By Kathleen Mest | Photos by Monique Kuhlman
The popularity of the documentary Donut King introduced many of us to a new American Dream story. The story of Cambodian refugee Ted Ngoy, who started his American life in a refugee camp and through hard work, sacrifice and perseverance, created a Cambodian donut shop empire of more than 60 stores.
The documentary follows a roller coaster story of rags to riches to rags and brings to light the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge (see Exploring Cambodia Town on page 14). “Uncle” Ted sponsored over 100 immigrant families looking to build a new life and showed them a way to support themselves in America. A generation later, his legacy still inspires legions of Cambodian-owned donut shops, many of which are in Long Beach!
TAKE A BREAK FOR A “SWEET RETREAT”
Sweet Retreat Donuts is owned by the husband and wife team of Dary and Sreyrot Chan. You’ll find Dary in the kitchen– the baker, the heart of the business. You’ll find Srey in the dining room– the warm welcome, the sunshine of the business. Sreyrot is literally “sunflower,” her namesake in Khmer. In the shop, you’ll find a bright yellow mural on the wall painted by her sister and friend telling the story of their family. Definitely pause for a moment to take in this sweet reflection of their life.
I sit down with Srey to hear the origin of their shop and she smiles with misty eyes, “It gets me emotional. It was a passion project.”
Baking has long been Dary’s passion. He grew up helping his older brother and sister at their donut shops in LA and fell in love with it. Dary and Srey both attended CSULB and then both worked in the health administration field. But Dary continued baking.
While working as an accountant, he spent his spare time in baking classes at LBCC making and decorating cakes, and learning techniques to create french pastries and leavened breads. While they were dating, Dary would bring Srey sweet treats. “He won me over with his tiramisu,” she grins.
Dary took the leap when Srey was pregnant with their first child. She gave birth to their son right before the shop opened. She couldn’t go back to her healthcare job. This shop was their baby, too.
LET’S GET TO THE DONUTS
The donut flavors are rotated weekly and seasonally. They offer over 30 flavors daily PLUS more than 19 vegan flavors!
What makes the donuts special is their housemade icings – passion fruit, pistachio, rose, taro, seasonal fruit flavors and more! One popular donut is the Blueberry Lemon Fresh Fruit. “It’s a blueberry cake donut, with housemade lemon icing topped with fresh fruit. We’re bad at making donut names,” Srey laughs. Another favorite, not surprisingly, is the Oreo Peanut Butter donut.
Srey’s favorite is one of the Madeto-Order donuts, the Strawberry-filled Donut Sandwich, “It reminds me of a strawberry shortcake.” It’s a glazed donut cut in half filled with sliced, fresh strawberries, fresh whipped cream and housemade strawberry sauce. I can vouch – it’s delicious!
They love their regulars and it’s the reason they have vegan donuts. Srey humbly remarks, “A customer requested vegan donuts. So we tried and tried.” And succeeded! They are proud to serve housemade vegan donuts, fresh every day, available in both cake (daily) and raised (Friday-Sunday only).
The shop also offers coffee, tea, smoothies, milk tea and slushies. The favorites include: Strawberry Hibiscus, Rose Milk Tea and their signature blended Kona Mocha, a chocolate espresso blend.
Sweet Retreat Donuts | 924 PCH, Long Beach, CA 90806 | (562) 612-0506
“SIMONE’S” DONUT SHOP
On the busy corner of Palo Verde and Stearns, you will find the quintessential donut shop. Simone’s IS the neighborhood donut shop. “How are you?” the cashier asks as a gentleman walks inside, “The same?” The man replies, “Sure!”
In the morning, you can grab a glazed donut and a hot coffee here for $2.70, sit down and read a newspaper. In the EARLY morning, grab a dozen with your friends and nurse your hangover– it’s open 24 hours!
The walls of the dining room are lined with faded photographs displaying a generation of customers. Some photos are missing which I find out later is because customers will see pictures of their grandparents that they haven’t seen before and ask to keep the memento.
