Sometimes the most iconic thing about our favorite foods is their container. Consider, for example, the universal Chinese takeout container or the blue New York City Anthora coffee cup with its trademark “We are happy to serve you” slogan. You can practically taste the contents within both vessels long before ever taking a bite or sip, just from seeing either in your peripheral vision. It’s the same case for the bright pink doughnut box. But how did the pink box become synonymous with doughnuts? We’ll have to go back a few decades to answer that.
First, a disclaimer: if you grew up in a big city in the Northeast or in a mid-size town in the South, you may have no idea what we’re talking about here. That’s because Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme succeeded in building and sustaining decades-long near monopolies in these areas. Dunkin’ boxes are mostly white, with some orange and pink tossed in for good measure. Krispy Kreme boxes, on the other hand, are covered in green polka dots. And both companies’ boxes are wide and flat, containing a dozen doughnuts lying neatly next to one another in a single layer. Those boxes aren’t what we’re talking about here at all.
The pink boxes in question are smaller and more cube-like. These are the boxes of the also-rans of the doughnut industrial complex – the ‘60s and ‘70s-inspired time capsules with tall marquees and neon window signs lit up with adjectives like “Tasty,” “Best” and “World-Famous.”
These shops, especially the ones jutting outwards like seismic waves from the epicenter of Southern California, have been angling neat stacks of nine – though you can squeeze in a dozen if you try – doughnuts in pink boxes for generations. To understand why you need to go back to the 1970s, when thousands of Cambodians fled the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime, attempting to escape the state-sponsored genocide that would result in the deaths of more than a million Cambodians.
One of those emigrants was Ted Ngoy, who eventually settled in La Habra, California, where he opened his first doughnut shop. Others quickly followed, with Ngoy expanding operations into Anaheim, Fullerton and other towns surrounding Los Angeles. To staff his expansive doughnut empire, Ngoy tapped his extensive family tree and network back in Cambodia. Hundreds of visa applications were sponsored by Ngoy’s doughnut shops, making him almost single-handedly responsible for an entire generational shift in demographics in the area. Eventually, this network of Cambodian shops pierced Los Angeles proper, and began encroaching upon the Winchell’s Donut House chain that had long owned the sector.
Ngoy grew wealthy off of his doughnut dominance, at one point owning homes in Mission Viejo, Big Bear, and Acapulco, Mexico. But as he accumulated success after success, launching subsequent shops, he also racked up gambling debts. A 2005 profile in the L.A. Times documented how the one-time millionaire had gone from meeting three U.S. presidents to ending up destitute and homeless in the early aughts.
Ngoy’s network of shops had long used restaurant supply company Westco to source everything from baking flour and paper napkins to what was then the standard pure white doughnut box. Ngoy’s proteges continued to use Westco for decades, even as the company experienced multiple mergers and acquisitions over the years (Today the company is called BakeMark). One day, one of these enterprising doughnut shop owners had the gumption to ask Westco if they had any cheaper boxes available – perhaps something that wasn’t in the company’s quarterly catalog. Westco happened to have a large amount of pink-dyed cardboard stock just sitting around, taking up valuable warehouse space.
Westco ran its pink paper stock through the classic doughnut box cut stamp, transforming the sheets into the iconic 9x9x4-inch templates, just waiting to be folded. And since the pink cardboard was thought to be waste, Westco took a few cents off the price for the shop owner. The bold, bubblegum pink hue carried cultural implications too. Though Southern California’s Cambodian population was on the rise, Chinese immigrants had already made Los Angeles home. White, for many Chinese, is the color of mourning – hardly an easy-going, saccharine breakfast connotation. But the bold pink was just a few shades off from red, a color celebrated by many South Asian communities as lucky.
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Word of the cheaper, pink boxes spread quickly, first across the Cambodian doughnut shop network, and then much of the country. By the 1980s, the pink boxes were even being used in Minnesota. Today, Portland’s Voodoo Doughnuts, among the most famous shops in the country, stamps every box with the slogan, “Good things come in pink boxes.”
So who was the enterprising man who made the call that prompted an overnight color change across an entire industry? According to Ngoy’s niece, Susan Lim, Ngoy’s ex-wife says we owe the boxes to Ngoy protege and eventual business partner Ning Yen, or possibly even Ngoy himself.
Today, the pink box is threatened much in the way that the original white box was back in the 70s and 80s. The advent of superior screen printing technologies make it so that shops can print a marvelous array of colors and graphics, and a general interest in conservation means that consumers are comfortable with basic brown’s halo of recycled goodness. Even so, for more than one generation, pink boxes trigger a Pavlovian response in the morning, with brains trained to know all about the sugary treasure within.