The History Of the Pink Doughnut Box, AKA, the '994'
by Rudy Sanchez on 11/16/2021 | 6 Minute Read
Ever notice how in TV and movies doughnuts always seem to come in pink boxes? The ubiquitous soft-pink cake box’s origins harken back to Southern California in the 1980s but also to a Cambodian refugee's business acumen.
Besides In-N-Out, tofu, and tacos, SoCal, it turns out, really loves doughnuts. Though the Instagram posts from your friends in LA might suggest they never indulge in the fried sweet awesomeness, there is a doughnut store for every 7,000 Angelenos, while the ratio is 30,000 people to a shop in most of the rest of the US (that same love of doughnuts might explain all the hiking pics, too, just saying).
Unlike New England, there’s no one dominant brand in the Southland. Winchell’s Donuts, founded in 1948, is the largest single branded chain on the west coast. However, they only count 170 locations companywide; that includes five other states and US territory Guam and commonwealth Saipan. Californians don’t run on Dunkin' or Krispy Kreme either. Instead, independent, usually family-run shops dot the sprawling landscape.
These small businesses trace their roots to one Cambodian immigrant, Ted Ngoy. Ngoy is most commonly known as “Uncle Ted” to the hundreds that sought refuge in America following the fall of Pol Pot’s regime. Uncle Ted set up these families with doughnut shops in Southern California by leasing stores to them, taking a cut of the profits, and becoming a maple bar mogul while supporting his community.
Before Ted Ngoy became the “Donut King,” he was an army general in Cambodia when Phnom Penh fell in 1975 and managed to flee as the Khmer Rouge overtook the government. Arriving at a refugee center outside San Diego, Ngoy found work thanks to his pastor sponsor. While at his gas station job, Ngoy noticed the doughnut shop across the street was bustling, even late at night. That observation led him to join the minority program at doughnut chain Winchell’s, then the dominant doughnut player in SoCal. After managing a Newport Beach spot, Ngoy started his chain of doughnut shops named after his wife, Christy.
Starting with nothing in a foreign land, Ted would soon be living a lavish life, vacationing worldwide, owning mansions, and driving expensive cars. He also became a fixture in the Orange County Republican Party. Those political connections and his previous role as a Cambodian general meant that the US embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, would reach out to him, asking Ted to sponsor family members that escaped Cambodia at the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. He took in his refugee family, leading to more sponsorships of Cambodian refugees—by his estimate, Ngoy helped more than 100 families start a new life in America, providing them with an economic opportunity with his doughnut store leasing program. Uncle Ted mentored and taught these immigrants, eventually setting them up as store operators and splitting the profits with the families. Many also followed Uncle Ted’s example and ran their stores with just family members, avoiding payroll costs, thus retaining more revenue.
Eventually, the families leasing the doughnut shops would become successful enough following Uncle Ted’s formula owned their stores. However, Ted’s severe gambling addiction also accelerated their independence, forcing him to sell his eclair empire as massive debts grew. Despite his personal demons, these business owners kept to Ngoy’s template for success, seeing value in following his professional example.
Keeping the business in the family wasn’t the only tactic these new stores followed. They also made sure to use quality ingredients, find other ways to cut costs, and increase profits. This quest to keep expenses low led to one doughnut shop owner asking bakery supplier Westco for a box more inexpensive than the long white pastry case. Using leftover pink cardstock, the firm created a 9x9x4 inch box, perfect for a dozen doughnuts. The package was a few pennies cheaper than the white version, which may not seem like much, but for shops selling hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dozens a week, those pennies added up.
The “994” (as those in the doughnut game refer to the box) quickly became popular with Cambodian shop operators in the 80s. The introduction of the pink box also coincides with the take over of the market by Ted Ngoy’s proteges. As this network of independent Cambodian doughnut shops dominated California, they decimated Winchell’s market share. They also extinguished any lingering west coast ambitious fledging transplant Dunkin' had left. Despite being a uniquely regional custom, the 994 would become a part of Hollywood’s prop repertoire and cement its walk-on pop culture status.
Since these independent shops had all learned the business from Uncle Ted, they all had consistent menus and produced doughnuts using similar baking techniques and equipment. If a dozen doughnuts fit inside a pink 994 neatly in one Cambodian doughnut shop, odds were it worked for all the stores. Pink was also more popular than white, as the former was closer to red, a color symbolizing luck, and the latter was associated with death by many Cambodian owners.
Pink 994 boxes wouldn’t just come to represent doughnuts and become the defacto packaging for those tasty morels; doughnut brands with no connection to the Cambodian doughnut shop operators or Ted Ngoy have adopted the packaging. Beloved Portland-based Voodoo Doughnuts and Nevada’s Pinkbox Doughnuts (of course) are newer doughnut brands that have also incorporated the pink box into their branding.
The pink boxes also symbolize the success of many Cambodian refugees arriving in the United States when Americans were more welcoming to refugees fleeing oppression and seeking freedom and opportunity. These immigrant store operators have become so beloved by the community of doughnut lovers in SoCal that no large brand can dislodge these independents from the region. Contenders like Dunkin, Krispy Kreme, and Starbucks, to some extent, have all entered the doughnut Thunderdome with middling success, at best. As of this writing, Dunkin operates only 121 stores in all of California, a paltry presence when one considers there are over 1,500 doughnut shops in Los Angeles alone.
Ted Ngoy’s gambling addiction would lead him to declare bankruptcy, eventually returning to live in Cambodia. Having gone rags-to-riches-to-rags, Ted returned to his political ambitions, this time making a go of it in his homeland with mixed results. While working as an advisor on commerce and agriculture to Prime Minister Hun Sen, he would engage in an extramarital affair with a younger woman. His infidelity would be the final betrayal Christy would endure, and she divorced Ted in 1999.
Ngoy’s doughnut empire thrives without him, however. Many of the children that worked in these doughnut shops—some starting to help out barely taller than the store’s counter—come back to the family business, and in the process, modernize the market, straying from Uncle Ted’s template to appeal to a new generation of consumers. The current doughnut generation brings new flavors such as matcha frosting and taro fillings. Vegan options exist, as well as pastries decorated to stand out on social media. They also utilize their skills learned from attending college, an opportunity afforded them thanks to the financial success of their parents.
But that same entrepreneurial know-how and social media savviness may also spell the demise of the “994.” Looking to differentiate and stand out in Mark Zuckerberg’s pits of hell and misery, many of those new store operators are dropping the traditional soft-pink boxes for something bespoke and professionally designed. Some, of course, are retaining the pink hue in their branding, acknowledging the strong connection the color has with doughnuts, but making it a part of their branding strategy.
The new generation adds to Uncle Ted’s formula for success things like social media engagement, experiential marketing, and professionally designed brand identities. These updates serve to keep Ted Ngoy’s legacy as the Donut King alive, competitors like Dunkin at bay, and continuing proof that America is made better by receiving industrious, freedom-seeking immigrants, especially when they come to make delicious doughnuts.