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How donuts fuelled the American Dream

How donuts fuelled the American Dream

In Los Angeles, donuts have brought wealth (if not health) to new arrivals. David Samuels hits the road in search of the lord of the rings

In Los Angeles, donuts have brought wealth (if not health) to new arrivals. David Samuels hits the road in search of the lord of the rings

David Samuels | August/September 2019

The most visible donut in Los Angeles floats above the corner of La Cienega and Manchester Boulevards in Inglewood. Thirty-two-and-a-half feet in diameter and painted an unearthly yellow, it is perched on the roof of a single-storey bakery called Randy’s Donuts, where it has captured the attention of motorists since 1954.

Once part of a chain called Big Donut, which had ten outlets across Los Angeles that were famous for their enormous donut signs, Randy’s now serves as a landmark in prime gang territory in South Los Angeles. The giant ring has appeared in dozens of LA rap videos, explains my friend Jeff Weiss, an expert on the local rap scene and a friend of many of its top performers, including Drakeo, who is currently being held in the city’s notoriously decrepit and brutal Men’s Central Jail.

Randy’s is neutral turf in Los Angeles’ bloody gang wars. Neither the Crips nor the Bloods want to gun down somebody’s aunt as she queues for a donut after a 12-hour stand-up shift waiting tables or attending to the sick and dying.

In the rest of America large, centralised donut bakers such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme hold sway, but neither has successfully penetrated the Los Angeles market. In LA, donuts are local and hand-made. The most famous chain is Winchell’s, which was slyly bought out by its smaller rival, Yum Yum, in 2004. The 126 shops that bake Winchell’s and Yum Yum donuts twice daily onsite in the greater Los Angeles area do battle with dozens of local independent shops, which exist in greater numbers here than in any other American city.

The donuts at Randy’s come in all flavours, including maple, a local favourite. Jeff and I queue there for a dozen rings on a rainy afternoon around rush hour. We take a bite or two of each before throwing the remainder away. Randy’s donuts are heavy, filling and sweet. They’re comfort food for people who work hard and stress-eat to escape, just for a moment, from the police, their children, their neighbours and a city that often treats its citizens like dirt. The donuts give me a feeling of warmth, but they’re not what I came to Los Angeles to discover. I came to LA to find the transcendental donut. If any city might harbour it, it is this one, with its multitude of independent bakeries, each guarding their own secrets.

Donuts can be flavoured, decorated and coated in thousands of ways, but there are really only two basic types: yeast and cake. The division between the tribes of yeast-eaters and cake-eaters is absolute and irreconcilable. Yeast donuts are tangy, chewy and light, and taste something like a cross between sourdough and a croissant. Cake donuts look, feel and taste like cake. I am a yeast-donut person, which means that I think that cake donuts are for babies.

No one truly knows where donuts come from, who first brought them to California or why they remain so popular here. But you can always find a donut shop in LA, no matter which exit you take off the freeway. Donuts are the soul food of a place that is often accused of lacking a soul. They are the sticky, messy, waist-expanding ying to the yang of Southern California’s sun-kissed beaches and taut-and-tanned infatuation with wellness. They are the fruit of thousands of freeway entrance-ramp deep-fryers, eaten on the run by late-shift junkies and early risers with one hand on the steering wheel. Put your eye to the hole in a donut and you might glimpse the answer to the mystery of how Los Angeles continues to cohere, even as the languages and cultures of Angelinos multiply.

As bad as things can get for the poor, Los Angeles still invites the world to dream. Everyone here came from someplace else, pushing forward while struggling to survive. Donuts offer a key to understanding the city because each wave of newcomers has made them – Okies from the American interior in the 1930s and 1940s, Vietnamese and Laotians in the 1970s and 1980s, and, to the present day, incomers from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. The recipe is simple. The basic ingredients – yeast, milk, flour and sugar – are mixed and then quick-fried in oil. Months of long, hot, stressful labour in donut shops turn migrants into Americans who, in their turn, modify the idea of America that is passed on to the next generation of strivers. Opening a donut shop is an affirmation of the belief that anyone can become an American, no matter where they come from or what language they speak.

