L.A. Takes On Holier Than Thou Image as Nation's Doughnut Capital

Times Staff Writer

Maybe it's only a coincidence that it was in a Los Angeles suburb where doughnuts were used to reward voters in an election, where a doughnut art show was held, where one doughnut company introduced a delivery service and where a giant plaster doughnut inspired a fan club in England.

But some industry experts believe that Los Angeles, spurred by an influx of immigrant entrepreneurs, is emerging as the nation's doughnut capital, having already achieved dominance in such areas as surf boards, palm trees, screenwriters and air pollution.

"I think L.A. has the most doughnut shops of anywhere in the country," said Hans Wallbro, marketing manager of a major food supplier.

Yum Yum Donuts, Yum Rich Donuts, Luv'n Donuts, Umm Umm Donuts, Miss Piggy's Donuts, Big Mama's Donuts . . . .

Numbers Unknown

The doughnut shops are going up so fast--particularly in mini-malls--that no one knows just how many exist in Southern California, but estimates range as high as 2,500. Figures are hard to come by since doughnut companies tend to be secretive amid the intense competition. (The Winchell's chain, for instance, said it isn't sure how many outlets it operates in Los Angeles County.)

Incidentally, the dictionary and other publications, including this newspaper, are about the only places you will see the spelling doughnut. Most shops call their products donuts for a simple reason: It requires fewer letters on the sign.

But back to doughnuts, 750 million of which may be sold in Southern California each year, 60% of them between 6 and 10 a.m. Chocolates and glazed are the best sellers, although the pink-cake variety is a big hit in the under-8 age group.

What about Southern Californians' supposed preoccupation with fitness?

"If there is a health craze," said Tom Anderson, a spokesman for Winchell's, emphasizing the word if , "it probably hasn't affected heavy users of sweet products."

Even joggers, bicyclists and walkers are drawn to Dad's Donuts on Balboa Island in the morning, where they have formed their own loosely knit group, the Dew-Dads.

"What consumers are saying in surveys are things like, 'Exercising allows me to have one or two treats a week,' " said Peggy Hoffman, communications director of the Retail Bakers of America.

Their attitude, to paraphrase the old saying, seems to be: "As you travel (run, bicycle, aerobicize) through life, dear friend, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut and not upon the hole."

Donut Galore, Donut King, Donut Prince , Donut Nut, Donut Inn, Dippity Donuts, D Donut House, Sweet-O Donuts . . . .

The business attracts immigrants, Hoffman said, because start-up costs are relatively cheap, baking and language skills aren't crucial and a large work force isn't needed.

Cambodians, especially, seem heavily involved, which is a bit surprising since "we don't have doughnuts in Cambodia," noted Kokass Khieu, who operates a Westside shop. "But we learned here that every American drinks coffee and eats doughnuts in the morning."

The Word Spreads

Word of this American habit has spread in the Cambodian community, he said. For instance, Khieu, an IBM engineer in Colorado for seven years, came out to Los Angeles last year to lease a franchise at the urging of an old Cambodian navy buddy, who operates six shops here.

Khieu works from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days, spelled occasionally by his wife, Botum.

"I work hard because I want to be rich," Khieu said. But the pace is hard. "I've worked 69 straight days," he said recently. "I don't know how long I can keep it up."

When a reporter visited the shop one recent morning, Khieu appeared to be napping in a chair in the kitchen; a bell attached to his door awakened him.

Israeli-born Ami Golomb cooked up a different angle in the doughnut biz: He founded a firm in Encino that delivers to offices. "We prefer 24 hours' notice," Golomb said, "but we can deliver for emergencies, like if someone suddenly decides to have an office party."

Ace Donuts, Delicious Donuts, Fantastic Donuts, Jolly Donuts, Supreme Donuts, Superb Donuts, OK Donuts . . . .

Some older shops, like 31-year-old Primo's in West Los Angeles, seem to draw customers for their homey atmosphere as much as for anything else.

"People come in here and tell me about their families, their jobs, their ups and downs," said Marilyn Smith, the gregarious woman behind the counter.

