The popular shop offers a slew of delicious fare, including hamburgers, bagels and croissants
By Robert Airoldi
John Yam and his family are celebrating 35 years of serving delicious donuts, bagels, croissants, and burgers to hungry Morgan Hill residents. And it was — and continues to be — the loyalty of their customers that have allowed the family-run business to remain successful.
The iconic O’Henry’s Donuts will celebrate its success Saturday, July 23, welcoming everyone in the South Valley to its shop in the Vineyard Town Center. Morgan Hill City Councilmember Gino Borgioli will be presenting a special proclamation.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the donut shop was forced to reduce occupancy and allow one person in the shop at a time. It was then that daughter Sandi decided to return to help.
“It was hard, but we weathered that storm,” she said. “Thankfully, we have a lot of loyal customers.”
Now they are weathering another storm, and that is inflation and supply chain issues. The price of shortening has doubled and for a time there was a shortage of cardboard boxes.
But those problems and rising in the early morning hours to get things ready for their 5 a.m. opening are nothing compared to living under the Khmer Rouge Communist Party regime in Cambodia.
While the Khmer Rouge was in power from 1975 to 1979, members of the Communist party set up policies that disregarded human life and produced repression and genocidal massacres on a massive scale. They turned the country into a huge detention center, which later became a graveyard for nearly two million people, including their own members and even some senior leaders.
“It was basically a subsistence existence,” Yam, 68, said. “If they found you growing (food) for yourself you were shot. It was a very ugly lifestyle.”
In 1982, Yam, his wife Kim, 66, brother Vann and the couple’s oldest children, Katherine, now 45, and Will, now 40, fled their homeland, settling in a refugee camp in Thailand for two years. In 1984, his aunt in Seattle sponsored him and a relief agency paid for the family to fly to the United States. He eventually paid back the debt.
The family lived in Seattle for about eight months. Yam and his brother picked raspberries to earn money. He learned to speak English at an adult school in Seattle, but admits “most I’ve learned in the shop talking to customers.”
From Seattle, the family moved to Los Angeles — where there was “more work and better weather” — to live with cousins. It was during his time in Southern California that Yam found himself in one of his relative’s donut shops making the delicious pastries with his brother.
After about a year in L.A., the family moved again — this time for a final time to Morgan Hill where he and his cousin bought O’Henry’s Donuts in 1989 (they began working there in 1987). Yam eventually bought out his cousin. At one time, Yam and partners owned the Morgan Hill, Gilroy and San Jose shops. The three were eventually split among the partners with Chong running the Morgan Hill shop. He and his wife bought a home in 1989 where they raised their three children and where they still live.
Yam said he enjoys the “easy-going” atmosphere in Morgan Hill. He knows his regulars by name and considers them part of his extended family.
“They come in and say hello and everyone’s like a friend,” Yam said. “I like to see all the customers smile.”
“He loves it as much as he complains about being tired,” Sandi said. “He loves coming in and seeing all his friends.”
O’Henry’s is open from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. On Sundays Yam allows himself an extra 30 minutes of sleep, opening at 5:30 a.m.
The popular diner offers a slew of delicious treats. The ice cream, breakfast bagels and croissants are fairly new additions to the menu, but the donuts and hamburgers have been a staple across the years. They’ll also fill donut holes with jelly or custard at a customer’s request.
Yam uses the same molds, some of which are more than 30 years old, and all his donuts are hand frosted. No assembly lines here, he boasted. It’s tough work that most people won’t do, but learning the trade early in life and buying the Morgan Hill shop provided the Yams with a living that allowed them to send all three children to college.
Katherine Fisher graduated from Santa Clara University, Will Yam graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, and Sandi Yam, 35, graduated from the University of California, Berkeley.
“My kids don’t want my job and I don’t want them to have the job,” said the grandfather of eight.
“It’s tough work,” son Will said.
But Sandi, who worked in corporate retail project management, said she’s willing to take over at some point.
“I’ve always wanted this job,” she said, recalling growing up in the shop. “My earliest memories are here.” Now she has a six-year-old and two-year-old who are growing up around the shop.
City Councilmember John McKay said he gets his donuts there and in the past has taken donuts to police on Christmas morning from there.
He and his wife, Michelle, love to go there for the hamburgers and fries.
“They make one of the best hamburgers in Morgan Hill,” he said. “That’s a throwback burger sort of like the classic burgers I grew up eating at A&W, Foster Freeze and Dairy Queen.”
Yam has three brothers in San Jose, all of whom also own donut shops. He has no immediate plans to retire and still enjoys working alongside his wife.
“My wife said she’d never leave Morgan Hill,” he said.