The lasting legacy of Duffin’s Donuts

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      Sit and watch long enough and you can tell what time it is just by who’s standing in line at Duffin’s Donuts.

      Weary night-shift workers and long-haul truck drivers, winding down in the soft predawn hours. Office workers tapping furiously on their phones during the workday hustle. Moms with giggling children in tow, grabbing a box of treats before after-school basketball practice. Groups of cooler-than-cool high-school students, there to be seen just as much as to snack. Neighbourhood couples, midway through their postprandial evening stroll. Clutches of university students, refuelling an all-nighter study session with coffee and carbs. Raucous club kids, their laughter lubricated by long hours of drinking.

      No matter the hour, affordable comfort food awaits every diner who walks through the door at Duffin’s. This year’s Golden Plates winner for Cheap Eats has been welcoming hungry Vancouverites around the clock since Tony Chhuon and Paula Sim purchased the business in 1987.

      “You just feel comfortable. It feels familiar. Our customers know that we’ll always be here,” says Molika Chhuon, eldest of the three daughters who now collectively run the beloved eatery. “Whenever you want a coffee or doughnut, we’ll have it. Maybe you’ll bump into your neighbours. And the people who are serving you, you’ll recognize them. Some of our staff were here five years ago, and some have been with us for 20 years.”

      Molika Chhuon.
      Julian Sun for The Georgia Straight

      Back in the day, the original Duffin’s location was a Mount Pleasant fixture at Main and 33rd. Buying it was an investment in the future for the Cambodian couple, who fled their home country to escape the brutality of the totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime.

      Their harrowing getaway brought them to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Chhuon was born. They moved to Canada in 1983, and two more daughters were added to the family.

      Chhuon looks back fondly on her family’s original Duffin’s location, which was the backdrop for so many of her childhood memories.

      “I’ve been helping at the shop since I was about seven years old,” she says. “Whether it was folding doughnut boxes or wiping tables, there was always something for me and my sisters to do.”

      Juggling the demands of a new business with raising three daughters was no small feat for her parents.

      “I’m a mother, and I don’t know how they did it—they even help me with my own children now,” reflects Chhuon. “Mom and Dad were here with nobody. Sure, there was eventually some extended family, but for a period of time they had no one to help with the kids. I’m in awe of them all the time for what they were able to do and successfully run a business through all these years.”

      Rising rent spurred a move to the busy nexus of Knight and East 41st in 2007. With it came a slight shift in clientele: more grab-and-go customers and quick meals before rushing back to work. Yet through the ebb and flow, comfort food has always been the reliable mainstay of Duffin’s.

      Julian Sun for The Georgia Straight

      The secret to their success, Chhuon says, is that “little things bring joy into people’s lives. It’s nice to know that we can bring some happiness and brightness into our customer’s days, even if it’s just a doughnut.” It’s recession-proofing at its simple best.

      Their never-ending supply of fresh doughnuts is replenished throughout the day and night. Best sellers include old-school Boston cream; a rainbow of iced crullers; angels dusted with powdered sugar and filled with chocolate cream; giant apple fritters; and buttermilk, lightly glazed and topped with a dollop of custard or jelly.

      Looking beyond the name, Duffin’s is no slouch when it comes to wallet-friendly savoury fare, either. Made-to-order tortas are the headliners—a delicious holdover from time spent with family in southern California. The faded rows of photos lining the menu board herald a multi-ethnic panoply of options that include machaca, Vietnamese ham, teriyaki chicken, and chorizo con huevo—all under $7. There are burritos and tamales, classic burgers and hot dogs. A jumble of fried chicken, both regular and spicy, is piled high alongside a pyramid of crispy spring rolls.

      Thirty-seven years in, Duffin’s Donuts stands as a remarkable testament to sacrifice, determination, and longevity in the face of an uncertain economy. Its everyday workings were handed down to the three sisters as their parents gradually stepped back after years of putting in 14- to 17-hour shifts.

      “They spent their whole lives dedicated to the business and taking care of our family without really spending any time together, working opposite shifts and only seeing each other while passing through the store,” explains Chhuon. “And now for us, it’s a privilege and an obligation, though obligation isn’t really the right word. We’re proud to be carrying it on: this legacy that our parents worked so hard to create.”

      Julian Sun for The Georgia Straight

      Everyone pitches in to help. Chhuon’s uncle bakes all the doughnuts, her aunts cook the food, and another aunt serves customers, as does a cousin. “And all of us sisters come in to help out,” she adds. “We handle scheduling, put in time for shift work, shop for supplies, and even get our husbands involved. It’s still very much a family business.”

      Chhuon has faith that Duffin’s Donuts will continue to thrive.

      “It’s emotional for me,” she reflects. “Within this shop is a family, including each of our staff members. And we provide nourishment and food for people within the community. For me, I feel like we will keep going. It’s a way for us to honour our parents and to honour the community that helped our parents build a life.”

      Duffin’s Donuts is located at 1391 East 41st Avenue.