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

June 21, 1987|STEVE HARVEY | 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."

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