Note: This story was originally published in the Sept. 28, 2011 edition of the Arcata Eye. A new interview with Rasmey Chum, conducted by Arcata Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joellen Clark-Peterson, is available here. – Ed.
Kevin L. Hoover
H STREET – The allure of Don’s Donuts isn’t necessarily visual. Not that there’s anything wrong with its looks – it’s a clean, well-lit little shop. But there are many of those in Arcata.
It could be Arcata’s best-smelling business, and its wares certainly taste as good as they look. Some of the appeal might stem from how happy the owners are to be here, because that effect seems to have spilled over into the enthusiastic clientele.
Whatever the reason, Don’s isn’t just popular – it’s gained a dedicated, almost cult-like following among pastry fanciers, tradespeople, students, nightclubbers and otherwise undifferentiated.
Don Kolshinski took over the shop from Kenny Cassasa in the mid-1960s (he doesn’t remember exactly when). “I liked baking,” Kolshinski says. “I started in as Kenny’s baker, took it over and renamed it.”
Now 73 and retired, Kolshinski blames the grueling 24- hour schedule at the donut shop for some of his maladies. “It’s a mankiller,” he says. “That’s why I’m crumpled up now.”
He kept the bill of fare basic – donuts, coffee, Hawaiian Punch and hot chocolate. “I had so damn many donuts, I didn’t have time for anything else,” he says.
The donuts went for five cents each.
The deep-fried delicassies were distributed far and wide to a long list of customers, including gas stations, cafés, even airlines and area Coast Guard bases.
Kolshinski sold Don’s Donuts once before, sometime in the 1960s. But the owners couldn’t keep up the pace. “It went flat broke,” Kolshinski remembers. “I had to repossess it.”
Don righted the ship and kept it sailing happily on a sea of bubbling oil until 1984, when he turned it over to new owners.
A long journey
Kimhak and Rasmey Chum never knew each other in their native Cambodia, but they had a lot in common before they separately made their way to Arcata.
Both endured the same desperate conditions in Khmer Rouge labor camps, working forced labor for day to day survival.
Rasmey began her years in the rice fields at age 5, and spent her childhood years working 14 hours a day.
Kim also spent years doing hard labor, harvesting rice and logging the forest. The work was grueling and relentless, with starvation always near at hand. The long hours earned a single serving of thin rice porridge, once a day. “Mostly, it’s just water,” Kim says.
This was how the two spent the long years of their youth. “It feels like forever,” Rasmey says.
Vietnam took over Cambodia in 1978. Kim and Rasmey subsequently escaped their labor camps and made their way to U.N. refugee camps just over the border in Thailand. Both were fortunate to have sponsors to help them get to the U.S. and settle in.
“I was in the first group in 1979,” Rasmey says. Her sponsor was a church in Oregon. She attended grade school there briefly, her father working as a dishwasher. Then the family moved to Eureka.
Kim’s uncle, Sin Meng Srun, a forestry professor at Humboldt State, brought him, his parents, brother and sister to Arcata.
Arriving in Humboldt, Kim’s siblings went to Arcata High School while he went right to work, doing early-morning newspaper distribution while taking English classes at Eureka Adult Ed.
One day in 1984, the founder of Don’s Donuts, Kolshinski, knocked on the door of Kim’s aunt, Bo Chum Sin. He offered to sell her the business, and she bought it.
The new business evolved into a family endeavor, with Kim’s role part-time at first – delivering donuts to stores and doing janitorial work. At the time, the shop sold only donuts and coffee, and Kim came to learn baking as well.
After three or four years, his aunt was ready to pass the business to someone else, and she tapped Kim.
“Would you like to take it over?” she asked. “I can try,” Kim replied.
The Kim and Rasmey era
In 1991, when Kim was 31, his father told him, “You’re getting old. Time to get married.”
In the Cambodian tradition, a marriage was arranged. The two didn’t know each other, but their families had been friendly. Kim and Rasmey were married in 1992, and in time, they had two children, Tanee and Tanak.
At first, the couple ran the 24-hour shop themselves. Rasmey covered the day shift, while Kim pulled graveyard. “It was just the two of us, all the time,” he says.
With a tiny but dedicated labor force in place, Don’s Donuts began to evolve. The very basic pastry and coffee fare made the 24- hour shop a fixture for two groups – 2 a.m. bar ejectees and those who head out to work in the wee hours, from cops to fishermen.
But the limited menu meant light business in off-peak hours. “You can tell people are thinking, ‘I don’t want to eat donuts now,’” Kim says.
Rasmey slowly added things to the menu, starting with espresso drinks when they came into vogue. The shop’s now- legendary Southeast Asian sandwiches followed, gaining rave reviews online and via word of mouth. Pizza followed, based on a recipe from Kim’s sister’s shop in Gilroy.
Tanee and Tanak grew up helping at the family business, cleaning tables and bringing smiles to customers. At one point, a complaint about child labor violations brought Labor Commission interest.
Kim explained to concerned officialdom that the kids were just helping with the family business “instead of staying at home on computers all the time.” The kids were allowed to putter around the shop as long as they didn’t serve customers.