Hold the Walnuts

"We have the Cat Man--he gets up at 3 a.m. every morning to feed all the cats in the neighborhood, then comes in. That basketball player--what's his name?--Jerry West (now Laker general manager) comes in sometimes. (The television show) 'Heaven on Wheels' gets theirs to go. (Actor) Michael Landon's assistant was in yesterday. Michael doesn't like walnuts in his muffins so she gets blueberries."

Primo's is across the street from a junior high school, and owner Celia Primo said: "I have parents call me up and ask if their kids have gone to school or are still hanging around. Sometimes I have to go outside and yell at them to get on to class."

Dee's, Dey's, Dang's, Dave's, Dean's, Donny's, Dondi's, Donna's, Duke's . . . .

Doughnuts are making a cultural impact locally too.

When a Los Angeles emporium closed about a year ago, local residents staged what they called the world's first doughnut show in its honor, an exhibition that included such works as a painting of a saint with a doughnut halo and a poignant drawing of an archeologist eyeing a chamber of jelly-filled antiquities (title: "In Search of Ancient Rolls").

In the recent hit tune, "Walk Like an Egyptian," a Los Angeles rock group, the Bangles, immortalized those most visible of customers with the lyrics: "If you want to find all the cops, they're hanging out in the doughnut shops/They sing and dance . . . they spin the cup."

Welcome Visitors

The officers' patronage is appreciated by shop owners concerned about crime. Yum Yum owner Frank Watase said: "We welcome the police because we deal in cash. We used to give them free doughnuts and coffee but police captains called me and and told me not to--at least to charge them something."

Randy's Donut (formerly the Big Donut) of Inglewood, a 40-foot-tall plaster likeness, has appeared in several films, including Randy (no relation) Newman's "I Love L.A." video. So has The Donut Hole of La Puente, a drive-through shaped like its name. (Reflecting traditional favorites, The Hole is chocolate-colored and Randy's is glazed.)

Randy's is even worshiped afar by a fan club in England. "Every once in a while one of the members will visit," said co-owner Larry Weintraub. "They've got T-shirts and everything."

Art's, Emma's, Norman's, Orville's, Simone's, Stan's, Stanley's, Mrs. Chapman's, Mother Moore's . . . .

For all the competition, the doughnut hasn't changed much through the years--at least not since it acquired its hole.

This breakthrough is alleged to have occurred during a vicious storm in 1847 when a sea captain named Hanson Gregory, needing both hands to steer, rammed his fried cake on a spoke of the helm. When he finally freed the cake, he noticed the soggy middle was missing, so the story goes, and spread the word of his discovery. Gregory is honored with a plaque in Camden, Me.

Hole Goes Begging

(In the meantime, the golf ball-shaped piece of dough sometimes called a "donut hole" has never really won acceptance. One theory is that it's too easy to burn your fingers when dunking it in coffee.)

If doughnuts brought glory for Capt. Gregory, they brought infamy for Gen. Benedict Arnold.

A Long Island woman named Sally Townsend is said to have been whipping up a batch of doughnuts (the pre-hole variety) during the Revolutionary War when she overheard Arnold's traitorous plan to surrender West Point to the British and warned Gen. George Washington. Arnold was exiled to England, where he had to settle for scones.

More recently, doughnuts may have played a role in determining the destiny of Norwalk.

Democrat Cecil N. Green won a state Senate election in that district last month, aided by 13,000 dozen doughnuts handed out to supporters and paid for by the Democrats. Residents who had been identified as pro-Democrat in advance were told they could hand in their voter stubs at a nearby stand for the "dirty dozen," as the Republicans later termed the prizes.

"We checked around that morning," said Green aide Larry Sheingold, mastermind of the pastry plot, "and found that in one place 60 people were in line at 8 a.m. We don't know how much it helped us. We could have been hurt in spots because several stands ran out of doughnuts. For instance, we heard that one man came home and told his wife, 'Don't bother voting, dear--they're out of doughnuts.' "

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