 1981. Both Tao and her mother, Chuong Lee, rise at 4 a.m. to work in the shop. “We’re doing weddings now because people are obsessed with doughnut walls,” Tao says, adding that she recently launched Donut Princess L.A., a spinoff delivery service. “After inheriting this doughnut empire, I decided I wanted to do something with it,” says Tao, who studied communications at UC San Diego. “I started by rebranding it, getting the word out, doing social media. Word-of-mouth now is you don’t tell one friend, you tell a thousand friends, you tell a million friends at once.”

Of the mom-and-pop success, she says, “People would rather have a hard-working immigrant family’s hand-cut doughnut that’s freshly made several times a day than something that’s just shipped frozen or made once a day.” How do they offer up to 120 varieties? “There’s literally a doughnut schedule where old-fashioneds are made at this time; then, the buttermilks are made at this time; the glazed are made at this time. During the whole Cronut craze, we had 20 kinds of O-Nuts.” The memory makes her pause. Tao’s “O-Nuts” were originally called “DKronuts."

“It was too similar to the name Cronut, which is trademarked,” says Tao, whose face brightens when she thinks about how getting a cease-and-desist letter created more buzz for her family-run business.