It started a few weeks ago, when customers started noticing that something was amiss. Every day for the past 28 years, the friendly husband-and-wife owners — Stella and John Chhan — have stood behind the counter selling their freshly made breakfast treats. But then one day, Stella Chhan wasn’t there.
When customers inquired, John Chhan, 62, told them she had suffered an aneurysm Sept. 22 and was recovering in a nursing home. He would go visit his wife, 63, in the afternoon once all the doughnuts were sold and the shop was clean, he said.
That’s all it took.
“Days went by and I just couldn’t get it out of my head,” customer Dawn Caviola told the Orange County Register. “So I thought, if enough people would buy a dozen doughnuts every morning, he could close early and go be with his wife.”
Caviola posted the idea on the neighborhood message board Nextdoor, and neighbors and fans of Donut City responded in a big way. They started showing up in the dark, ordering dozens of doughnuts and croissants. By 6 a.m., there’s often a line to the door.
“We’re done for today. Sold out about a half-hour ago,” Chhan said in a phone interview with The Washington Post on Monday at about 8 a.m. California time.
“A lot of people come in and buy three, four, five dozen,” he said, adding that he sold about 50 dozen doughnuts Monday.
Loyal customer Jenee Rogers said she’s been a regular Donut City customer for the past 20 years. She said John and Stella Chhan are “humble, smiling people.” She saw a local news story about the effort to help the Chhans, which included the detail that someone tried to set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to hep the Chhans, but he declined the offer.
Rogers said she and all of her friends started to spread the word to go to the shop early and buy doughnuts.
“I was like, ‘Wait, that’s my doughnut store,’” Rogers, 47, said. “We posted and reposted — and every day I’ve been down there the line has been to the door.”
Rogers, whose family owns M&M Surfing School in Seal Beach, said the surfing school buys doughnuts for her local church community every Sunday. When she was there at 6:30 a.m. this Sunday, she asked John Chhan which doughnuts sell the slowest. He told her the cake variety, and she bought a dozen of them.
“He was just about sold out,” Rogers said. “It was slim pickings in there.”
As John Chhan cleaned up his store Monday morning, he said he would finish up and then head over to see his wife. He said the two came from Cambodia in the late 1970s, bought Donut City in 1990, and have been happy small-business owners since.
When Stella Chhan initially fell ill a few weeks ago, he said, she couldn’t speak and had trouble moving. Now she’s talking some and can sit down on her own. “She’s getting better and better,” he said.
During the phone call, he paused to tell several customers he was sold out.
Then he turned his attention back to the phone call and emphasized how incredibly thankful he is for his dedicated customers.
“I so appreciate it,” he said. “I just can’t say enough thank you and thank you.”