Cambodian immigrants are realizing their American dream as donut shop owners
Borey Nuon has a big dream. And he just might have the drive and know-how to make it happen.
Borey owns Howard’s Donuts in Cordova, just off of Germantown Road. But his story began in Cambodia, where he lived until he was 19 years old, when he moved to the United States with his parents. In Cambodia, his parents owned a shop selling souvenirs and home decorations in the local market, but it was nothing like owning a donut shop, says Borey.
His family moved to the United States in 2011. Soon after, his parents bought Daylight Donuts in Cleveland, Mississippi, from a Cambodian friend. Borey worked there with his parents for several years. “We learned pretty much everything by doing it ourselves,” he says.
In 2019 he got married and started to think about financial security for his new family. So in 2020 he bought his own shop with the guidance of his cousin, Kelly Keo, who has owned Howard’s Donuts on Summer Avenue since 2006. Now his parents work with him at his shop.
“It’s a very tiring business,” says Borey. When he first opened the shop, he, his parents, and a few trusted employees started baking donuts as early as midnight, seven days a week.
“At first we did not know how to do it,” he says. They’ve spent the last few years perfecting a system to make the front of house run smoothly. Now they’re working on back-of-house processes.
“We’re still improving every day,” he says.
This is where Borey’s big dream comes in. “If I started with a donut shop that had a system for everything, I would know how to handle everything,” he says.
So Borey is working to fine-tune a comprehensive system for his shop that he then could pass on to other donut shop owners.
“I want to be able to have a brand, like franchising,” he says.
More than just financial security for his own family, Borey dreams of helping other Cambodian families find a better work-life balance. While many Cambodian families have found success in owning donut shops, it has come at a cost: “You have to work nonstop, seven days a week,” says Borey.
A franchise model would help shop owners with another challenge: finding the right employees. “If you don’t have a system in place, you have to do it yourself,” says Borey. “You’re afraid that your help won’t do it right and you’ll lose customers.”
With a well-developed system, shop owners would more easily be able to hire employees outside of their own families.
“A franchise model would solve a lot of problems that Cambodian donut shop owners are facing,” he says.
While Borey used to be very hands-on at Howard’s, these days you’re more likely to find him doing paperwork, thinking through management styles, or reading books about building successful small businesses.
In his own way, he’s following in the footsteps of “the Donut King,” Ted Ngoy, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cambodia in 1975. Ted bought several donut shops of his own before expanding his business by training and leasing shops to other Cambodian families, many of whom had fled the Khmer Rouge’s Communist regime. Though no one knows for sure, many people, including Borey, think there are so many Cambodian-owned donut shops across the U.S. because of the Donut King’s work in California in the 1970s and ’80s. Even in Memphis, if you walk into a donut shop today, it’s likely owned by a Cambodian immigrant family. (Of course, there are some notable exceptions, like Gibson’s Donuts.)
Midtown Donuts on Union Avenue is another one of those Cambodian-owned shops. Owner Ly Touch spent a difficult childhood in Cambodia during a time when the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 2 million people, from a country whose total population was only around 7 million. “We didn’t have anything to eat during that time. People died from hunger, from no medicine. And they killed people with no reason,” says Ly.
When Communist forces from Vietnam took over in Cambodia, life improved in some ways for Ly. “We continued from one Communist to another Communist. But this Communist was a little bit better,” says Ly.
He completed high school and was sent by the government to the [then] Soviet Union to study law. Eventually he landed a foreign affairs job at the Cambodian embassy in Washington, D.C. In Washington, he met his wife, Sokha Pech, who had moved to the U.S. for political asylum. They decided to stay here permanently, and Ly left his life in foreign affairs behind.
Ly eventually moved his family to Memphis, where he had extended family, including his niece, Kelly, the same woman who helped Borey through the process of buying his own shop. Kelly made Ly aware of a gas station available to purchase. He bought and ran that for a while, but gas station life was not for him. Eventually he sold the shop and Kelly taught him to make donuts. When Kelly learned that Midtown Donuts was up for sale, she referred the owners to Ly.
Owning a donut shop has been a big change for Ly. “I didn’t have a very hard job [in the embassy],” he says. “In the office, I studied. But this is a hard job. When one person is sick, I have to take over for that person. You have to be strong to get the job done.”