One reason for the enduring power of donuts is their simplicity. They are easy to make; everyone likes them. Many cuisines around the world have a place for sweet, fried dough. Perhaps that explains why immigrants to Los Angeles have gravitated towards making and selling them. Donuts represent an achievable, straightforward path to an American life into which one can assimilate and from which one can profit. The donut embodies the ideal of a unified nation, even in partisan times when Trumpists declare immigrants to be criminals, and progressives often portray America itself as a historically, and perhaps inherently, racist enterprise.

So I set off to eat my way into the heart of the nation. I sampled delicious yeast donuts at Dad’s Donuts in Burbank and enjoyed a superior chocolate cake donut at Daily Donuts.

Jeff and I finished our night at Stan’s in Westwood. I ate my first LA donut there when I was 21 years old, and they still tasted just as good, with the same yeasty sour-sweetness in the kicker. When I had my first Stan’s donut, I was compelled to admit to myself that LA wasn’t simply the place of emptiness and anomie that New Yorkers like myself, raised on Woody Allen movies, imagined it to be. There were palm trees here and the swimming pool in my host’s backyard had a narcotic effect after a long day of doing nothing. It made sense that generations of New Yorkers had traded in cold winters and bagels for a place where people dressed for summer all year long and fresh-baked donuts were available on nearly every corner. It was hard to imagine that the week-old packages of Entenmann’s donuts I had bought from deli shelves in New York were in any way the same species of food.

I was happy to be back at Stan’s, but there were worrying signs. It was 9.30pm and the donuts still tasted fresh, but no one was buying them. We were the only people there. Jeff also pointed out that the store was half of its former size, and that the rest of the site was occupied by a take-out joint serving tofu and wok-fried vegetables. Was LA’s donut culture losing ground? If so, the idea of America itself might be in danger.

Frank Watase is living proof of the power of donuts to make American dreams come true. As a Japanese-American, he was brought up an outsider in his own country. Watase was born in a small fishing village called Hanapepe on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, just after the first world war. The path he took to donut heaven was not a predictable one. His studies at the University of Hawaii were interrupted on December 7th 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. After that, the university was closed down. Japanese-Americans became objects of suspicion, then legal sanction, and Watase was expelled from an officer-training course. He became a construction manager instead, building housing for American soldiers. After the war, he went to Harvard Business School where his studies were interrupted again, this time by the Korean war. He served as an officer in a front-line combat unit, before returning to Harvard and eventually graduating. Then he went back to Hawaii to run a construction business. It went bust.

He moved his family to Southern California where he answered a newspaper ad for a business manager. The ad had been placed by Phil Holland, who had recently opened a donut store. Holland then started two more shops. He later gave Watase an ownership stake before retiring from the business altogether. Watase expanded the new chain, called Yum Yum, and eventually merged it with Winchell’s, the industry leader, to create LA’s largest donut empire.

Aged 95, Frank Watase still arrives for work at the Winchell’s headquarters every day by 8am, though his son, Lincoln Watase, now runs the business. After attempting conversation with Frank for a minute, I ask if he knows where donuts came from. He pretends to be deaf. Then he insists that he might say the wrong thing. When I remark that he doesn’t look bad for a man of his age, he gestures to the Zimmer frame by his desk and shrugs.

For a moment, I feel sorry for him. Then I recognise something in his eyes that is familiar to me from a lifetime of playing poker. As I glance at the wall behind his desk, I see a photograph of the old man, taken only a few months ago. He is standing with a shovel in his hand, breaking ground for a new Winchell’s franchise. “You look pretty good in the photograph over there,” I suggest. He looks back at me.

“Oh,” he answers mildly. “I have good days and bad days.”

