Sacramento's rising dough stars

Trendy toppings, ice-cream filling and croissant hybrids: The sweet link between local Southeast Asian community and the city’s gourmet doughnut scene

Brightly colored doughnuts topped with cereal, cookies and candy line Baker’s Donuts’ case daily.

Brightly colored doughnuts topped with cereal, cookies and candy line Baker’s Donuts’ case daily.

Find Baker's Donuts at 5880 Florin Road and Sweet Dozen at 5207 Madison Avenue. Follow them on Instagram at @bakersdonuts and @sweetdozen916.

There’s a rainbow that lives inside the Baker’s Donut’s display case. One doughnut wears a bright orange, Thai tea glaze and Fruity Pebbles cereal. Another is electric blue mint, topped with crushed Oreos. There’s also a red velvet croissant-doughnut. A shiny purple color comes from ube, the Filipino-beloved purple yam.

Oh, didn’t you hear? Maple bacon doughnuts are totally passe.

The South Sacramento shop’s interior isn’t anything special. It’s small, barren. There’s a well-utilized drive-thru. Not the sort of place you’d expect people to visit from San Diego, or that would become a mandatory stopping point from the Bay Area to Tahoe.

A hip, tattooed 20-something takes a bite of a cereal-topped creation.

“You know what’s crazy? I’ve been in and out of Portland for years—a huge fan of Voodoo Doughnut,” she says. “And I totally just forgot.”

Sweet Dozen’s “melts” arrive warm on the outside, with cold ice cream sealed inside.

That’s basically the best compliment ever for the family behind Baker’s Donuts, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

“We want to be the next Voodoo Doughnut for Sacramento: the go-to foodie spot,” says co-owner Douglas Hem.

Douglas and his sister Stephanie grew up inside Baker’s Donuts. Their mom, Sivkun Tun, opened up shop with her now ex-husband in 1985. They were political refugees from Cambodia; survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal genocide.

The link between Cambodian refugees and the state’s doughnut shops has been long-documented; the most recent figures suggest Cambodians control approximately 90 percent of California’s doughnut market, at least according to census data from AsianWeek in 2000. Though, with that generation of shop-owners aging, questions loom about the future of the state’s fried-dough landscape.

Tun was just 19 years old when she left Cambodia. She’s been hooked on doughnuts ever since—eating at least one every single day.

Sacramento is similarly hooked on doughnuts—quirky, Instagram-friendly ones in particular. Baker’s Donuts boasts more than 9,000 followers on Instagram—compare that with popular Midtown bar LowBrau’s near 3,000 or Punch Line Sacramento’s near 1,600. Croissant-doughnut hybrids, modeled after Dominique Ansel’s famed Cronut in New York, can now easily be found in scores of mom-and-pop shops around town.

Jeremy Khamphay can be found serving Sweet Dozen’s croissant-doughnut hybrids—“doissants”—every day.

photos by lisa baetz

So even though Dunkin’ Donuts, which already controls more than half of the national doughnut market, plans to open 46 locations in the Sacramento region in the near future, local business owners aren’t worried. Baker’s Donuts, for example, already had to deal with Krispy Kreme, which announced plans to open right across the street in 2013. Business was already dangerously slow.

“We were barely making it,” Douglas says. “My mom was always late on rent. A couple months we couldn’t make payments on our house or our car. It was scary knowing Krispy Kreme was maybe going to take even more away from that.”

Douglas was living at home, having recently graduated from UC Davis. Stephanie moved back to Sacramento to help the family after a stint in Los Angeles. The brother-sister team prepared to innovate, eying the first obvious national trend they could import: a croissant-doughnut hybrid.

Their first version debuted in November, and at the time, few other doughnut shops sold the coveted, flaky pastry. Estelle’s Patisserie only just began offering its once-a-week, decadent concoction. Sweet Dozen had begun in July, to major media attention.

