Sunday, May 23, 2021

Independent Lens: The Donut King

Dunkin Donuts has had a surprisingly hard time cracking into the California market. Ted Ngoy is the biggest reason why. At the height of his success, he owned or leased and franchised over seventy donut stores in Southern California. He also sponsored one hundred Cambodian immigrant families, giving them an entry-point into the American economy and society. It didn’t last forever, but his legacy continues, as Alice Gu documents in The Donut King, which airs this coming Monday on PBS.

The Donut King
starts with one politician expressing support for Cambodian immigrants and another stoking fear that they take away jobs and resources from Californians during difficult economic times. The welcoming one was Pres. Gerald Ford, who recognized Cambodians as our allies in the cold war against global Communism. The anti-immigrant sentiments came from Gov. Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown. Perhaps not coincidentally, Ngoy would eventually become an enthusiastic Republican donor.

However, when Ngoy and his family first arrived in America, they had nothing. As many of his extended family explain to Gu, they were lucky to be alive, having miraculously survived Pol Pot’s Marxist genocide. Of course, his early days in America were difficult, but when he had his first donut, the symbolic light bulb lit up in his head. That led him to Winchell’s training program—and from there his own entrepreneurial drive took over.

Despite his eventual problems with gambling addiction, Ngoy’s story is pretty inspiring. However, there is also a lot to learn from
Donut King in terms of market differentiation. Initially, Ngoy’s leased stores had an advantage over corporate chain stores, because as family businesses, their labor costs were dramatically lower. More recently, as second and third generations have taken over in recent years (often reluctantly), they have had the flexibility and savviness to be more social media-likable than their chain competitors.

Ngoy himself might be a flawed subject, but Gu and everyone who knows him is able to take a wide perspective and consider the totality of his history. This is a far cry from hagiography, but they all give him his due credit and forgive him for the mistakes he made during his lowest points. Every documentary should follow the example of
Donut King.

It is also important to keep teaching our history-averse society just what happened when the revolutionary Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia.
Donut King is not an exhaustive chronicle of the Communists’ genocidal crimes against humanity (like Rithy Panh’s documentaries), but it still offers a vivid, personal perspective on the atrocities. Plus, there is a lot of delicious looking donut-porn. Altogether, Gu and editor/co-writer Carol Martori have crafted an excellent doc that dexterously touches a heck of a lot of bases. Highly recommended for general audiences, The Donut King airs tomorrow night (5/24), as part of the current season of Independent Lens on PBS.