New generation keeps King Donut cooking
King Donut’s unusual business model — tasty, cheap food and sassy but friendly owners, plus laundry — has attracted a group of neighborhood regulars.
Seattle Times business reporter
Davie Hay is still waking up when she starts ringing up sales at the King Donut shop in Rainier Beach at 6 every morning.
Around noon she starts serving customers chicken-teriyaki dishes.
And anytime in between, she could be answering questions about how a coin-operated washing machine works.
Hay does not work three different jobs. She runs her family’s 27-year-old business that evolved from a small doughnut joint to a one-stop doughnut, teriyaki and laundry shop.
From the outside, it can be hard to tell if there is anything going on inside the old beige building. The inside is clean, but very utilitarian. The same tables have been there since Hay’s parents, Heng Hay and Chea Pol, first opened the shop. The cushioning has been torn in the seats of most of the black metal chairs. Artwork made by Hay and her sister and King Donut co-owner, Channa, attempts to hide the tan paint on the walls, and a series of potted plants try to distract from the old carpet.
“There is a lot of work we could do on the outside and the inside,” Hay said. “We focus more on the customer service.”
Escaping the killing fields
King Donut started in 1987 when Chea Pol was pregnant with Davie. Pol and Heng Hay emigrated to the U.S. in 1981 as refugees from Cambodia, escaping the killing fields of Pol Pot and the genocide that killed more than 1.5 million people during the 1970s.
Davie said her parents worked multiple jobs, saving money to one day open their own business. They originally planned to partner with a fellow Cambodian immigrant and doughnut-shop owner to open another shop in Rainier Beach.
But the partner pulled out. Davie said her parents had the money saved and had learned how to cook doughnuts, so they went ahead.
Davie grew up in King Donut. She remembers taking the city bus from Renton High to the shop after school and spending her summers working behind the counter.
“I never grew up wanting to take over the business,” Davie said. After high school she attended Central Washington University.
In 2002 Safeway bought and tore down the strip mall where King Donut was located. In 2003, Davie’s parents reopened about 50 yards away in a former seafood restaurant. The new location was a lot bigger than the old shop and the rent was higher, Davie said.
To keep up with the rent, the Hays added the laundromat and teriyaki food, replacing services the community lost when the strip mall was torn down.
“People had to ease to the idea,” Davie said, “but it worked out. We are still here.”
The combination has its benefits.
“When people come to do laundry and have to wait 35 minutes, they pretty much have to come get some doughnuts or teriyaki,” Davie said.
The food is cheap — $9 for a dozen doughnuts and $7 for a teriyaki chicken meal — but it brings in the most revenue, Davie said. High water and electricity bills mean the laundromat is the least profitable part of the three businesses. It costs seven quarters to do a load of laundry.
Eventually all of the Hay children left King Donut, went to college and found other jobs. But in 2009, their father got sick and was not able to work. Sokha Hay, the middle child, who had recently been laid off, talked Channa, who was an accountant, and Davie, a supervisor at Fry’s Electronics, into quitting their jobs and working at their parents’ store.
“I said OK, but just because my dad was sick,” Channa said. “I’m still here. I love it here.”
Sokha stayed for only 11 months, Channa said. Now he works for F5 Networks, a technology company in Seattle.
Channa and Davie admit that it can be tough running a business with family members.
“We all bump heads, but we manage to get through it,” Davie said. “At the end of the day, we know we have a business to run.”
Besides Davie and Channa, King Donut employs a baker, their mom and a second cashier.
The everyday crowd
The daily spread consists of chocolate, maple and sprinkle-covered doughnuts, bars and twists. Some customers, like salesman Jamar Gibson from Renton, grab a dozen on their way to work. Davie said she remembers serving Gibson since she was a little girl.
Then there is the “everyday crowd,” a mixture of retirees and men headed to or coming from work.
They all laugh when Davie Hay makes jokes about their friends’ age or hairstyle. They can be there for hours, paying for coffee refills and buying more water bottles, and if she calls them cheap enough, every once in a while someone will buy a dozen doughnuts.
“Sometimes you have to harass the customers to make money,” she said.
Hay spends her morning walking back and forth between the counter and waiting tables and inserts herself into their conversations.
There are always people inside King Donut and they seem to always be having a good time, said E.J. Gong, president of the Rainier Chamber of Commerce, which recently named King Donut business of the year.
“A diverse group of people shop at King Donut,” Gong said. “There is a real sense of community there.”
Davie said, “When I look at everything my parents have gone through and what they have accomplished, I’m actually proud to have it.”
Brandon Brown: 206-464-2164 or firstname.lastname@example.org