Sweet tweet about sad dad makes for smiles at new­shop

The back­story on Billy’s Donuts, which has lines around the block

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Mag­gie Gor­don STAFF WRITER

Billy By can’t stand to see his fa­ther sad.

But you al­ready knew that. Just about every­body with Twit­ter, or a TV, or even a pulse knows that. Thanks to a vi­ral tweet sent over the week­end, the world now knows that on the day Billy’s fa­ther, Satharith By, first opened his new sunny yel­low dough­nut shop in Mis­souri City, hardly any­one showed up to buy his dough­nuts, caus­ing a sullen face that nearly broke his son’s heart.

“My dad is sad cause no one is com­ing to his new dough­nut shop,” Billy tweeted, shortly after clos­ing time on Satur­day, adding a sob­bing emoji and pho­tos of his dad next

to still-full cases of dough­nuts. He hoped some of his friends would see.

He never ex­pected you’d see it, too — much less that it would be retweeted more than 330,000 times and land Billy’s Donuts on news seg­ments around the coun­try, in­clud­ing “The To­day Show.” He cer­tainly never thought it would lead to lines snaking out the shop door as his par­ents raced to keep the dough­nut dis­plays full.

But in the so­cial me­dia age, the right tweet can change ev­ery­thing.

The rush of retweets be­gan im­me­di­ately. And by the time Billy went to bed Satur­day night, he felt the need to warn his dad.

“Dad, make a lot of dough­nuts,” he said.

Satharith smiled. On Satur­day, he still didn’t know quite what Twit­ter was — or In­sta­gram, where the store’s fol­low­ing bal­looned from 35 fol­low­ers to more than 125,000.

He learned pretty quickly. On Sun­day morn­ing, the shop sold out — even as Satharith spent the ma­jor­ity of the day mak­ing ex­tra batches in the back of the shop. He kneaded and beat the dough, fold­ing it and rolling it out again and again — pil­ing it high and spread­ing it thin over and over in a rhyth­mic process, like a nev­erend­ing tide of dough sweep­ing across the bak­ing ta­ble he’d spent two weeks mak­ing by hand in his garage.

The Bys called in aunts and other fam­ily mem­bers to help out, as Satharith rolled, cut, glazed and fried. His wife Nakry took orders up front.

“It got crazy,” Nakry said a lit­tle after 11 a.m. on Tues­day — nor­mally a quiet time in dough­nut land. But there’s no such thing as a quiet time at Billy’s this week. And for Nakry and Satharith, this has been a long time com­ing.

Satharith came to Amer­ica in Fe­bru­ary 1981, as a refugee from Cam­bo­dia; Nakry came a month later. He worked as a ma­chin­ist — hence his deft skill at cre­at­ing his own tools, like the jumbo-sized metal rolling pin he uses at the new shop. Nakry found a job at Wendy’s, where she was still work­ing when her mother and Satharith’s mother set them up.

They were mar­ried in 1983 and saved dili­gently to open their first dough­nut shop in 1993. They named it Billy’s after their son, then a tod­dler, and be­came part of Hous­ton’s dough­nut shop com­mu­nity, in which roughly 90 per­cent of stores are owned by Cam­bo­dian-Amer­i­cans.

For 24 years, their shop and their son were the cen­ter of the Bys’ Amer- ican dream. Then, in 2016, Nakry’s health de­clined; first came kid­ney stones, then a cyst. With all the pain, she could no longer bear stand­ing on her feet all day. Satharith couldn’t run the shop alone, and they had to sell the busi­ness they’d built from scratch.

“And then I had to stay home; I had noth­ing to do,” Nakry said on Tues­day, a hint of sweat bead­ing along the brim of her ball­cap as she piv­oted around the small space be­hind the counter, from where she keeps the tongs to where she swipes credit cards, at­tempt­ing to mul­ti­task her way through the line. “And we tried to save money to open this one. And then, the first cou­ple days it was so quiet, and I was so sad.”

She ob­vi­ously wasn’t alone in that feel­ing.

“I was re­ally so sad,” said Satharith. “It was too slow. And I told my wife maybe we’d have to sell the shop and go out to work. And then Billy was so sad. So he said, ‘I can help you Dad. I’ll make this bet­ter.’ And he did.”

Billy’s Donuts isn’t the first Hous­ton busi­ness to find a sec­ond wind thanks to a heart­warm­ing so­cial post from a kid.

In De­cem­ber 2017, Jac­que­line Garza sent out an all-caps plea ask­ing peo­ple to pa­tron­ize her fa­ther’s Mex­i­can eatery, La Casa Bak­ery and Restau­rant in the Near North­side.

“He been think­ing about clos­ing but I can't let that hap­pen, spread the word,” Garza tweeted about her fa­ther after a long string of dis­ap­point­ing sales. Twit­ter ral­lied. Soon, it had been retweeted more than 60,000 times, and sales quadru­pled, sav­ing the bak­ery from a grim fate.

But Billy’s tweet went even fur­ther. On Mon­day, a group of Twit­ter em­ploy­ees who were in Austin for the an­nual South by South- west fes­ti­val hopped into a car and drove to Mis­souri City to buy out the store’s sup­ply of dough­nuts. It was the least they could do, the com­pany said in an email to the Chron­i­cle.

“With just one tweet, Billy sparked an out­pour­ing of love and sup­port around the world,” a spokesper­son wrote. “We’re here to show him ours.”

The com­pany has en­gaged with and am­pli­fied sto­ries like Billy’s be­fore. But never to this level. And while Twit­ter is usu­ally re­served for 280 char­ac­ters and a brief, 15-minute blip of fame, the eye on Billy’s Donuts con­tin­ues to linger. On Tues­day, Satharith eas­ily made more than 200 dozen dough­nuts. That’s less than the pre­vi­ous two days, he said, but still well over what he’d an­tic­i­pated the de­mand would be.

“I wasn’t ex­pect­ing it to be this crazy this early in the morn­ing,” Joe Bal­tazar of Sugar Land said at around 11:15 a.m. Tues­day, as he waited for his chance to pick up a half-dozen glazed dough­nuts and a cou­ple of ham-and-cheese crois­sants.

It’s out of the or­di­nary for Bal­tazar to even stop at a dough­nut shop. The last time he did was at least six months ago, at a Krispy Kreme in Hous­ton. But he saw the story of Billy and his par­ents on the news and thought, “I want to sup­port good peo­ple like this in our com­mu­nity.”

So he drove out and waited about 20 min­utes in line. At one point, he said if they weren’t able to ful­fill his or­der, he’d just come back to­mor­row.

“This is fam­ily,” Bal­tazar said “This is lo­cal. This is com­mu­nity and this is a happy place. So sup­port­ing them? It’s the least I can do.”

Gary Foun­tain / Con­trib­u­tor

Just days after a slow de­but for Billy’s Donuts, Satharith By is now work­ing to keep up withs.

Pho­tos by Gary Foun­tain / Con­trib­u­tor

Satharith’s son Billy turned to Twit­ter to com­pel cus­tomers to come buy dough­nuts; his tweet went vi­ral.

Twit­ter em­ploy­ees who were in Austin for SXSW­drove to Mis­souri City on Mon­day to buy out the sup­ply.

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