SANTA MONICA BLVD — Sean Tao was 7 years old the day he learned to make change. From that day forward, he could often be seen standing on a milk crate in DK’s Donuts, the doughnut shop his parents owned, handing customers their meticulously counted pennies and dimes.
He was 13 when he learned to make doughnuts in the kitchen of that same doughnut shop, using the recipes his father had learned as a bakery assistant and fine-tuned over many years in the business.
Now, at 22, Tao has taken on a slightly more impressive role at DK’s Donuts: owner.
It’s a role he has been almost groomed for. Tao’s parents purchased the shop in 1981, several years before Tao was born. Both were seasoned in the doughnut shop business. They had owned another shop, Christie’s Doughnuts, in Orange County, and Tao’s father had even graduated from “Dunkin’ Doughnut University.”
Both Tao and his sister, Mayly, spent much of their childhoods in the shop.
“This was my daycare,” Tao said. As he got older, “It became a weekend job, every weekend; to pay for my car insurance, or my gas, or any of my expenses. I learned at an early age to support myself. You can only have the joys of things money can buy if you put in the work.”
DK’s Donuts provided Tao with an education as valuable to him as any he received from St. Monica school, where he spent his middle and high school years, or San Diego State University, where he attended college.
“It makes you grow up really fast, because you’re hanging out with 40 and 50 year old men and women,” Tao said. “I wasn’t really hanging out with people my own age growing up.”
The adult environment Tao was raised in may have hastened his maturation and taught him volumes about running a doughnut shop, but in many cases, he still struggles to be taken seriously as a businessman.
“I look young — I am young,” Tao said. “So it’s hard to gain people’s respect, whether it’s employees or customers or people above me.”
Though Tao’s youth may detract from his perceived respectability, he makes up the difference with his dedication to the business. He spends nine to 11 hours — he acknowledged that it is “usually more” — in the shop each day, arriving at 4 a.m. every morning to make sure things run smoothly.
“People think I work a lot,” Tao said, “but when you’re your own boss, that’s fine. I’ll put in those extra 20 or 30 hours a week. It’s not a big deal when you have no one to answer to.”
DK’s Donuts is well-known and well-loved by the employees of the hospitals, car dealerships and other businesses in the area. Tao is fond of saying that they “feed the working Santa Monica” by offering an “affordable … quality product” as an alternative to fast food burritos.
The shop serves what “feels like hundreds” of regular customer, many of whom come two or three times each day. Tao and the other employees at DK’s Donuts form friendships with many of these loyal returnees.
“The socialization factor is definitely my favorite part of it,” Tao said. “You see all types of people here … And you can’t really do that if you’re stuck in an office.”
“All types of people” is an understatement. From the hair salon owner who left a $200 tip after hitting a jackpot; to the family of French tourists who buy breakfast at DK’s every morning on their annual trips to Los Angeles; to the British expatriate who ordered two dozen vanilla cream doughnuts for her family in England; to the city’s teenagers, transients, and passersby, DK’S Donuts hosts customers of every sort.
“We don’t just want to sell you a doughnut here — we want to sell you a personality,” Tao said. “I want to stress that this is a place for people to come and be welcome.”
Since he assumed ownership of the shop in mid-July of last year, Tao has been working to heighten this image, making small improvements — some as simple as changing wall paper.
“There’s so much more to go,” Tao said of the improvements and of his plans for the future. “I have a lot of things I want to do, but right now, there’s so much work.”
No rush, though — for now, at least, Tao is staying put in DK’s Donuts, holding the family business, and the ideals on which the shop was founded, firmly in place.
“Deep down, this is where I feel right. This is what I know,” Tao said.
The path of Tao’s life may have been leading to this point since the day he first learned to make change. Even so, it can be difficult to try to convey a sense of one’s life to a stranger, to condense years of thought and action into a few sentences. As Tao sat at a table in his shop, attempting to summarize his life for a tape recorder, an elderly gentleman stood up to leave, and paused to give what is, perhaps, the most concise and accurate summary possible.
“This young man’s doing exactly what Carl Jung said,” the man said. “Just follow your bliss, and you’ll be happy.”