Sharon Vilsack pulled into a San Clemente strip mall on a recent morning to perform one of Southern California’s most quintessential rituals — picking a pink box of doughnuts to share.
She chose carefully: an old fashioned, plenty of glazed, a few sprinkles, and a puffy maple bar, all tucked neatly into that familiar container that so often blends into the background of daily life here.
“I’m like one of Pavlov’s dogs when I see a pink box,” said Vilsack, 29, outside Rose Donuts & Cafe. “My mouth starts watering because I know what’s inside.”
The pink box is a distinctly regional tradition, one so ingrained it often requires an outsider to notice. The Northeast has Dunkin’ Donuts and its neon orange and pink box. The South has Krispy Kreme and its polka dot box. But come to Los Angeles and it’s the no-frills pink box, with signature grease marks, that commands counter space in our offices, waiting rooms and police stations.
“Any time you see a movie or sitcom set in New York and a pink doughnut box appears, you know it obviously took place in L.A.,” says Peter Yen of Santa Ana Packaging, a local manufacturer of the carnation-pink containers that cost about a dime each.
But unlike New York’s celebrated Grecian coffee cups, the pink box has endured with little fanfare, its origins something of a mystery.
One thing is certain, though, the pink box phenomenon could only happen here. Southern California is the undisputed epicenter of the doughnut world — a testament to our love affair with junk food you can handle behind a steering wheel. L.A. County alone has at least 680 doughnut shops, according to Yelp, about 200 more than New York City and double the number in Chicago’s Cook County.
Instead of national chains, the Southern California doughnut sector is dominated by mom-and-pop businesses run by immigrants, none more influential than Cambodian Americans.
Landing here as refugees in the mid-1970s to escape the Khmer Rouge, the Southeast Asian community quickly found a lifeline in the demanding doughnut business, giving it an outsized role in the expanding waistlines of countless Angelenos — and the spread of an unsung culinary icon.
For years, the doughnuts Stan Berman sold out of his eponymous Westwood shop were packaged in a neat white box with a smooth clay coating. But when the supplier of those boxes died in the early 1980s, Berman turned to the biggest local distributor at the time, a Pico Rivera company that had been around since the 1920s called Westco.
“They gave us pink boxes and I didn’t think anything of it,” said Berman, now 87.
What Berman didn’t know at the time was that a sea change was taking place in the doughnut business farther south in Orange County.
I’m like one of Pavlov’s dogs when I see a pink box. My mouth starts watering because I know what’s inside.
— Sharon Vilsack, 29
An ambitious Cambodian refugee named Ted Ngoy was building a vast network of doughnut shops and staffing them with hundreds of countrymen whose visas he sponsored. Ngoy (the “g” is silent) started in La Habra and expanded to Fullerton, Anaheim and Buena Park. It wasn’t long before Cambodian doughnut stores spread to L.A. County too, upending a market that had long been dominated by the Winchell’s Donuts chain.
Ngoy grew fantastically rich and bought a 7,000-square-foot mansion in Mission Viejo, a vacation home in Big Bear and a time-share in Acapulco. Then he squandered his wealth gambling in an epic reversal of fortune first chronicled in the Times in 2005.
“Ted could talk a bird out of a tree,” said Chuong Lee, who married Ngoy’s nephew and bought DK’s Donuts in Santa Monica in 1981. “He’s such a good businessman. But every time he’d go to Las Vegas, he’d lose one of his stores.”
Ngoy’s wife divorced him and he ended up sleeping on the porch of a friend’s Long Beach mobile home. But before all that, Ngoy set in motion a change that, for Angelenos, has made the color pink synonymous with sweets.
Experienced doughnut makers know you can’t skimp on ingredients. Switch regular wheat flour for cheaper potato flour and the doughnut becomes glutinous and sticks to your teeth. An otherwise good jelly doughnut can be undone by an inferior filling loaded with corn starch and too little fruit.
For decades, doughnut makers got their better ingredients from Westco. But even purveyors of glazes and sprinkles aren’t immune to corporate consolidation. In 1992, Westco was sold to CSM, a century-old sugar processing company from Holland that’s grown into a baking supply behemoth now headquartered in the suburbs of Atlanta. Westco’s business shifted to a brand CSM launched in 1998 called BakeMark.
I know they wanted to do red boxes, but the mills kept sending it back pink.
— Peter Yen, sales manager at Santa Ana Packaging
According to company lore, a Cambodian doughnut shop owner asked Westco some four decades ago if there were any cheaper boxes available other than the standard white cardboard. So Westco found leftover pink cardboard stock and formed a 9-by-9-by-4-inch container with four semicircle flaps to fold together. To this day, people in the business refer to the box as the “9-9-4.”
“It’s the perfect fit for a dozen doughnuts,” said Jim Parker, BakeMark’s president and chief executive.
More importantly to the thrifty refugees, it cost a few cents less than the standard white. That’s a big deal for shops that go through hundreds, if not thousands, of boxes a week. It didn’t hurt either that pink was a few shades short of red, a lucky color for the refugees, many of whom are ethnic Chinese. White, on the other hand, is the color of mourning.
