The first thing Alan Do asks his customers when they walk into Friendly Donuts is “late night or early morning?”
At the 24-hour restaurant in Orange, Calif., patrons are met with the scent of freshly made dough and a warm welcome from the Do family. Behind the Asian-inspired menu items like ube cakes and mochi donuts is a rich history of perseverance and community. Huong and Soi Do opened up Friendly Donuts in 1985, just a few years after they immigrated from Cambodia. Since then, they have specialized in serving an abundance of classic and cult favorites 24/7.
“The whole thought process of us being open 24 hours is like, why be closed if there’s someone already at the shop making donuts? Might as well just be open,” said Alan Do, one of the three sons of Huong and Soi Do who now run the shop. “In our family and culture, we love to work hard. Like we literally are on our feet 24/7.”
On East Chapman Avenue in Orange resides in an unpretentious corner given away by its chunky yellow signs and neon lights, typical of most family-owned restaurants in the city. Inside, the decor is more all-American diner than donut shop.
Maintaining a donut business is an all day and night type of work. The Do family and a few other employees rotate shifts for production, which begins at around 11:30 p.m. and finishes between 4 and 5 a.m., in time for the morning rush. It’s quiet at Friendly Donuts for a few hours in the afternoon, but business picks right back up at night for those craving a post-dinner dessert or a midnight snack.
Alan Do said hard work and his family certainly go hand-in-hand. The family of five works together at the shop, and hopes to expand the business to include multiple Southern California locations one day. The store boasts over 11,000 Instagram followers, and while Friendly Donuts is indeed a sunny modern presence on Instagram, the store hums with history.
Huong, 59, and Soi Do, 65, opened Friendly Donuts 36 years ago after they were inspired by the success story of Ted Ngoy, who they call Uncle Ted.
He was able to expand his donut shop empire to include more than 50 locations across California after coming from similar beginnings as a Cambodian refugee during the Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s. At the time, Cambodia’s civil war caused the displacement of two million people, which was more than a quarter of the country’s population. Like many other Cambodians, Huong and Soi Do immigrated to Orange County from a refugee camp.
“My parents were one of the groups of people that Uncle Ted helped,” Alan Do said. “Uncle Ted was sponsoring people and their families to escape the refugee camps and get citizenship to the United States.”
Like Friendly Donuts, nearly all of the independently-run donut establishments in Southern California are run by Cambodian Americans with business origins that can be traced back to Uncle Ted, the Do family said. The financial aid and mentorship about the donut business he gave helped over a hundred Cambodian families before 1990.
When they first moved to Orange County, the Do couple worked minimum wage jobs, cooking burgers because they couldn’t speak English. When they finally scraped together enough money, they rented out a small shop at the intersection of East Chapman Avenue and South Hewes Street to start their new life in the States.
“We were nervous because there were about 10 to 15 donut shops within a five-mile distance on the same street as us and we knew right away we had to create unique products,” Huong Do said in Cambodian. “During the pandemic, I decided it was time for my sons to take over.”
Friendly Donuts first gained popularity when it became the first store in Orange County to serve Filipino ube cake donuts in 2014. In that single weekend, they sold more than 2,000 ube donuts. Customers also come from far and wide to try their largely-acclaimed “dossant,” which is a croissant and donut hybrid that’s unique to Friendly Donuts, Soi Do said.
Their most recent addition to the menu item is a Japanese-inspired mochi donut, a trendy flower-shaped donut made from mochiko flour. The Do family described their mochi donuts, which gained popularity on Instagram and TikTok, as a primary reason their business was able to survive the pandemic.
Friendly Donuts continues to stand as an Asian American owned pillar among restaurants in Orange County. The Do family hopes their origin story serves as an inspiration for others looking to start a fresh life in the United States, just as Uncle Ted’s did for them.
“I’m glad my parents called it Friendly Donuts. This donut shop was born before I was even born, but now I have the opportunity to make something new out of its name,” Alan Do said. “When I think of Friendly Donuts, I think of three things: top quality donuts, the best customer service and a community around us who appreciate us as much as we do them.”