Now that the preliminaries are over, he begins to expound. Donuts have their distinctive ring shape because it exposes the maximum surface area to heat. With a bar-shaped cake, it’s much harder to get the inside to cook evenly. But I’m after something more than baking tips. He listens to my question with a serious expression, then pauses for at least half a minute before he answers.

“The question of where the donut comes from is the biggest mystery. There is very little written about it. Almost nothing,” he begins. “I used to question the manufacturers of shortening, flour and sugar. I asked them: what makes it taste good? What makes it look good? Where does it come from?”

When I ask him if he ever found out the answer, he smiles at me, the way a card sharp smiles at a mark. “I found in a book once, that when the Pilgrims, the early settlers, came here, before it was even America, they made donuts,” he answers. He claims to have forgotten the title of the book but remembers the story exactly: “They brought them with them on their boats.” When I suggest that the donuts must have been horribly stale, he explains that the first donuts were actually a kind of hard biscuit. “Donuts”, he declares with finality, “were the very first American food.”

Lincoln Watase remembers the day that his father got into the donut business. “He comes home wearing all white, and he’s got this big bag of day-old donuts, like a trash bag.” Even after Frank found work, the family were the poorest in their middle-class neighbourhood of Torrance, with garage-sale furniture and hand-me-down clothes. But with every year of hard work in the donut shops, the family Christmas tree got bigger.

When I suggest that his experience was like that of many families who emigrated from Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s and 1980s and went on to run Winchell’s stores, Lincoln Watase demurs. There was a divide between his father’s job and his home life, he says: as a child, he was obliged to concentrate on his schoolwork and never spent late nights baking donuts. Nonetheless, he sometimes worked in the stores after school. He remembers lifting the heavy bags of donut mix, and chasing away drifters and vagrants, and the fear that the next person who walked in might be holding a gun. He knows from his own experience how physically punishing and exhausting the business can be. “It’s very demanding and the pay’s not great,” he says. “I have a strong appreciation for the folks that are working in the stores.”

Our conversation takes place in an enormous warehouse that looks like the setting for the climax of a Quentin Tarantino movie. There’s a giant stainless-steel sugar silo, containing 55,000 pounds of sugar, and an evil-looking mixer that can blend 5,000 pounds of ingredients at a time. The pastry flour and cake flour flow from different silos. Then sugar and cinnamon are added. After it is blended in the warehouse, the mix is poured into 50lb bags, which are bundled onto pallets along with coffee, napkins and coffee cups, and delivered to Winchell’s and Yum Yum stores.

“So how many donuts do you make a day?” I ask, trying to tease out some information.

Like his father, he plays dumb. “I have no idea,” he says.

 

 

 

The army of South-East Asian immigrants who fortified the donut empires of Winchell’s and Yum Yum’s would become the chains’ stiffest competitors in the 1980s. The most feared among the independent donut-store owners was Ted Ngoy, the self-proclaimed Donut King of Southern California, who, at the height of his success, commanded a rebel fiefdom of over 50 shops.

Born in a small Cambodian village in 1942, Ngoy was sent by his mother to study in Phnom Penh, the capital. There he married into a family that was intimate with the Cambodian royals. He became a major in the Cambodian army and eventually the country’s military attaché to Thailand. These connections helped him flee Cambodia after the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Ngoy was penniless when he arrived in America in 1975, and ended up in Tustin, California, where he worked at a Mobil petrol station. Noticing that a nearby Winchell’s donut store was doing a brisk trade, he bought one of its wares. The pastry reminded him of nom kong, a Cambodian rice-flour treat he enjoyed as a child. When his shift ended, he bought a dozen more. He soon entered a Winchell’s employee training programme, as one of the company’s first South-East Asian trainees and, eventually, became the manager of a franchise in Newport Beach.