Simone’s is one of the many Cambodian-owned donut shops in Long Beach. Owner Kong Eap immigrated to the United States during the second wave of refugees after the fall of Khmer Rouge. He was sponsored by a church in Michigan to come abroad. He was living in a small town with few job opportunities and… it was cold!
His friend in California was a manager of a Winchell’s Donut and offered him a job. So, Kong traveled to the west and started baking donuts in Anaheim. He worked at the donut shop in the morning and at a liquor store in the evening. Kong was resourceful and saved, saved, saved. In 1985, about 3 years after moving to California, Kong bought his first donut shop, Seaside Bakery in Newport Beach. In 2003, he bought Simone’s in Long Beach. Along with the 2 shops, he also acquired Loma Liquor in Long Beach. Some days, he would drive over 200 miles managing his businesses.
Luckily, Kong’s businesses have become a family affair. His son, Roger, now manages Seaside. His sister-inlaw manages Loma Liquor. In Simone’s, you will find Kong, Joy (his wife), Ann (his sister-in-law), his daughters, Christina and Melissa. And they are grateful for their ten employees. It takes a lot to run a 24/7 shop!
Kong is transitioning the business at Simone’s to Melissa and Christina. “It is a verrrry slow process,” smiles Melissa. The reason for the slow transition is because Melissa has essentially started another business within Simone’s – Custom-decorated made-to-order donuts. And it’s a success!
On a typical weekend, Melissa will complete 10-13 orders a day, with about 2-3 dozen donuts per order!
You are going to find the oldies but goodies here - old-fashioneds, bars, twists, crullers, etc. All the regulars have their favorites, but their top sellers are the cronut, blueberry cake donut, and apple fritter.
I ask Kong what’s his favorite donut? Immediately, he says, “Maple bar.” Melissa agrees, “Dad eats a maple bar donut everyday. And a cup of coffee. He’s a creature of habit.”
And Kong’s connection to Ted Ngoy, the “Donut King?” He lived in the same Cambodian village as Ted growing up!
THE STORY OF SIMONE’S
It was serendipitous.
After completing my interview with Kong and Melissa, a young woman approached me. She introduced herself as the granddaughter of Simone, the namesake and original owner of Simone’s. Anabelle Dimang Brown just happened to have stopped into her grandparents’ former shop on her way through town. Right moment, right time!
Her grandfather, Rothary Dimang Sisowath, immigrated from Cambodia at the start of the Khmer Rouge. Needing to leave his life as an Air Force Colonel behind in pursuit of safety for his family, he eventually arrived in the city of Long Beach. Rothary trained as a baker and manager at Winchell’s Donut and eventually opened several donut shops. One of them was Simone’s, named after his wife.
Kong Eap is the 3rd owner of Simone’s, and the previous owner was also Cambodian. Simone’s had such a strong community following that Kong wanted to keep the name.
FROM GRIEF TO HOPE
Sadly, Anabelle’s grandfather passed away last spring, but it was a catalyst for her to learn more about her grandfather’s life and how deeply rooted her past is to the small yet mighty donut. Many of Anabelle’s relatives own and operate their own donut shops to this day. Speaking further to her family and grasping how influential donut shops have been for them, she has heard all types of stories of how her relatives grew up working at the shops, how some relatives knew Ted Ngoy and went to his social gatherings long ago at his large estate in Mission Viejo.
Anabelle resides in Orange County but from time to time, she stops by Simone’s to grab a bite (a sugar donut and a spinach kale cheese croissant to be exact), and sometimes with her grandmother Simone. A baker herself, Anabelle is a “cookie crafter” and creates whimsically decorated sugar cookies of anime characters, cartoon characters, cute animals, and more. But like a moth to a flame, the pull of her own donut journey is calling to her… Anabelle, welcome to the family business.
You can follow along Anabelle’s baking adventures on Instagram at @bananabellebrown.
Simone’s Donuts | 6400 E Stearns St, Long Beach, CA 90815 | (562) 493-4104