October 27, 2020

After 33 years in the doughnut business, San Jose couple closing their shop

Doughnuts have been a lifeline for the Lim family.

For the past 33 years, Chip Lim has arrived well before dawn each morning to start baking at the shop he and his wife, Sara, own at the corner of Union and Camden avenues in San Jose’s Cambrian district.

This Sunday, they’ll sell their last chocolate glazed, old-fashioned and apricot jam-filled doughnuts and turn out the lights at Sunny Donuts. A slowdown in sales during this coronavirus year has accelerated their retirement plans, said son Ben Lim, who — along with brother Howard and sister Emily — grew up working in this family business.

“It’s well-deserved. It’s a very strenuous job,” he said, adding that his parents have rarely taken time off.

Both were refugees who fled the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. The Lims spent their days in the early 1980s cleaning restaurant bathrooms, then transferring on five buses to clean homes in the Oakland hills.

Sunny Donuts owner Chip Lim, right, and his wife, Sara Lim, are seen in this photograph taken in the late ’80s. (Courtesy of the Lim family) 

By 1987, they had saved enough to buy a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise at this location, later turning it into an independent shop. Chip said the business allowed them to purchase a home and send all three children to college.

“We appreciate the United States,” said Chip, whose Facebook post mentions the horrors he witnessed at the hands of the Communist party run by Pol Pot. “This is a great democracy. Gave us hope. Our future was here.”

And, with the shop, they made the most of that future, their son said. “It was their opportunity to own something, to make it their own. I wouldn’t say it was their exact dream, but it was their goal to own something.”

On Friday, customers lined up by the dozens to offer their thanks to the family.

“It’s a landmark,” said Kathleen Verzi, who took time out from her last day in San Jose — she is relocating to Texas on Saturday — to stop by. “These are great people. I’m sad to see them go.”

And, she said: “Buttermilk! Where else can you get buttermilk doughnuts?”

More than a final doughnut, San Jose native Dan Caputo simply wanted to wish Chip good luck.

“I used to have a meeting once a week and it was my job to pick up doughnuts. I would stop by here at 5:30 a.m. and he’d be making doughnuts,” Caputo said. “I learned a few words of Cambodian, too.”

Caputo was standing in line behind Edgar Nuestro, a more recent customer. He’s been buying cream-filled Bavarians here for nine years.

And then there was the mother-son combination of Judith Horn and Hunter Singh. “I could come every day,” she said, but she tries to limit the doughnut stop to twice a month.

Turns out 8-year-old Hunter and his father may be more familiar with Sunny Donuts. He piped up to inform her that when she’s out of town, “We go every day.”

The Lims have been overwhelmed by the response since announcing the closing on their Facebook page.

“We didn’t expect this type of outpouring,” said Ben, who came up from Southern California to help his parents close down the operation. “They are really touched with how many have come out to show their appreciation.”

Customers have just two more days — starting at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sunday — to stop by for freshly made doughnuts. Closing time? Right after the last doughnut sells.

Details: 3605 Union Ave., San Jose; www.sunnydonuts.com 

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