In 1977 a local policeman who liked Ngoy’s donuts, and knew of his interest in running his own business, showed him an advert for a nearby donut store that was up for sale. With the money he had saved – approximately $20,000 – Ngoy bought the store, Christy’s Donuts, and made it a success. He started a chain of donut stores in Orange County, many of which were also named Christy’s. While establishing his donut empire, Ngoy lived in a motor home, traversing the state in search of new locations and popping into existing stores to spot-check the donuts and ensure their freshness.

“The donut is a simple food made from just a few ingredients,” he wrote in his recent autobiography, “The Donut King: The Rags to Riches Story of a Poor Immigrant Who Changed the World”. “But go to any three donut shops and order the same kind of donut and you’ll begin to understand that they hide a surprising amount of complexity and nuance.”

Ngoy knew that small details – how often the oil in the fryer was changed, how long the dough was left to rise – accounted for dramatic variations in flavour and freshness. He employed Cambodian refugees and sponsored their visas. Many went on to start their own stores. According to a survey by the Los Angeles Times, by the mid-1990s there were 2,400 Cambodian-owned donut shops in California. The Donut King himself didn’t fare so well: he gambled away his stores, got divorced and moved back to Cambodia. He found Buddha and then Jesus, before eventually going into business again.

In retrospect, the demise of Ngoy’s donut kingdom served as a worrying omen for the fate of the LA donut business, which is far less healthy today than it was 20 years ago. Lincoln Watase bemoans the lack of new donut shops. “It took a lot of hard work, and these guys were not afraid of hard work,” he says of the so-called boat people like Ngoy who fled Cambodia in the aftermath of America’s wars in Asia. “You don’t see new, independent, South-East Asian donut shops opening today,” he adds.

Recent immigrants from Central and Latin America who populate the slums of Los Angeles today show little interest in the donut business. Culture plays a part. Many South-East Asian immigrants to America had been store-owners, traders or professionals in their own countries and were steeped in commerce. Arrivals from Latin America today are often from agricultural regions, with little experience of running businesses. Watase has attempted to recruit new immigrants to manage shops, even offering ownership stakes. But often, he says, new owners find someone else to run the stores, and they fall into decline.

The wider business climate in California may also inhibit independent donut entrepreneurs. The Tax Foundation, a non-profit outfit that looks favourably on corporate-tax cuts, recently ranked California 49th out of America’s 50 states for the severity of its tax burden. A lobby group called the Ameri­can Tort Reform Foundation reckons the state is a “judicial hellhole”. Between July 2016 and July 2017, California lost 138,000 people to other states. According to Joel Kotkin, an urban geographer, half of those fleeing the state made more than $50,000 per year and an even higher share were younger than 54. Many aspirational middle-class Californians are now heading to less heavily taxed and regulated jurisdictions such as Arizona, Oregon and Texas.

Kotkin’s picture of a state in which the middle class is being squeezed might seem at odds with the more familiar portrait of California as the world’s fifth-largest economy – the land of Google, Facebook and multi-billionaire tech investors. Yet though the big tech companies that boost Cali­fornia’s gleaming information economy are thriving, the state’s base of middle-class taxpayers and small-business owners is shrinking. The result is that California has become more starkly divided between the haves and have-nots, even as the state’s GDP per head continues to grow. In 2015 California was home to 43% of all families with children that received federal welfare payments, though the state has just 12% of the American population.

Life in LAlike the rest of the state, seems to be getting harder for the shrinking middle class, as well as for growing numbers of the poor and destitute. Ongoing warfare between violent gangs and the police does little to assure citizens of their safety; public transportation barely exists and traffic jams are ubiquitous; the Hollywood studio system is falling apart; the music business is in the toilet. Every evening armies of homeless Angelinos and migrants set up tents beneath highway overpasses and in empty parking lots.

These social and economic stresses have been disastrous for the donut business, says Watase. Few people are willing to take over existing donut franchises, much less start new ones. “As people want to retire”, Watase says, “they’re just basically looking to close the doors.” Changing food mores have also taken a toll. Choices have proliferated and people have grown more conscious of what they eat, so donut stores are facing the same challenges as fast-food outlets like McDonald’s. And immigrants today can often make money from their own cuisines. Why enter the donut trade when you can make banh mi and sell them out of your own food truck?