Every morning at 4 a.m., Midtown Donuts opens its doors for the day. Ly is focused on making sure every customer that walks through those doors has a positive experience. “I don’t want the customers to get upset with anything from my donut shop. People expect to come here, get the donuts, and then get out,” says Ly. So he trains his employees to move fast—to be friendly, but not to talk too much and hold up the line.
His favorite part of the job? His customers.
“There are friendly people here; I like my customers,” he says.
“I try to make the best donut for the customer. If I do something for the customer, it’s the same thing I would do for myself. If I keep this plate clean for myself, I do the same thing for my customer. If I keep the coffee fresh for myself, I keep the coffee fresh for my customer too.”
In addition to his wife, Ly’s parents work at Midtown Donuts, along with another Cambodian immigrant who has worked at the shop for years. And on the weekend, his teenage daughter pops in to help.
Ly is keeping his donut shop, but in the next few months, he plans to add a new business venture: Kung Fu Tea, a bubble tea shop he’s opening at Summer Avenue and Graham Street.
Ly and Borey both point to Kelly Keo as having played a significant role in helping them open their shops. Kelly moved to the U.S. in the early 2000s. The U.S. offered more opportunity in general, she says, but especially more opportunities for women.
She’s taken advantage of every opportunity she’s encountered. For a time she worked at Kwik Chek. She says during her time there, she thought she was “just working,” but in reality she was learning the whole time under the mentorship of Kwik Check owner Sue Reyna. Then she started working at a blood bank, where she befriended an accountant and peppered him with questions: What is a business? How do you buy a business?
When she realized that virtually anyone with money could buy a business, that became her goal. Because donut shops are relatively inexpensive to buy—and because many Cambodian families own donut shops already—that was a natural fit for Kelly. She drove by a couple of donut shops that she had heard were for sale, but she decided they weren’t quite right for her. Then she drove by Howard’s Donuts on Summer. It wasn’t for sale—but that didn’t stop her. She walked through the door and asked the owner if he was interested in selling. And he was.
Kelly invited her aunt, Cheng Siv, to be her business partner. Cheng had worked as a cleaner at a downtown restaurant but was hoping to own her own business one day; the idea of a donut shop appealed to her because it felt similar to Cambodia’s many bakeries. With a $100,000 loan from Kelly’s uncle in Japan, the two women bought the business in 2006 and eventually also bought the building it’s housed in.
Like Ly and Borey have experienced, those early days of shop ownership were hard—long days, seven days a week, with Cheng mostly working in the kitchen while Kelly was out front with customers. But now, close to 18 years into the endeavor, Kelly and Cheng both have been able to step back to some degree. Because of health reasons, Cheng usually is just in the shop one day a week, while Kelly works five days, though she comes in on her days off if other employees are unavailable. Other family members, including Cheng’s daughter, Sally, work with them.
With her own business well-established, Kelly has the time and know-how to help other Cambodian families, like her uncle Ly and cousin Borey. And the help goes both ways. “I had the opportunity to build up my cousin Borey,” she says. “But after that, he really worked hard for himself. Now I call to get help from him.”
She spends a lot of time focusing on her teenage daughter, knowing it won’t be long before she’s grown up. Kelly wants her daughter to have the opportunities she didn’t. “I wanted to study here, but I didn’t have money; I had to work and couldn’t afford school,” she says.
“So when I had my daughter, I knew I wanted her to have an education. I saved my money for her to go to school; I’ve worked hard for it. Now it’s time for her to learn to be strong. That’s why I work, and that’s what we’re here for.”
She expects that the chain of Cambodian-owned donut shops will continue to lengthen. “Now I have a good friend working for me,” she says. “Maybe one day he will want to own a shop.”
If that happens, Kelly will be there to guide him through the process. Perhaps Borey will have a franchise model ready to hand over to him. And Ly will be ready with a glass of bubble tea to celebrate.
4348 Summer Avenue
8130 Bellevue Parkway
1776 Union Avenue
Manda Gibson is copy editor at Edible Memphis. She loves the whole storytelling process—from getting to know all the wonderful people she interviews, to weaving together a story, to being entrusted with editing other writers’ work.
Mirza Babic weaves captivating narratives through visual and written forms of expression with a foundation in photography and content creation. Beyond the lens, Mirza’s versatility extends to music production. Mirza is dedicated to crafting compelling narratives and immersive experiences that leave a lasting impact. @mirzababicfoto