In 2017, Phing Yamamoto left Apple to make donuts and couldn’t be happier for the change. Yamamoto is the manager of the Colonial Donuts at 3318 Lakeshore Ave. in Oakland. Her mother Ching Ung and father Phey Yam own the business. “I wanted to spend more time with my family,” she said.
Yamamoto describes her old life in Silicon Valley as a set of “golden handcuffs.” Her work in product marketing finance at Apple paid well, but never stopped. “I was getting on the shuttle at 7 o’clock in the morning, and then coming home at 7 o’clock at night, working really long days and I was like, ‘This isn’t what I imagined my life being.”
The breaking point was when she had to work during her son’s first birthday. She left Apple soon after.
Now while she sometimes has to go in on a day off or work late hours at Colonial — the shop is open 24 hours — it never feels like a sacrifice. The work feels meaningful, she has the immediate power to improve a customer’s day, she’s with family, in the family business, and she feels part of a community.
“I still get customers that know me from when I was little working at the shop, who come up to me and say ‘So you left Apple?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I traded Apples for donuts,’” she said. “And I’m happy.”
Yamamoto is a “donut kid,” one of thousands of second-generation Americans who have grown up in their families’ donut shop. One Berkeley-based documentary project aims to tell her story, and other California donut kids like her.
“We’re motivated by good stories, modern California history, and humanizing immigrants,” said Jaspal Sandhu, professor at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, and a founder of Pink Box Stories, an ongoing documentary project that tells the story beneath the glaze.
We’re motivated by good stories, modern California history, and humanizing immigrants. — Jaspal Sandhu, founder of Pink Box Stories
Pink Box Stories is an all-volunteer effort that includes former New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Oregonian reporters, professors and students from UC Berkeley and USC, donut kids and others.
California loves a good donut. Estimates peg the number of donut shops at around 3,000 locations for the state, and around 1,500 just in the L.A. metro area. Even more remarkable, more than 90% of those shops are independently owned, and around 80% are owned by Cambodian immigrant families. Families like Yamamoto’s, who immigrated first from China to Cambodia, and then generations later to California.
Donuts aren’t particularly Cambodian. But donut shops are extremely Cambodian-American, largely thanks to Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee known as the L.A. Donut King, an influential figure in the donut industry and the reason so many donut shops (including Colonial) use pink boxes.
Ngoy’s story has been told often, most recently in a book of the same name. The pink box may be Ngoy’s legacy, but Pink Box Stories wants to do more than alert readers to the existence of Cambodian-owned donut shops and the origins of those rosy cardboard cartons.
“Our interest has been in getting past that,” said Sandhu. Pink Box Stories aims to go both broader and deeper, telling the stories of individuals, families, businesses and the communities they support.
“What resonated with me is to be able to share stories of people,” said volunteer Debbie Kim. Kim is working on a piece on Yamamoto for Pink Box Stories. She had previously written a profile of Mayly Tao, the “Donut Princess” and Ted Ngoy’s niece. Though Kim is not a donut kid herself — her parents opened a dry cleaner after immigrating to Orange County from Korea — she said their stories felt very familiar to her upbringing. “I got really connected to the stories and saw so many parallels,” Kim said.
It’s more than just donuts. There’s a whole history behind it. What’s going on behind the sign, getting to know the families, and what’s been passed on generationally. — Debbie Kim, Pink Box Stories contributor
“It’s more than just donuts. There’s a whole history behind it. What’s going on behind the sign, getting to know the families, and what’s been passed on generationally,” said Kim. “The stories are always more than just ‘we sell donuts.’”
“I think a lot of it is really community,” Kim said. “That’s what we see in a lot of these places. That they can’t see this place without the community.”
That community goes some way towards explaining the abundance of independent donut shops on the West Coast. Financial factors that have gutted independent grocery stores, cafes, gas stations, and other venues where consumers go to get fueled haven’t affected California’s thriving donut sector in the same way.
The story of donut shops in California is a story of immigration and entrepreneurship. Even if “America runs on Dunkin’,” California most definitely does not. The nation’s largest donut retailer has only a little more than 30 locations in the state. Krispy Kreme, the nation’s second largest donut chain has 31. Southern California darling Winchell’s comes out ahead with 61 in state locations, but even lumped with the other two, the three make up less than 5% of California’s donut retail, with the remainder independently owned, or franchises in regional chains.
“I think it has a lot to do with community and us — as Californians — in our pride in our communities and independent donut shops,” said Sandhu. “I feel like you don’t see that with businesses as much anymore.”
Sandhu isn’t a donut kid. He didn’t grow up in a donut shop. But like Kim and Yamamoto, and like most of the crew behind Pink Box Stories, he is the child of immigrants. His family immigrated from India to the UK and then to the US. “If you look at our team, everyone has roots here and seeds somewhere else,” he said.
Sure, Sandhu likes donuts, but he started Pink Box Stories because he can understand and admire the obstacles to entrepreneurship when there’s a language barrier, or financial barrier, or uncertain legal status, and because he believes that for both people and businesses “made in America” doesn’t have to mean “born in America.”
“It feels important and it feels even more important now to do this,” said Sandhu. “Everything that’s happened the last two, three years has made this work more important.”
Pink Box Stories finds most of their stories and contributors via word of mouth or, on occasion, just by walking into interesting looking donut shops. Best case scenario, they get new material and a donut. Worst case scenario, just a donut.
“We’re not trying to make a buck off this,” said Sandhu. “Our main goal is to tell peoples’ stories and get more people to share theirs with us.”
“We want people to have the opportunity to see the humanity within one another.”
To that end, Pink Box Stories has recently partnered with Photovoice, a documentary project of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s office of Community Development to offer portraits of what independent, economic development and entrepreneurship look like. Pink Box Stories does more than collect first-hand accounts of the pursuit of the American dream, they offer portraits of the ones who are making it. “This is part of the American fabric,” said Sandhu.
Both Kim and Sandhu have gone to so many donut shops across the state, neither could name a favorite. “I don’t know if I can personally say one,” said Kim.
But Kim admits that she does have a particular pastry she looks for at each one: “The old fashioned donut is what I check at every shop.” Like a good vanilla ice cream, or a plate of pasta and red sauce, it’s the basic unit, the litmus test that determines a shop’s overall quality for her.
Sandhu likewise demurs from naming names. “I won’t pick a favorite,” he said. “But I will say one that has a special place in my heart is King Pin in Berkeley.”
In 2003, Sandhu moved to Berkeley as a graduate student and was living at International House with students from Brazil, the UK and elsewhere — “a motley crew,” he said — most of whom were undergraduates, which put a limit on late-night hangouts they could all attend. But King Pin Donuts on Durant Avenue was only three blocks away from I-House and open till 3 a.m.
“We would know the schedule, and what time donuts would be coming out fresh,” said Sandhu. “So we would stroll down the hill at the right time.”
“The most beautiful thing was early morning, a little after midnight — so that early — and they’d be taking fritters out,” he said. “There is nothing so magical as a hot, straight out of the fryer, apple fritter.”
“I mean it’s obviously amazing and it tastes great,” said Sandhu, “but I think it gets at what makes a place your favorite. It’s not just about the taste and the food, it’s the memory.”
Pink Box Stories is always seeking new connections and contributors. Contact them on Instagram at @pinkboxstories or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.