Yet Angelinos still want to eat donuts and, according to Watase, it’s still possible to earn a profit by feeding them, either by selling gentrified pastries for top dollar or occupying high-volume locations at ramps going on and off freeways. “It always surprises me, when I get up at 4.30 in the morning, how much traffic there is,” he says. “So it’s rare that someone’s going to drive that extra five or ten minutes.”

I continue my peregrinations. I find a delicious Texas yeast donut at Bob’s, thickly glazed the old-fashioned way; cupcake-like confections for creatives who line the pavement outside Sidecar Doughnuts in Santa Monica; and donuts made of brioche dough or something similar at Blue Star in Venice. None of the people who work at these stores appears to be an immigrant. Most are white hipsters, who proudly fly LGBTQ+ colours and put signs in their windows welcoming refugees, only a tiny minority of whom can afford to buy their offerings, which come in colourful yet bewildering combinations of flavours and toppings, and often seem intended to be Instagrammed rather than eaten.

I like the stale yeast donut I bought at DK’s Donuts on Santa Monica better than any of these, because I can taste the ghost of the simple and delicious donut it once was. I appreciate that the Laotian woman behind the counter can’t speak much English, but has been selling donuts all day. I love that what she is selling is equally legible both to her and to customers like me.

What has been lost in the multicultural evolution of fast food in LA is the model of assimilation, integration and self-betterment that donut stores embodied. How is a new immigrant, who can’t speak the language, supposed to become an American in Los Angeles? What does the word “American” even mean? Perhaps the American Dream, once yearned for by new immigrants and settled Americans alike, is not even possible these days – or can be invoked only with sneering irony. I don’t know the answer to these questions. Neither does Lincoln Watase. So I set off even deeper into the past in search of a man who might.

Mel Allison, now 90, first met Verne Winchell over 50 years ago. Winchell started LA’s eponymous chain and Allison became Winchell’s longest-serving employee and his friend. Because Winchell was a secretive man, there is little public information about him, especially compared with his fast-food contemporaries like Ray Kroc, who founded McDonald’s, and James McLemore and David Edgerton, who started Burger King. His life is something of a black hole.

Hoping to learn more, I meet Allison at a Winchell’s in the Valley, an hour from West Hollywood. He asks me whether I would prefer yeast or cake. When I choose yeast, he smiles.

In 1959 Allison went for an interview to become a Winchell’s franchisee. At the time, he recalls, Winchell had nearly 30 stores in the LA area and was planning to open three more in Sacramento, the state capital. Allison was put in charge of those stores. When Winchell failed to show up at their opening, Allison didn’t lose faith, telling his employees to treat every new customer as though they were the proprietor themselves. Two months later, a quiet, well-dressed man walked into his new donut shop. “Are you Mel?” he asked. That man was Verne Winchell.

Allison managed to piece together the basic elements of Winchell’s biography. After the second world war, Winchell made money renting jukeboxes to restaurants and bars – a business that was then controlled by Mickey Cohen, a notorious West Coast mob boss (this perhaps explains why Winchell never talked much about his early life). When he got out of that line of work, Winchell took his profits and bought some land in north-east Los Angeles. He planned to open a hamburger stand, but someone else got into burgers before him, so he turned instead to donuts.

“I don’t know how to make donuts, but you know I’ll find somebody that does and they’ll train me,” Winchell recalled to Allison. He inquired at the company that sold shortening, and a baker was then sent over to teach him the art.

Winchell’s plan for market domination was simple. He concentrated his stores in a single area, on corners with high traffic near freeway entrances, and then expanded outwards from this base. “Another thing he did that I thought was really neat”, says Allison, “is that he numbered all the stores, but he didn’t number them one to eight. He numbered them one, three, five, seven, so people would think he had more stores.”

