Donut even go there

April 24, 2015


The relentless commodification of Cambodia continues apace, with the news this week that US donut chain Krispy Kreme is to open 10 stores across the country. Joining Burger King, Dairy Queen, KFC, Swensens, Costa Coffee and Dominos, amongst others (no Starbucks or McDonalds yet, though!), a little part of me dies every time I read about a new roll-out of some clean, well-managed, job-providing soulless corporate entity here. Especially when they say things like “This agreement … will enable us to bring our mission of touching and enhancing lives through the joy that is Krispy Kreme to the people of Cambodia.” But that’s just me.

And, to be fair, I can’t think of many places to buy donuts in Phnom Penh, should such an urge take you. Personally, I wouldn’t cross the road to eat a free donut. I seem to recall my brother having a pile of Krispy Kreme donuts as a wedding cake: a fact upon which I shall not comment further.

But it is kind of sad that it takes a vast US company to bring donuts to Cambodia, when Cambodians have a fascinating history with donuts, in America. Because the little sugary rings have acted as a lifebelt for thousands of Cambodian immigrants to the US for many years now.

Fleeing the Khmer Rouge, tens of thousands of poor and often illiterate Cambodians made it to the States from 1975 onwards, and a staggering amount went into the donut business. In Los Angeles, it is estimated that 80 percent of the 5,000 donut businesses are Cambodian-owned, and the figure is 90 percent in Texas. (In north-east Texas, there is even something called the Donut Trail, and every business is Cambodian owned. Glazing a trail, perhaps?)

The reasons for the rush to donuts is quite simple: the business is cheap to operate, needing not much more than flour, sugar and shortening, frying is easy to master, and the space required for sales is minimal. It is labour intensive though, and Cambodian families could manage that.

But there is another, more interesting reason for the Cambodian Donut Hegemony, and his name is Ted Ngoy.

Arriving in the US in 1975, Ngoy worked as a janitor in Long Beach. He managed to get hired by Winchell’s, a donut chain in southern California, and two years later, he had saved enough to buy the first of many dozens of donut stores. Within a few years, he had gone on to sell millions of doughnuts, made a fortune, bought luxurious homes, drove fast cars, holidayed in Europe, and had shaken the hands of three presidents.

Philanthropically, Ngoy would employ other Cambodians, and sell them stores to allow them to work their way up into entrepreneurial American society. Ngoy sponsored thousands of refugees, promising them work in his shops. At his peak, he owned 70 shops. In turn, those pioneers got their friends and relatives started.

By 1990, however, Ngoy’s gambling habit had taken over his life, and the Donut King’s fortunes plummeted. He eventually returned to Cambodia, penniless, and formed a useless political party, and then went back to the States. In 2005 he was discovered by the Los Angeles Times sleeping rough on the porch of a friend’s mobile home. “I don’t know who I am right now,” he told them.

In between, he had managed to secure Most-Favoured-Nation trade status for Cambodia after lobbying the US, making use of friends in the Republican Party.

Recently he has apparently been back in Cambodia again, most recently running a small real estate company on the coast.

Ted Ngoy in 2013

Ted Ngoy in 2013

Ngoy is pragmatic about the donut business in the US: “In America, many people do other things now. They have some more money, they go to other fields. But everybody starts from the base of doughnut shops and I think that’s a good start.”


2 Responses to “Donut even go there”

  1. David Hayhurst said

    I’ll bet Krispy Kreme and the like are desperate to find greener pastures in the developing world, now that – at least in North America – gluten is generating about the same level of hysteria as flakka, meow-meow or whatever may be the Angel Dust de Jour.

    How popular are these fast food franchises when they open? When I got to Taipei in 1991, almost every local person I met wanted to take me to a McDonalds. Apparently the first one that opened there a few years earlier had the heaviest one-day turnover in the company’s history. They were lined up for blocks on opening day.

    We’re off to Hong Kong May 15 to 24. see who on Lamma is still alive and not institutionalised or incarcerated. Any chance of you coming up?

    I asked around when we were there two years ago, and it looks like both the cops and the Triads are willing to let bygones be bygones, although Louie the Toucan and Bedbug Cheung may be less accommodating.

  2. that statement from Krispy Kreme about the purpose of the donut operations in cambodia doesn’t make sense to me. especially since i have so many relatives and family friends who own independent donut shops here in the States; it is their livelihood, they do it well, and their shops compete with shops like Krispy Kreme and still thrive.

    instead of krispy kreme opening shops in cambodia it should be cambodians who are introducing their newly acquired donut making skills from the States to wow people in cambodia. but i don’t know- there are so many delicious deserts and pastries in cambodia already, would local khmers even be interested in donuts?

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