Rolling in good dough, friendships

At one corner in downtown Auburn sits an ordinary shop that serves up extraordinary things.

  • Monday, June 2, 2008 6:54pm
  • News

Buntheang Heng puts some freshly fried bars in the cooling rack at his Donut & Muffin Shop in downtown Auburn.

At one corner in downtown Auburn sits an ordinary shop that serves up extraordinary things.

Like plenty of smiles, good conversation, camaraderie and some of the best doughnuts and muffins around.

Add a strongly brewed cup of coffee, and … well, Buntheang “Bun” Heng and Montip Lo’s customers routinely get their day off to a good start.

“To me, it’s always about the customer,” Bun said while taking a break from behind the counter at his Donut & Muffin Factory, a popular place for the early-rising work force, mid-morning regulars and late-afternoon drop-ins seeking some swift satisfaction for a begging sweet tooth. “I like to chat it up with my friends. I like to put out a good product and be friendly to the customers.”

Those familiar faces, both young and old, come each day to Auburn’s little shop of pastries. The hamlet, located off 4th Street Northeast and Auburn Avenue Southeast, is a good spot to grab a freshly baked maple bar, blueberry muffin or raspberry scone. The bites are light and airy, not heavy, and above all, right out of the oven or deep fry.

Bun and Montip make it point to greet their customers with a smile. They share stories and laughs. The satisfied customers keep coming back.

“It’s a good doughnut at a good price – the best I’ve ever had,” said Armondo Verdi, a customer for 20 years. “And they’re good people. … It feels like home.”

It is a home away from home for the Hengs.

Bun arrives each morning at 1 or 1:30 to prepare the first batch of doughnuts. His wife arrives shortly thereafter to help stock the display shelves with a wide variety of doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, sticky buns, home-made muffins and other creations.

To brace for a heavy Friday crowd, Bun arrives earlier, at 10:30 the previous night, to supply the needed volume.

When called upon, their baked lineup fills the morning menus at church gatherings and business meetings.

The couple typically makes at least 100 dozen doughnuts each day, seven days a week. They rarely take a day off, even with a small staff filling other shifts.

The doors open at 2 a.m., with rush hours usually around 3:30 to 8 a.m. The doors seldom close, and if they do, it might be midnight or earlier if the bakery is sold out.

They have been doing this since 1986.

“It’s not hard work,” Bun summed up. “It’s just a lot of long, crazy baker’s hours.”

Bun understands long hours, perseverance and survival. He grew up in a family of nine in Cambodia, enjoying the simple life and attending good schools.

However, their lives and those of millions of Cambodians changed during the ravages of the Vietnam War. Some two million Cambodians were made refugees by the bombing and fighting between U.S. and communist forces during those years.

In a genocidal anti-colonial campaign, Cambodians were murdered or became victims of starvation and disease after communist Khmer Rouge rebels under Pol Pot took over the country in 1975.

The new regime immediately evacuated the cities and sent the entire population on forced marches to rural work projects. They attempted to rebuild the country’s agriculture on the model of the 11th century. They also discarded Western medicine, with the result that while hundreds of thousands died from starvation and disease, there were almost no drugs in the country.

Estimates vary as to how many people were killed by the regime, with numbers ranging from approximately one million to three million.

Heng lost two uncles and a grandfather during those terrible years, a reminder that brings him to tears today.

“Me and my family had seen enough of the killing and starvation,” Bun said.

The Heng family toiled under the new government. Children were removed from schools. Families and those able were forced to work long hours, often 10 to 16 hours a day, in rice fields for no pay and little food.

“We went through the whole ordeal for four years. It seemed like 40,” Heng recalled. “We went through the ordeal until the Vietnamese chased us out of (Cambodia). That’s when we fled to Thailand.”

All nine were fortunate to escape the terror, as did hundreds of thousands of others.

The Heng family eventually found a way to start a new life in the U.S. An uncle, who was living on the East Coast, and a church organization were able to sponsor the relocation of the family.

Bun got a new start.

“There just had to be a better way,” he said. “When I came to this country, I said it had to be better. It can’t be worse than what is was back then. No matter how hard my work is, I knew it was still a lot better than back then.

“I not only wanted to come here, but I wanted to improve myself.”

While living in Rhode Island, Bun became a machinist. But he soon wanted to go into business for himself. A cousin, who had opened up a bakery in Bothell, persuaded Bun to come to the Northwest and learn the trade. He did, and he has been in the doughnut and muffin-making business ever since.

It was in the Seattle area where Bun met his wife. They soon established roots in Auburn and a reputable downtown business.

The hidden gem of a bakery has been rewarding enough to put three daughters – Linda, Laura and Lisa – through college.

“We could have lived and been on the communist side,” Bun said of his detour in time. “But I appreciate life today … I don’t take anything for granted.”

Above all, Heng appreciates family, friends and customers.

“We treat them the same, no matter who they are – rich people or poor people, lawyer or homeless people,” Bun said.

The customers enjoy the friendly atmosphere to share coffee and a glaze-covered or cream-filled delight.

“The friendships keep me coming back,” said Cliff Waller, a longtime customer. “They know everybody. We’re all on a first-name basis. If they haven’t seen someone for a year and a half, they will remember their first name when they come in.”

Added Montip, “We see more of the customers than our family. We see a lot of nice people. …

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”

The morning brings in the regular crowd. Some grab-and-go, others sit down to share a coffee and buttermilk cluster and stir some gossip.

Bun joins the conversation and exchanges friendly barbs. Customers keep him coming back.

“This small table over here sits nine people because they want to solve all the world problems,” a grinning Bun said while shaking his head. “You know, I learned a lot from them. … This is what I have to put up with everyday.”

Bun manages just fine these days.

“It sometimes isn’t easy,” he said. “But today, I work for everything I own.”

=====

WE’RE OPEN

Business: Donut & Muffin Factory

Location: 201 4th St. NE, Auburn

Hours: 2 a.m. to midnight

Phone: 253-939-8030

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