The Khamphay family’s Sweet Dozen opened in 2008, just north of Carmichael on Madison Avenue. In 2013, operations started shifting over from the parents to the kids, Jeremy and Nuny. Out came a new line of ever-changing specialty doughnuts: pistachio-honey, butter toffee, green tea, almond butter-chocolate.

“We try to keep it simple, not too crazy,” she says. “You lose the flavor of the actual doughnut with too many toppings.”

In short, they’re refined, elegant.

The stories of Baker’s Donuts and Sweet Dozen are strikingly similar. Parents, political refugees from Cambodia and Laos, respectively, settle in California in the ’80s. They worked in bakeries and doughnut shops, until they eventually opened their own. They had kids—one girl and one boy—who were essentially raised to want a life away from the deep-fryer. They went to college, got other full-time jobs. But then the kids all came back to help, to innovate.

Actually, the stories are classic.

“It was the American Dream,” Nuny says. “You come here with nothing and you try to start something out of nothing.”

Douglas and Stephanie remember helping out at Baker’s Donuts even as middle school students. For years, Tun woke up at 4 a.m. She’d take the kids to her sister’s house before starting work at 5 a.m. At 3 p.m., when the kids needed to be picked up from school, she’d close up shop briefly to make the trip. Douglas and Stephanie would complete their homework at Baker’s Donuts, in between sweeping and helping customers while Tun earned her first rest of the day. Back then, the shop didn’t close until 9 p.m. Seven days a week.

“Mom would always say it’s better than the life she had in Cambodia, and that now she can provide a better life for her kids,” Douglas says. “She built our mindset for how to be hard workers for school and in life.”

Now, the kids are always hustling. Douglas and Stephanie run Baker’s Donuts—not to mention its prolific social media accounts—while taking classes on the side. Jeremy essentially runs Sweet Dozen, while Nuny juggles the doughnut shop’s communications with a full-time job and parenthood.

Last July, both sets determined they needed a new product to jazz up business. And remarkably, they both unveiled ice cream doughnut sandwiches within days of each other—and within days of the launch of a new business that specialized solely in ice cream doughnut sandwiches, The Parlour Ice Cream Puffs shop, located in the Arden-Arcade area.

At Baker’s Donuts the doughnut is sliced open and then some Gunther’s ice cream is popped inside, but Sweet Dozen and The Parlour both use machines that reseal the doughnut, warming it while the enveloped ice cream (also from Gunther’s) stays nice and cold.

“Lines were out the door,” Douglas says. “Usually summer is slow on donuts, but our sales tripled.”

Stephanie remembers two sisters from Santa Rosa who drove all the way to Sacramento as soon as they read about the ice cream doughnuts online. Douglas remembers a woman who only stopped in because her daughter in Jamaica told her about Baker’s Donuts. Visits from foodies in the Bay Area and Southern California are common occurrences.

But now that it’s winter and ice cream doughnuts are no longer lifting business to crazy heights, what comes next?

Sweet Dozen is toying with a croissant-doughnut-grilled cheese idea that would meld sweet and savory, flaky and melty. Baker’s Donuts, meanwhile, recently debuted emoji designs on its creations—the hearts-for-eyes face was first.

Expansion plans are also on the mind. Sweet Dozen is debating between another brick-and-mortar spot closer to downtown—Oak Park is a possibility—or a roving food truck. Baker’s Donuts is fielding pleas from the Bay Area—none enticing enough thus far. But they also both have the same fears about what could happen if they were no longer solely a family business.

Never mind the fact that the parents are getting older, and some of the kids want to put their college degrees to use. Is this why Dunkin’ Donuts is moving into California right now? Will that 90-percent figure start dwindling as Cambodian families eventually close up shop?

“I don’t know when we’ll see these doughnut shops die out. You don’t see a lot of [the] second generation taking over—a lot of them go and pursue other careers,” Douglas says. “We’re still pursuing our careers too, but in the meantime, we’re helping.”