Chanrith Pak, the beloved founder of Jelly Donut on 24th Street, died Feb. 20 at the age of 63.
Pak, whose family fled Cambodia in the early 1980s and later settled in the Bay Area, built a thriving donut dynasty in the mid-1980s before losing all of it except the store on 24th Street, a favorite in the Mission District. Pak and her store became fixtures and remained popular, despite competition from upscale donut and bakery shops.
“She took care of everybody here,” said her son, Victor Nhul, who is now 32 and owns the donut shop with his sister, Kannyka Nhul. “Like, if you came in here with too little money, she still wouldn’t let you leave without a donut.”
If you bought a couple of donuts, she inevitably stuffed the bag with a few more.
“You lose something, but you gain a customer,” he said, explaining Pak’s philosophy. “Those people will come back. We’ve had customers coming back here for 30 years, ever since we opened.”
Leon Bratcher, a customer in his early forties, said he has visited Jelly Donut every day since he was 6. His order has remained the same: donuts and milk. “She was really sweet,” he said of Pak.
To her children, Pak was strong and demanding. “It’s very hard for older Asian folks to express feelings,” Victor said. Kannyka added that her mother liked to say, “’I put a roof over your head, you’re eating, and that’s it.’”
It was a toughness borne from a life that began in splendor and quickly encountered the exigencies of war.
Chanrith Pak was born on March 3, 1958, in Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second-largest city and home to the Buddhist temple complex Angkor Wat. She enjoyed a comfortable childhood, but shortly after she graduated high school, the communist Khmer Rouge ravaged the country, killing a quarter of Cambodia’s population between 1975 and 1979.
According to Kannyka and Victor, Pak’s father, a general, was kidnapped, tortured and killed. The remaining family was sent to a labor camp to work in rice fields. Two of Pak’s siblings fought in the war and were killed, and another three eventually died from malnutrition or fever.
Pak married Frank Nhul, a young medical student and, in the early 1980s, when Pak was six months pregnant with Kannyka, they decided to flee the country in a story that later became part of family lore. They spent three or four nights running through the jungle on the Cambodia-Thailand border, trying to escape gunfire and capture by either Cambodian, Thai, or Vietnamese troops.
They were eventually captured by a Vietnamese soldier, who, shockingly, Pak told her children, did not harm the group. Rather than turning them in, as he’d been ordered, he “felt sorry for my mom and my dad, and let them escape to Thailand,” said Kannyka. In the refugee camp there, Pak gave birth to Kannyka, who is now 39.
In 1984, amid a wave of Cambodian immigration, the family of five came to the United States under the sponsorship of a Catholic missionary organization.
After a brief stay in Minnesota, Pak and her family joined a friend in San Francisco, where they lived for the next few years in a two-bedroom rented apartment in the Tenderloin. Pak and her husband opened their first shop, Bell Donut, at 6th and Market streets, a few years later.
Donut stores provided a living for many immigrant entrepreneurs. “It’s easy, and you don’t have to know that much English,” said Victor. “I think somebody taught them. And then once from there, they just picked it up fast, and then the whole operation.”
As their business prospered, the couple hired Cambodians to work in their stores until those employees could set up their own shops. By the late 1980s, Nhul owned or had partnered with some five or six donut shops, including Jelly Donut. In time, an increasing number of Cambodian donut shops opened across northern California.
Today, 90 percent of all traditional mom-and-pop donut shops in Northern California are owned by a mix of Cambodians and Chinese, according to Victor. Many have names like “Jelly Donut,” “Happy Donuts,” or “All-Star Donuts,” according to Victor. It’s not too much of a stretch to say Pak and Nhul started the trend, and Pak, her children said, was referred to as the “Queen of donuts.”
In San Francisco, Pak gave birth to two more children, and the family moved to a house on San Bruno Avenue. But by the late 1980s, the family had lost almost all of its donut shops to Nhul’s gambling addiction, Victor said. Pak and her mom saved the only one left: Jelly Donut.
When Nhul died of liver cancer in 1991, Pak’s life became more difficult. She was grieving and taking care of three children while working 12 hours a day, seven days per week, Victor said.
“If you’re closed for a day, you lose money. That’s the Cambodian thing, the Asian thing,” said Victor. “We never closed. They didn’t believe in holidays.”
According to Kannyka and Victor, Pak kept the Jelly Donut open all year round for two decades with only two exceptions: in 1989, when the earthquake struck; and in 2013, when Victor’s daughter was born. Then, before the pandemic, it had to close for more than two years to complete renovations.
In time, Pak also found love at work. In 1994, she became involved with Bunry Peou, a baker who had been working in the kitchen at Jelly Donut. Though the two never married, the children still refer to him as “Dad.”
In 2010, Pak’s chronic diabetes worsened, forcing her to quit the business. She went to dialysis three times a week, and struggled to walk around her San Leandro home. Still, each day when Kannyka and Victor returned home, she would ask about every detail of the shop.
On Feb. 20, Pak died while watching a Cambodian newscast. She is survived by her three children, her partner, and her beloved donut shop, which will continue the family tradition for many years to come.
There will be a memorial service on March 19 at 10 a.m. at Jess C. Spencer Mortuary at 21228 Redwood Road, Castro Valley.