Courtesy of Mayly Tao
"The Donut King'

The constant grind of running a small business

The Econ Extra Credit Team Mar 24, 2022
Heard on:
Courtesy of Mayly Tao

For the month of March, Econ Extra Credit is inviting you to watch the film “The Donut King,” available to stream on Hulu and to rent or buy on several other platforms 

The grit needed to keep a small business alive is immense — and the odds of surviving are slim.

According to data from the U.S. Small Business Administration, less than half of small businesses will be around five years after opening and just a quarter will remain 15 years later. What’s so remarkable about the doughnut shops featured in “The Donut King” is how long they’ve held on, even after big chains like Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ entered the California market.

Ellen Rolfes / Marketplace

Beating the odds for decades may not be sustainable for those putting in the labor. Many of the doughnut shops featured in “The Donut King” are open seven days a week, some for 24 hours a day. Owners told of the long hours they had to put in — up to 16 hours a day — just to keep the business going.

This experience highlights a broader trend. According to a poll conducted by The New York Enterprise Report, most small business owners work more than 50 hours a week; 25% report working more than 60 hours a week. (That’s well below the weekly hours for the average worker, 34.8 hours in December 2021, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

One way to achieve work-life balance is to make work part of family life. Decades after opening Santa Monica-based DK’s Donuts, owner Chuong Pek Lee was still working more than 12 hours a day. Even with the help of her daughter Mayly Tao and other family members, the constant grind didn’t let up.

“My mom [was telling me], ‘My hands hurt, my feet hurt. I think it’s time we sell the store,'” Tao told David Brancaccio on “Marketplace Morning Report.” “When she told me, my heart dropped, because I had dedicated my heart and soul into this.”

“We operated a 24-hour bakery that was in high demand, high popularity. I mean, people are coming in at all hours of the day.” In the end, Tao said, the relentless demands of the store outweighed its success.

More doughnuts?  

This excellent feature from The Economist delves into the economics of the independent doughnut shops in California and explores to what extent it would be possible to replicate the successes of doughnut shops in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s as vehicles for achieving the American dream.  

To learn more about the rise and fall of Ted Ngoy as the OG “Donut King,” read this story from writer Greg Nichols, who was featured in the doc.  

And our producer Alex Schroeder flags this recent NPR story about artist Phung Huynh using pink donut boxes to silkscreen portraits of Cambodian Americans who grew up in their family’s doughnut shops. Her solo show in Los Angeles is cleverly named Donut (W)hole.

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