Cruel Donuts

Words by Elaine Wu

Photos by Paulette Phlipot

Words by Elaine Wu

“Be kind.” That’s the motto emblazoned inside the lid of every large pink pastry box at Cruel Donuts on Laurie Meadows Drive in San Mateo. Owner Lean Ma has made that her goal, all while offering up some of the most inventive donuts on the Peninsula. “I wake up at 4AM every morning and I’m excited to come into the store and have my cup of coffee and see the first customer,” she says happily.

Born in a refugee camp in Cambodia, Lean and her family arrived in the U.S. in the early ’80s and settled in San Mateo several years later. Ever since she can remember, her family has been in the business of donuts.

“My dad opened several donut shops in San Francisco. My cousins and my aunts, from Southern California all the way up to the Bay Area, also own donut shops,” says Lean. She started working as a preteen folding donut boxes and cleaning up on weekends, eventually working the register and interacting with customers. “My dad always taught me more of the management side,” she recalls. “He always hoped we would take over the business. I was the oldest of my two siblings so I had to learn the ropes.”

But instead of donuts, Lean went into the business of serving breakfast, owning and operating a few restaurants in San Francisco. “My dad’s been telling me for years to just go into donuts, but I didn’t want to do it because it felt dull and boring to me,” she says. “I liked running restaurants because it was fast-paced and I enjoyed that excitement.”

But when the space that now houses Cruel Donuts became available after she decided to close her breakfast eateries, Lean couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work closer to home and be more available for her kids. “I ended up doing exactly what my parents were doing,” she notes, “but I still wanted to be different. I didn’t want to be the standard donut shop.”

That’s why Lean decided to create some out-of-the-box flavors, along with the standard favorites people know and love. Popular variations include passion fruit- glazed, guava jelly-filled and seasonal fresh strawberry shortcake with whipped cream donuts. On the weekends, Cruel presents bright purple ube flavored and chewy mochi varieties. But it’s the crème brûlée donut that is their best seller. “We bake actual authentic crème brûlées in little ramekins and stuff them into the donut,” describes Lean. “Then, we put a little sugar on top and torch it. It takes time to make, but I don’t think anyone is doing a crème brûlée donut the way we are.”

Although customers are initially enticed by freshly-made, quality treats, it’s Lean’s signature dose of kindness that keeps them loyal. “I just don’t think there are many places anymore where you can feel welcome when you go in and the staff treats you like they genuinely want you to be there,” she says. “People tell us all the time that the staff is friendly and they love our donuts. I’m proud that we’ve created that kind of business.”

As for the name of the place, it’s a play on Lean’s favorite donut, the French Cruller. But she also sees it as a bit ironic since she’s so focused on providing such positive service. “It’s not because we’re really cruel!,” she declares. “It’s exciting to create a brand that’s about being kind. We like to spread that energy.”

After less than two years, Cruel Donuts has developed a devoted fan base as evidenced by the long lines out the door on weekend mornings. Beginning later this summer, she’s also hoping to offer house-made ice creams with unusual flavors, much like her donuts. But no matter what Lean creates, her passion for her work will always come through. “I tell people we do everything with love,” Lean proclaims. “We genuinely do.”


This filling is what makes Cruel Donuts’ almond croissants a customer favorite.

200 grams of almond meal
200 grams of sugar
200 grams of softened room temperature unsalted butter 
2 eggs
Pre-made butter croissants
Sliced almonds (optional)

• Using a stand mixer and flat beater, beat butter with the sugar at low speed.
• Add one egg at a time until each egg is well incorporated before adding the next egg. 
• Gradually add almond meal. After adding all of the almond meal, mix for another 5 seconds and stop the mixer to scrape the bowl to ensure everything is being mixed. Give a final mix for 5 seconds. 
• Slice pre-made butter croissants and generously spread the bottom halves. Close up the croissant and spread the frangipane on top of the croissant. Add sliced almonds on top of frangipane. 
• Bake at 350 F for 10-15 minutes until lightly browned.