At the height of the Southern California donut boom there were 2,000 donut shops between San Diego and Bakersfield, with Verne Winchell controlling the greatest share. Yet there were limits to his kingdom. In 1962 he decided to expand into Colorado, but the high altitudes stopped the dough from setting or rising properly. Winchell took a fryer up to a friend’s cabin in the San Bernadino Mountains and perfected a high-altitude donut mix, but the business never really took off in the Rockies. Winchell expanded as far east as Cleveland, but he never made it to New England, where the cold-weather confections of Dunkin’ Donuts hold sway.

Having reached his limit in the donut trade, Winchell moved up the ladder of the American fast-food business, acquiring Denny’s, a restaurant chain. He eventually cashed out of both during the 1980s. According to Allison, he emerged with $60m and moved to Las Vegas, where he didn’t have to pay income tax. He spent his last years eating broccoli and bran flakes at the casino buffets, and taking his private jet to his horse farm in Kentucky.

When Winchell died of a heart attack in 2002, a Mexican family drove from Salinas to Palm Springs for his funeral in a caravan of Lincoln Continentals. “They worked as farm workers and we gave them a store. Then his brother took a store. And they made a lot of money,” Allison says.

It’s a great story, though it’s probably exaggerated to some degree. Things were never that simple. Yet this sweet and circular version of the American Dream offered hope and sustenance to thousands of donut-shop owners and their families. It is hard for me to imagine that there was anything malignant about that dream. I only wish I could find something equivalent to it now.

At 6.30 in the morning, climbing up Topanga Canyon Boulevard, I finally come across what I have been searching for: a brightly lit storefront in an undistinguished strip mall in a thoroughly ordinary neighbourhood, just over a rise on a winding road near Malibu. It materialises out of the fog like a monastery in Tibet. Except, instead of a lost Golden Buddha inside, there are donuts. Blinkie’s donuts.

Blinkie’s opens at 5am and closes at noon, so that every donut it sells is fresh, says Teresa Ngo, the store’s owner. The variety of donuts on display in the glass cases is at once confusing and wildly exciting. More importantly, they are all delicious. The blueberry old-fashioned tastes like the greatest pop tart ever. The cinnamon-coconut cake donut is otherworldly. So is the maple bacon, with crisp, perfectly cooked shards of meat swimming in maple sugar, which in theory should make any normal person sick, except Ngo has created the perfect balance of savoury and sweet.

I will never come closer to donut heaven. What makes Blinkie’s so miraculous is not the unique artistry of its sugary confections. It’s the dough. The plain yeast donut is fluffy, with a hint of lemon. I shudder to talk about donuts like this, but the way that the lemon combines with the yeast is truly radical, doubling down on the sour to draw out the sweetness dialectically. The plain cake donut recalls, but doesn’t taste exactly like, French lemon cake. The lemony taste is a trade secret, Ngo says.

Talking with Ngo, I discover that the lemon top-note comes by way of Paris, where she was born and raised. This also explains the precision of her baking, a co-operative effort that is reminiscent of the high period of family donut shops in LA. “My father bakes the donuts fresh every night,” she explains, gesturing to her father, who is sitting by a giant mixer. When I say that in donuts, as in everything else, it’s the details that matter, she nods. “We do our best.”

Ngo tasted her first donut, covered in chocolate sprinkles, when she visited California as a three-year-old. Her older cousin had married a wealthy American in the donut trade. His name? Ted Ngoy. Maybe one day Teresa Ngo might have a donut mansion like her uncle-by-marriage.

A customer named Lauren chimes in, saying that she sends a box of Blinkie’s donuts to her niece in New York City every week. Someone, at least, is endeavouring to bring the country together. The idea that the American Dream lives on through the Ngos makes me happy. I’d be even happier if they opened a donut shop near my house in Brooklyn. Until then, I guess I’ll have to keep coming here.