Community Gathers to Honor Ralph Primo SR., Entrepreneur, and Family Man
By Keemia Zhang
The life of Ralph Primo Sr., who passed away at 93 earlier this month, was commemorated last Saturday at the beloved Sawtelle donut shop he and his wife, Celia, founded nearly 70 years earlier.
“He just had a very extraordinary life. Artist, businessman, artisanal baker, family guy, community guy,” remarked his son, Ralph Jr., who took over the business ten years ago. In 1956, Ralph Sr., a University High School track star and Korean War veteran, sought to purchase a house for his family – after an offer fell through, he walked into a donut shop to look for a treat for his son and left with an enterprise of his own.
“Back then, none of this was here,” said Ralph Jr., gesturing to the traffic and strip malls that populate the West LA neighborhood. “ The school was here, but there were bean fields. The 405 back there was all corn. It took a while to get the business going, but, you know, through their love together, my mom and dad ran the place themselves.”
For decades, the Primos woke in the early hours to work the shop while raising three children. “My dad getting up at 1 in the morning, making the donuts, my mom coming in at five and working, then running home to get us breakfast, get us to school, and coming back and finishing. It was topsy-turvy.”
Ralph Jr.’s son Nick, who runs operations, referred to the shop as “the pillar of the family” and praised his grandparents’ signature customer service. “My grandma always talked to kids with families; my grandpa did magic tricks. Some people [would] come in 10 minutes before they opened and wanted donuts, and he’d say, “Okay, I’ll make it for you right now – here they are hot, fresh, and ready for you.”
Today, Primo’s Donuts is considered by multiple publications to be among the best donut shops in the city, state, and country, having survived both LA’s recessions and pandemic lockdowns. Since Primo Sr.’s passing, the donut shop’s social media has been flooded with comments from loyal customers, whose goodwill the Primos credit with the store’s endurance: “People will come in and say I was brought there with my grandparents, and now I’m bringing my grandkids with me.”
Aside from ventures in dining – Ralph Sr. ran the successful nearby Mexican eatery Casa Primo before it was taken over by KFC – and real estate, Ralph Sr. was deeply involved in community and civic activities. “They were not only working full time, they were Little League coach, Girl Scout Den Mother, Boy Scout ambassador.” In the 60s and 70s, Ralph Sr. helped found the Westside Community Council and the neighborhood watch.
His interests were very iconoclastic, almost,” said Nick Primo. “He would pan for gold when he could go up to Yosemite. He loved astronomy, stargazing, and telescopes. He loved to draw different styles. He loved music and loved to dance. […] He was 21, and my grandma was 19 when they got married. I believe they were a young family and had a business before they were 30.”
Aside from some aspects of modernization – such as adding high-end coffee to the menu – the shop’s recipes and traditions remain the same. “The shop is a lot more than just donuts,” states Ralph Sr.” “Donuts are great; we make good donuts. But it’s about love, the community, and family. […] We’ve served four generations of families, which is quite unusual in Los Angeles.”
Customers looking forward to being part of the fifth generation can taste Primo’s Donuts iconic recipes – including their trademark buttermilk – at their Sawtelle and Westwood locations, open seven days a week.