Len Bell, president of Evergreen Packaging in La Mirada, first noticed the proliferation of pink boxes as a regional manager for Winchell’s in the early 1980s. Back in the Southland after a few years in Minnesota, Bell was amazed to see the doughnut business seemingly transformed overnight by Cambodian refugees, who proved quick studies and skillful businesspeople.
“Pink boxes have been around for a long time, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But they really came into vogue in the late ’70s and early ’80s simply because it was a less expensive box to produce and buy.”
The trend has caught on in other states too. Evergreen sells pink boxes in Arizona and Texas to relatives of local Cambodian doughnut shop owners.
And few pink doughnut boxes are more coveted than those found at Voodoo Doughnut, the outlandish Portland, Ore., shop that gave us the NyQuil doughnut. A trip to California 15 years ago inspired the store’s owner Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson to go pink. To this day, Voodoo’s slogan remains: “Good things come in pink boxes.”
Susan Lim was 12 when her parents, three brothers and one sister fled the Khmer Rouge in 1979 for the U.S. The family was taken in by Ngoy, Lim’s uncle, who lived in a five-bedroom house in La Habra. When Lim arrived at her uncle’s house, it was the first time she had ever seen a refrigerator.
“I thought it was a mansion,” said Lim, 49. “We were so happy just to see food on the table every day and not having to worry anymore if they will come to kill us today or tomorrow.”
Within five years, Lim’s parents were running multiple doughnut shops. Lim’s father baked and her mother worked the counter. The children were tasked with mostly menial jobs, none more tedious than folding stacks of pink boxes.
“We’d sit in the back and fold hundreds and hundreds of them,” Lim said. “And they always needed more on the weekends. After a while, I found it meditative.”
Lim now runs Rose Donuts & Cafe. The Orange County shop has used pink boxes since Lim’s parents bought the business in 1984. Recently, Lim replaced the larger of her two pink boxes (made for two dozen doughnuts) with a pricier brown variety that doesn’t require folding. She didn’t think anyone would notice. But a customer returned to say her children found the brown box unsatisfactory.
“They asked their mother, ‘Where’s the pink box?’” said Lim, who’s sticking with the new box.
Lim isn’t certain who first requested cheaper boxes from Westco. But after consulting relatives, including Ngoy’s ex-wife, she figures it may have been Ning Yen, a protege of Ngoy who went on to open doughnut shops, a doughnut supply distribution company called B&H (which was sold to BakeMark in 2005) and then box manufacturer Santa Ana Packaging.
It’s possible, she added, that Yen and Ngoy, who were business partners, may have requested pink boxes together.
Yen, who was traveling in Cambodia, couldn’t be reached for an interview. His son, Peter Yen, agreed it was possible that his dad first called Westco. He remembers his dad saying, back in the 1980s, he wanted red boxes to bring some much-needed good fortune to a community traumatized by war.
“I know they wanted to do red boxes,” said Peter Yen, 32, a sales manager at Santa Ana Packaging, “but the mills kept sending it back pink.”
Driving through Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he has mostly lived since 1992, Ngoy is tickled to see doughnut shops in his homeland. He can’t help but feel somewhat responsible.
“It all started with me and one shop and it became thousands of people,” Ngoy said.
He could have just as well been talking about the boxes, though his memory is fuzzy about whether it was he or Ning Yen who asked for cheaper boxes.
“We doughnut makers were all about saving money,” Ngoy said. “Why buy the more expensive white? Save a few pennies and make big bucks.”
How the pink box has persevered so long may be about more than just dollars and cents. Experts say the color triggers an emotional connection to sweetness that makes doughnuts more irresistible than they already are.
“It’s romantic and childlike and it entices you,” said Kimberly Marte, who teaches at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and helped Tesla Motors develop its hues. “It makes you crave sugar.”
There are hints, though, that the pink box may soon be passé.
Evergreen is getting more orders from shops wanting boxes with graphics and logos. Store owners want to stand out and they understand the inherent branding opportunity of customized packaging.
Evergreen’s printing room features a wall covered with pink and white pastry boxes bearing logos of some of the region’s most beloved bakeries and doughnut shops, including Du-par’s, the Donut Man in Glendora, California Donuts in Koreatown and DK’s Donuts in Santa Monica, which uses its glossy packaging to promote its Facebook, Instagram and Twitter handles.
The box is the work of Mayly Tao, who in recent years has re-branded her mother’s shop for the social media generation, attracting nearly 79,000 followers on Instagram.
When the cronut craze swept New York, it was DK’s that was the first to introduce a similar hybrid pastry in the L.A. area in 2013. Business at the shop tripled.
“There were lines out the door every day,” said Tao’s mother, Chuong Lee.
Tao was folding pink boxes for as long as she can remember. But to dedicate a career to the grueling work seemed to go against everything her mother had hoped for in raising a family in America. It’s a quandary facing myriad refugee shop owners. Should their children take over or should they cash out of the business?
Tao argued firmly for the former and has relished the opportunity. Introducing a new box — one adorned with winged doughnuts flying above a beach tableau — is no small feat for a store averse to change. But Tao insisted on a fresh look, despite her mother’s reservations.
“People seem to like the new box,” said Lee, 53. “To me, I don’t care as much. People come for good doughnuts.” But, she added, “I’d rather pay half the price for the old pink box.”
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Additional credits: Animations by Swetha Kannan | Design and development by Sean Greene