Mom-and-pop shop's fans in a twist about proposed Dunkin' Donuts

This sentence, the one you're reading right now, was written in a doughnut shop that makes a sinfully good buttermilk bar.

Rainbow Donuts, South Hills Plaza shopping center, West Covina.

Home of the great doughnut rebellion.

Regular customers can't believe the misfortune their civic leaders are about to perpetrate upon their neighborhood clubhouse, lovingly owned and operated for 28 years by Sing Yam.

A Dunkin' Donuts is slated to open in 2017, practically next door, serving up a nasty bit of corporate competition for this beloved mom and pop.

Where exactly will Dunkin' Donuts be?

"Right there," says Rainbow loyalist Harry Jarvis, pointing toward a corner of the parking lot, site of future construction.

Holy hot pocket.

You could stand at Rainbow and toss a maple bar that far.

Why have two doughnut shops so close to each other that both may struggle and only one may survive?

"It's ridiculous," says Tom House, who turns 96 in June and was the first of hundreds to sign the "Say No to Dunkin Donuts!!" petition.

The steering committee to save Rainbow sent me a packet by express delivery, and it was fat as a jelly doughnut, stuffed with hundreds of signatures and accented with a bold headline:

"Say No To Dunkin Donuts!!!"

"Incredibly, a city that prides itself on supporting small business is now trying to destroy one of the most popular family owned businesses in West Covina. This cannot happen and we need your support," says the petition.

The regulars are no doubt partial to Yam's glaze twists, apple fritters and blueberry croissants, but what keeps them coming back to their neighborhood hangout is Yam's personal touch.

"The first time I came in here she asked my name," Jarvis says. "The next time I came in, she remembered my name. She sees people pull into the parking lot and she has their coffee and doughnut ready for them when they walk in."

"I've been coming here since 1988," says House. "I live three miles away, so you figure it out — how many miles I've driven. I'd say it's 54,000 miles, at least."

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House used to start each day at Rainbow with his wife, until he lost her six years ago. Now he drops by twice a day, without fail, to the full-service shop where you can leave a package for a friend, check on the latest local news and gossip, and even get medical attention.

"I've had to have drops put in my eyes, and when I try to do it, I waste all the liquid," says House. "So in the morning when I come over, Sing puts the drops in my eyes. At noon I come back for a sandwich and a Coke, and she puts drops in my eyes."

While I met with regular customers, others called to share stories about a woman who works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and along with her husband — who works in a Diamond Bar doughnut shop — put a daughter through college and has a high school son ready to follow.

Before she spoke, I knew what Yam would tell me about the long, hard hours she puts in.

"I want my children to have better opportunities."

This classic L.A. story of reinvention begins in Cambodia. Yam and her family fled the Khmer Rouge and found brief refuge in Thailand, only to be sent back to the land of the killing fields.

A second flight to Thailand was more successful, and when Yam's family finally made safe landing in California, they followed relatives into the doughnut business, a popular Cambodian career path.

"If you can't speak English, you can still make doughnuts," said Yam, whose English is perfect.

She worked various jobs as a young woman, kicked quarters into a kitty and saved enough to buy what was then a Yum Yum doughnut shop. She changed the name to Rainbow.

It was all sugar and spice until just a few weeks ago, when Yam and her customers learned that Dunkin' was big-footing onto her turf. At the Cherry Blossom Festival in the shopping center, Yam's customers were offended to see a Dunkin' Donuts booth where free doughnuts were being handed out "right in front of Rainbow."

It doesn't seem fair, says Yam, but she has too much humility to rail against the injustice of it all.

Her supporters aren't nearly as timid.

The Rainbow coalition began investigating and dug up a February email from West Covina City Manager Chris Freeland to the mayor and City Council, saying "it is my pleasure to announce that Dunkin Donuts is coming to West Covina."

Freeland told me the city tries to recruit lots of businesses and makes them aware of available locations, but did not direct Dunkin' Donuts to the South Hills plaza site. That was a matter between the owner of the shopping center — LT Global — and Dunkin' Donuts, which will share space with Baskin Robbins.

But former Mayor Steve Herfert, a Rainbow regular, isn't persuaded by that argument. He notes that in Freeland's email to the mayor and council, the city manager thanks a staffer "for assisting Dunkin Donuts with finding a location in West Covina." Freeland adds that "South Hills plaza was one of the sites we have been marketing."

Wei Huang, an LT Global rep, wasn't terribly sympathetic, telling me Yam is "always welcome to stay." But Huang said there was no exclusivity clause in Yam's lease, and that this will be a case of "pure business competition," which "happens all over."

But it's not just business, says Rainbow regular Leslie Martel. She recalls attending city hearings last year on how to create more of a sense of community in West Covina.

"There's such a sense of community at Rainbow, because Sing knows everybody. It's like Cheers," said Martel. "This is an outrage."

But the fight isn't over yet.

If this goes to the planning commission, the Rainbow coalition will be there.

If it goes to the City Council, the Rainbow coalition will march on City Hall.

And if Dunkin' dares test the market, it may live to regret the decision. In the heat of battle, I wouldn't be surprised to see Yam's regulars double down on their daily doughnuts.

The West Covina doughnut rebellion has only just begun.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATstevelopez

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A version of this article appeared in print on April 13, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "The doughnut rebellion - Local shop's fans unite to oppose a corporate rival" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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