LA’s Donut Princess on the “bittersweet” decision to sell the family business
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Mayly Tao, Los Angeles’ self-proclaimed Donut Princess, started helping out at her parents’ Santa Monica doughnut shop when she was six years old, standing on a milk crate to give out change to customers. So she had mixed feelings last year when they decided to retire and sell DK’s Donuts and Bakery after 40 years in the family.
“It was such a bittersweet decision,” said Tao, who’s featured in the 2020 documentary “The Donut King,” which tells the story of how up to 90% of California’s independently owned doughnut shops came to be run by Cambodian-Americans. “It was basically my daycare area. I got to connect with so many of the locals who would come in for their morning coffee or their afternoon treat.”
But the sale also represents a new chapter for Tao, who returned to the family business after graduating college in 2012 and quickly tripled the store’s sales through clever marketing and social media.
“A lot of immigrant first-generation kids who are born here, they don’t really want to go back to their family businesses, whether it’s a doughnut shop or a laundromat or a Chinese food restaurant. They want to get an education and they want to explore the opportunities that America has to offer. And it gives me the space to really explore the entrepreneurship side of myself — versus being obligated to help my family at something that, yes, I did enjoy, but it was just so much work,” she said in an interview with “Marketplace Morning Report’s” David Brancaccio.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: Last year, you and your family decided to sell the business after 40 years — what went into that decision?
Mayly Tao: It was such a bittersweet decision. My mom and dad, who started the store 40 years ago, decided to completely retire. We operated a 24-hour bakery that was in high demand — people are coming in at all hours of the day; there’s online orders for DoorDash and Grubhub and Uber Eats and Postmates coming in; there’s lots of big corporate orders. And there is definitely some of the pandemic that impacted the business. A lot of our senior staff members went off and did other things; we had inventory shortages. My mom told me, “My hands hurt. My feet hurt. I think it’s time we sell the store.” And when she told me, my heart dropped, because I had dedicated my heart and soul into this. At the age of six, I was standing on a milk crate to help my parents give out change and help out, and it was basically my daycare area. I got to connect with so many of the locals who would come in for their morning coffee or their afternoon treat. And it was such a hard decision to sell the store. I think also, a lot of people think that doughnuts just appear — like, “I’m at a doughnut shop, bam! They’re here.” But there’s hours and hours of coordination and quality control, and there’s many, many layers to this specific business where we just decided to let it go. And for me, when the documentary came out, that was the true legacy — and it can live on even past my generation, so that [people] can remember what Cambodians did for doughnuts here in America.
Brancaccio: You said bittersweet — let me just land on the sweet part. You know, there’re a lot of next generation people who are like, “Ugh, do I have to work in my parents’ shop until my retirement?” I mean, it may be an opportunity for you, personally.
Tao: Yeah, absolutely. I looked at my parents and they have this crazy work ethic, which I definitely adopted. And growing up, when I was a teenager and helping my parents, I did share those feelings you just spoke about: “Oh my gosh, am I gonna have to take over the shop? I don’t really know if I want to do this.” It’s just this constant grind. And so, when you said opportunity, the sweet part of it is that yeah, we actually get to let go of the shop. And I’m actually so proud of myself for being able to come back after college, totally transform the shop, and be able to sell it at the value that we did. And the sweet part is I get to have a whole new chapter. Like you said before, a lot of immigrant first-generation kids who are born here, they don’t really want to go back to their family businesses, whether it’s a doughnut shop or a laundromat or a Chinese food restaurant. They want to get an education and they want to explore the opportunities that America has to offer. And it gives me the space to really explore the entrepreneurship side of myself — versus being obligated to help my family at something that, yes, I did enjoy, but it was just so much work.
Brancaccio: So you’re out of DK’s, but you’re not out of doughnuts, right? You’re doing something else.
Tao: That’s correct. Donut Princess LA is my doughnut bouquet concept. We deliver and ship out doughnut bouquets in the L.A. area and around the United States. In attachment to that, I have a podcast called Short N’ Sweet. I explore women empowerment, small business tips and mindset in hopes of inspiring other young women and other people to start on the dreams that they want to start on. Another umbrella out of Donut Princess is I also do marketing and consulting for local donut shops. So a lot of people will come up to me and say, “Hey, how do I start a doughnut shop? Hey, how do I use what you did for social media with my business?” So I’m not completely out of doughnuts just yet.
Brancaccio: Just so I fully understand Donut Princess LA — that’s like if you might have sent flowers or chocolates, you could send, through you, nicely arranged doughnuts.
Tao: Absolutely. And it comes in a beautiful matte pink box; it has bright red ribbon; it’s a handwritten card. And it’s also just kind of made for Instagram. People definitely eat with their eyes nowadays, so why not get a beautiful arrangement that you can also eat and enjoy with your friends and share?
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