“I am the second child of my parents,” says Tanee Chum, 17. “Don’s being the first.”
She knows the clientele, the duties, daily schedule and the whole Don’s Donut vibe as do few others.
“Don’s is a world in itself,” Tanee says. “It’s my reality.”
It’s also reality for a cast of regulars. Gary hangs out at Don’s daily, for the food, the company and conversation. He likens it to a “Polis,” (and even spells it out using the Greek alphabet) a place where men would hang out and discuss affairs of the day in ancient Athens. In that sense, Don’s is timeless.
“It’s quite a place,” Gary says, and one frequented by what he says are the two kinds of people who inhabit Arcata. These are “People who don’t know anything about Arcata and people who know everything about Arcata.”
Something most of those people have in common is a fondness, even reverence, for the institution known as Don’s Donuts.
It starts with the food. “Everything is so good,” Gary says. “They make the stuff themselves.”
He sees the many daily phases of Don’s, from the early- morning fishermen to the exiled bargoers late at night.
The frequent migration of angry drunks from nearby Tavern Row takes a toll on the little shop of crullers. “They go through a new window every couple of years,” Gary says. “That one in the corner is the oldest.”
Most of the burly behavior takes place in the alley alongside Don’s, not inside.
“People are nice,” Kim says. “Maybe one percent are drunk.”
“They get drunk at the bar and then come in to get coffee and sober up,” Rasmey says.
“They come in and apologize,” Kim says. “I tell my employees to be calm."
Don’s has become not just popular with the young set, but something of a hipster haven, a destination and a must-see for anyone passing through Arcata.
But the powerful groovitas of Don’s is a subtle thing not immediately beheld – unlike its mind-engulfingly delicious donut aroma – and not by any single sensory organ. It’s a composite of cool that comes, as it happens, with sprinkles.
This despite the lack of any funky furnishings – or maybe because of it. The decor is minimal – counter, cash register, gleaming donut cases and on the wall, framed menus. Except for the motley concert flyers on the corkboard and the non- Caucasian personnel, the scene might be a duck-and-cover era postcard from a shop in the Midwest.
A college-age young woman brings her friend in, obviously introducing her to the amazing donut shop she has heard so much about. The friend takes in the scene, perhaps looking for overt grooviness factors and not getting a reading.
The Zen of Don’s is: don’t look, and you will find.
Online, it’s not the accidental retro-chic setting, but the cuisine that conjures raves, frequently capped with exclamation points. “Don’s is the best place to go after a night of drinking at the bars!” says Amber C on yelp.com. “Their pizza bagels hit the spot every time.” The shop’s apple fritters appear to have spawned a sub-sect of diehard adherents.
“I love love love this place,” says Samantha Minx on the Don’s Donuts Facebook page. “It was awesome to work there and even better to have met Kim and his family... the best, sweetest people ever!”
The shop’s Facebook page is one of Arcata’s most popular, with nearly 4,500 likes. (The Arcata Eye has fewer than 1,300.) Trouble is, the Chum family doesn’t know who made the page, and despite persistent inquiries by the family and others on its wall, the originator isn’t telling. They seem benevolent, if a tinge passive-aggressive. The family would like to help shape the page.
Don’s Donuts today
Today, the vibrant little shop employs a total of 13 people.
The Chums are of no help in explaining why Cambodian- Americans so frequently operate donut outlets – in fact, they wonder about that themselves.
Rasmey notes that persons of Indian heritage have taken to the motel business, Pakistanis to operating gas stations and Vietnamese to nail salons. Why? “I have no idea,” says Rasmey.
One explanation for immigrants generally gravitating toward more punishing labor in inglorious professions is that it seems easy – and rewarding – in comparison to their previous experiences.
“We’ve been through slavery and the refugee thing,” Rasmey says, referring to her years in the Khmer labor camp. “You don’t work, you don’t eat. You get sick, you don’t eat. Over here, you work it, you own it.”
Rasmey told her children of the hardships she and Kim endured in their youth, and could tell that the reaction was as glazed as the donuts in their display case.
“The kids didn’t understand, so I sent them back to Cambodia,” she says. “That opened their eyes.” Though the country has changed for the better since the ouster of the despotic Khmer Rouge regime, daily life remains substantially different than it is in Arcata.
On returning, Rasmey says her children declined an offer of new school clothes as unneeded and even a dinner at a local restaurant as too expensive. “It changed their lives,” Rasmey says.
The essence of Don’s
The secret of Don’s Donuts’ appeal may have been exemplified in a routine customer encounter last week.
An adorable three-year-old boy named Alexandre toddled in with a fistful of cash, escorted by Public Works Engineer Technician Terry Barney. Alexandre’s father, Derrick, is a wheelchair user and couldn’t make it across the H Street construction battlefield outside.
Rasmey already knew what the boy needed – the usual blueberry bar for himself and an apple fritter for papa.
Sometimes, Derrick just sends Alexandre in with his wallet, so the crew takes the donut money out and puts the change back in for his son, who’s not quite clear on the whole money thing.
His order filled, the little tyke ambled out the door, lugging the bag of sweet treats to his waiting dad across the street.
“We try to cater to people,” Rasmey says.