A taste of home
Donut Tree, located in the heart of Walnut, is a landmark that has stayed constant in a changing world for 27 celebrated years. Hang Tong Choi, the now-retired owner, opened the store in 1989, and his family has worked 24 hours a day and seven days a week to serve the community ever since. Throughout the years, the store has become the longest-standing and most popular doughnut shop in Walnut.
Donut Tree is hailed for its croissants and Blueberry Cake doughnuts, and it’s easy to see why. Each ham and cheese croissant is stuffed with ingredients before it’s baked, so the first bite into the semi-sweet, flaky pastry reveals the warm, savory ham coated with melted cheese. There’s also an option to add a little spiciness to your meal with additional slices of jalapeño pepper. The blueberry doughnuts, though simple, are well-balanced in flavor. Light sugar and fresh ingredients make the glazed doughnut an energizing snack, and the blueberries add a fruity accent to its overall taste. Within two days, I was back at the store for more.
“I train all my workers and teach them my recipe for making doughnuts so it’s consistent. Everyone just follows my recipe,” manager Kevin Choi said. “We process our doughnuts differently from other places. It looks the same and might taste the same, but the processing is different. We use the best ingredients on the market.”
Since day one, customers have counted on Donut Tree’s recipes. Whether they’re going home from a night shift at 3 a.m., grabbing a bite to eat before work or meeting up with friends to play chess (as they often do), customers will find the same modest store, satisfying food and comforting warmth waiting for them. Most mornings, customers that somehow all know each other sitting in different booths talk amongst themselves. Sometimes, Kevin leaves the counter and joins in on the excitement by greeting customers with a handshake and a broad smile.
“I’m going to work as long as I can. It’s fun, especially in the morning there’s some people a little grouchy, some people happy,” Kevin said. “I like when I see kids when they’re young, and they have their own families, their own kids. Sometimes I remind them, ‘When you were here, you used to cry for doughnuts, and your mom wouldn’t let you have it.’ And they would laugh. That’s the fun part about working here.”
During our interview, Kevin laughed, “Maybe 10 or 20 years from now when you have your own family and you come here, I can say, ‘She came and she interviewed me!”’
If your timing is right, you might just be able to find Hang Tong behind the counter filling in for his kids Jennie and Kevin. Although his native language isn’t English, Hang Tong bridges the gap between himself and his customers by giving out samples and memorizing all the English names of the menu items. With a store that never really changes, it’s nice to have the assurance that you might be surprised by one of his intermittent visits.
A walk through the shop’s narrow hallway is like a walk back in time. The interior has only had minor renovations since the Choi’s bought the store in the 1980s. Photos on the walls document the city’s growth, from the faded photo of the sparse, undeveloped Walnut High School gym in the late 1990s to the 2008 poster of the Walnut Sheriff’s Department staff that frequents the store during late night shifts.
Community involvement marks the shop as a social stronghold in Walnut. Just recently, Donut Tree was designated Business of the Winter Quarter.
“Your service is beyond a business owner; your service is like an old friend. It’s like [being part of] a family,” Councilwoman Mary Su said to Kevin during the Feb. 10 City Council meeting. “We cannot say enough how much we appreciate your business, your friendship and your support for all Walnut residents.”
Since Donut Tree’s grand opening in September 1989, loyal customers have developed tightly-knit friend groups and a tangible connection the store. In 2014, their persistent support helped the store and the Choi family heal after Sandy Choi, the beloved manager of Donut Tree for 25 years, passed away.
“Everything was pretty hard for us. Even now I still think about her every night, every day, and it’s hard to deal with,” Kevin said. “But the people that know what [was] going on [were] very supportive. It makes you feel better, a little warmer to know that they care. I mean, my sister was the main anchor here for many years, so everybody knew her, and [Donut Tree] was her life.”
It’s rare to find a place like Donut Tree where the staff members care so much for each other, their customers and their community that it rubs off on other people. Through 27 years of service, Donut Tree and its staff have left a subtle but indelible mark on Walnut and on the people who have come and gone.
By Angela Zhang, Staff writer