Q&A With Primo’s Donuts’ Ralph Primo
Los Angeles is home to sunshine, Hollywood, beaches, and lots of donut shops. But there’s one in particular that’s still standing after 59 years in business — Primo’s Donuts on the Westside of Los Angeles. Owned and operated by the Primo family since 1956, the Sawtelle Boulevard shop has watched its neighborhood, clientele, and the food business change over the years — all while serving up some delicious donuts.
While the LA donut scene is going gaga for cereal-topped donuts and Minions donuts, Primo’s signature donut is the Buttermilk, which looks unsuspecting at first. But with each bite, that dough will seduce you into wanting more — no cereal or Minions needed. (Stay tuned for a full review of the donut lineup soon!)
Ralph Primo, who helps his parents run the shop they bought on whim, was kind enough to answer a few questions for me during a recent visit.
How did your family get started in the donut business?
My mom and dad were in their early 20s. They had just gotten married and he was in Korea in the early 50s and came home. I was three years old and my parents were looking for a house in this neighborhood. Me and my brother were whinging on in the back of the car and my mom said [to my dad], “Why don’t you stop at that donut shop and buy these kids a donut so they’ll stop crying?” We parked right out front and my dad goes in. My mom looks at her watch, wondering, “How long does it take to buy a donut in this shop?”
My dad literally runs out the front door and says, “Honey, we just bought a donut shop.” She asked, “What about the house?” He told her, “We’ll get that later.” And that’s literally how it happened. Fifty nine years later, here we are.
As a kid, were you really excited to have a donut shop in the family?
At the time, I was very young and everyone loved us because we always had donuts. In junior high and high school, the kids would always ask, “Did you bring donuts? Do you have donuts?” It was all part of it and it’s wonderful.
Having been in this neighborhood for so long, how have you seen in change?
Right there, where the supermarket and mall [Rite-Aid and Ralph’s] are, it was all bean fields and corn fields when my parents got the shop. There’s a movie called Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda and there’s an opening scene where’s he’s walking down this dirt road — and it’s supposed to be Oklahoma — and it was right where the McDonald’s is now. Back in the 40s, this area was pretty rural.
Near us, there used to be a toy store, a drug store, and there were little mom and pop shops. In the 70s, it became more of a strip mall with the McDonald’s and all the gas stations.
How have you seen the donut business change over the years?
At first, it was mostly neighbors and people who lived in the neighborhood came here. As the city started to grow around us, there started to be office buildings in Century City and on Olympic, so we started doing a lot more business with businesses ordering large amounts of donuts. We’ve always retained the family feel of the donut shop.
We’ve had generations grow up here. Parents have brought their children and now those children are bringing their children — three generations of families continuing to come here. Even though the neighborhood has changed and become bigger, we’re still that mom and pop shop that people feel they remember from their childhood or their neighborhood. We’re still that.
You mentioned that one of your biggest days was National Donut Day back in June. How do you feel about social media having donut fever right now?
It really helps. Social media lets us reach out to different kinds of customers. We have people now, because of social media, who are coming in from Santa Clarita, Ventura — we even had a guy come in from Bakersfield on Donut Day. They’re coming in from all over the city now, primarily because they’ve seen us on social media.
Primo’s is a family business, but you also have several staff members behind the counter and in the kitchen who have been here for a long time.
Our baker has been here 35 years and Helen, our afternoon saleswoman, has been here for 30 years. Wendy, one of our salespeople, has been here for about 25 years.
That kind of loyalty and retention is so rare these days. What do you think contributes to that?
My parents, especially my mother, are the face of the shop. She really makes sure there’s a family feel, not only for the customers that she greets, but also for the employees. They’re all family. We’ve had girls who started working here while they were in high school and they come back with their kids — they’re now attorneys and working for the studios. They give thanks to my mom, for giving them the chance to start out working here.
What’s your most popular donut?
Our Buttermilk donut is the most popular and it seems to get the most press. The feedback from the customers is that they love it and that’s why we decided on our 59th anniversary to give a free Buttermilk donut — it was a huge response.
That’s Primo’s signature donut. What’s the story behind that?
It’s actually difficult to do. Buttermilk dough is thicker than raised yeast and if it’s not done properly, it can retain grease and it’s like eating a brick. What my dad and the baker have done is experimented with the temperatures and the dough.
What is your personal favorite donut?
I don’t eat donuts that much anymore, to be frank, but I really like the Chocolate Cake when it’s warm. The donuts are tremendous when they’re warm and they’re really good.
You’ve been working in the food business for a long time. What’s your favorite part about working in it?
What I get from my mother is that I love interacting with the customers. In my previous position, I was a stockbroker and I loved dealing with people, talking about their feelings about money. What I’ve gained from learning to bake the donuts and fry them is solitary. It’s a love you feel for it — the love of the process, the love of the ingredients, trying to make it perfect, you know?
Before, it was just something I did to help out, but as I’ve done it as I’ve gotten older, I like to cook in general, but it’s like church — you’re by yourself at night, maybe you’ve got some music on, and it’s just you and the dough. It’s a really good feeling.
What are some of your favorite foods to eat?
I love Italian food. I’ve traveled a lot in Europe and my wife is from England. We’ve spent a lot of time in France and Italy. I love pasta dishes and, if you give me a good hamburger, I’m in heaven.
With the 60th anniversary of the shop coming up next year, what does that mean to your family?
It’s huge, because we see that there’s not a lot of this type of business anymore. There’s very few businesses that last more than three or four years. We’ve been doing this for almost 60 and it’s a huge achievement for my folks, considering how they started it on a whim. It would be very difficult to do that now. It’s very important to us, but we also feel such tremendous love for our customers that have been supporting us all this time. We have a lot of pride in what we create and we have a lot of gratitude that have eaten our food. So, it’s going to be a real party.
It’s a lot about love. My father is a stickler for quality. We really want to put out the best stuff. There’s all kinds of competition now in the donut business, but we just keep doing what we do and keep doing the best we do it, along with our personality. We want to continue this experience into the next generation.
Photos by Eric Shin