HOUSTON—At 8 a.m. on Labor Day, less than a week since Hurricane Harvey paralyzed Houston, a Spanish-speaking construction crew occupies all the tables and most of the counter space in the tiny dining area of Snowflake Donuts on Winkler Drive, just off Interstate 45. More customers stand in line at the cash register. In the aftermath of the storm, the doughnut business is booming.
With many businesses shuttered, Houston’s Cambodian immigrant-owned doughnut shops offer first responders, flood victims and other hungry souls shelter from the rain, hot coffee and a multicultural menu of breakfast favorites. There are selections in six languages on Snowflake’s short menu, including all kinds of doughnuts, sausage kolaches, bacon and egg croissants, boudin biscuits, cappuccino and breakfast tacos.
The Wendy’s and the Dairy Queen across the street aren’t open at this hour. Two taco trucks in the parking lot out front provide some breakfast taco competition, but the trucks don’t offer any indoor seating. When it’s raining, customers line up in their vehicles at the Snowflake Donuts drive-through window.
Situated on the high ground of a gritty commercial area alongside the highway near Hobby Airport, this Snowflake Donuts at 8361 Winkler Dr. (there are several other locations) didn’t flood during the storm. But owner Mony Hang’s house in the Beamer Road neighborhood did; he also lost his 2002 Toyota Tundra to the floodwaters.
“Not too bad. We got about four inches in the house, but the water went down by the next morning and we cleaned up right away,” says Hang, 41, who was born in the Takeo province of Cambodia. As the storm ended, he walked several miles through the flooded streets from his home to the highway where a friend met him and gave him a lift. He typically opens the shop every day at 4 a.m.
Houston’s Cambodian doughnut shop owners are a tight-knit community. Earlier this week, Hang and a dozen other owners and their wives met at a North Houston Vietnamese restaurant to take stock after the storm over dinner and drinks. Hang stuck with Heineken, but the rest of the group polished off a large bottle of Johnny Walker Black, passing the bottle back and forth between two tables. A six-course feast, including fish maw soup, steak salad, shrimp rolls, fried rice and two styles of lobster, was piled on the lazy susans at the center of each table.
The gathering was hosted by Samoeun Phan, one of the leaders of Houston’s Cambodian doughnut shop community. Phan, 50, helped Mony open his first shop a decade ago. Phan explained that Cambodian immigrants arrive with no employment experience and limited prospects. Many of them escaped horrific conditions in Cambodia. Phan recounts his own story: After his father was executed, a 12-year-old Phan and his mother evaded Khmer Rouge patrols and made their way through the jungle to Thailand. They were relocated to Atlanta with the help of sponsors.
Thanks to years of schooling in Atlanta, Phan reads and writes English. He speaks English with an Asian cadence and a Southern accent. “They nicknamed me the ‘Khmer redneck’ in Atlanta,” he jokes. He moved to Houston in 2000 and began working in Cambodian doughnut shops. Then he began building his own shops and selling them to new immigrants.
“I am a survivor,” Phan says. “The doughnut shop owners are survivors, too. They are doing a lot of business now because they get up at 3 in the morning and open the doughnut shop, no matter what.”
Phan estimates that more than 90 percent of Houston’s hundreds of doughnut shops are owned by Cambodian immigrants. A doughnut shop requires little investment, the ingredients and overhead are relatively cheap, and with labor supplied entirely by family members, a minimal profit supplies a modest living. Phan supplies the kitchen training and negotiates with landlords and contractors to get new arrivals up and running.
Cambodians first got into the doughnut business in Southern California, home of the largest Cambodian community in the United States. When the market got saturated, Cambodian doughnut entrepreneurs began to move to other cities and towns with large Asian populations—including Houston. As more shops opened in Houston and competition stiffened, new arrivals spread out. Phan has helped Cambodian immigrants build shops in rural East Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana.
The trend has taken hold in Cambodia, too. While doughnuts were unknown there 30 years ago, Cambodians returning from the United States have opened lots of doughnut shops in the past 10 years, and there are now American-style doughnuts across Cambodia.
A few highway exits south of Mony Hang’s Snowflake Donuts, Donald’s Donuts at 435 El Dorado Blvd. in Webster is also busy. “I opened on Monday, while it was still raining,” says owner Roth Ouch. “This is the best business we’ve ever had. There were people waiting outside when I opened at 4 a.m. I’ve never seen so many people.”
A second-generation Cambodian-American, Ouch bought the store from his parents. He wasn’t enthusiastic about getting into the business when he graduated from J. Frank Dobie High School. He tried his hand at a few other occupations, but soon realized that he could make a much better living running the well-established doughnut shop.
Ouch, 38, isn’t really religious, but he attends the local Buddhist temple on holidays and keeps a small Buddhist shrine in the shop in an inconspicuous corner on the side of the microwave, where a sitting Buddha looks out over an incense burner and an offering of food—a basket of brightly hued doughnuts. Nearby, there is also a bust of Homer Simpson holding a doughnut aloft. Ouch says he has come to enjoy the daily routine of mixing the batter, rolling the dough, cutting the doughnuts and flipping them in the fryer. He is assisted in the kitchen by an older Cambodian woman who is a friend of his mother and a veteran doughnut maker.
Ouch is glad for the spike in profits during the storm and its aftermath, though he feels bad for the storm’s victims. No one is faulting him for his increased business. The customers lining up to buy breakfast are just happy to find a doughnut shop that’s open.
“People just want a little bit of normalcy,” Ouch says.
Walsh is a three-time James Beard Award winner, the author of a dozen books about food and a partner in El Real Tex-Mex Café in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood.