Sonny Ho was a 16-year-old Philly high school student when he landed his first job.
“I was a porter, doing cleanup,” he said. “After school I threw out the trash, mopped the floor, and hosed down the kitchen in the Dunkin’ Donuts at Erie-Torresdale. I made about $100 [a week] and was so happy for it.”
A lot has changed since the mid-1980s: Dunkin’ Donuts is now called Dunkin’, and Ho’s company, Northeast Donut Shops Management Corp., owns 45 of them — including Erie-Torresdale. The CEO is 50 years old, lives in Jenkintown with his wife, Alice, drives a Tesla, and recently donated $100,000 to the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia.
Ho’s donation, made through the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation, will help provide fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and other nutritious ingredients to food-insecure families living near seven neighborhood public schools citywide. The program is called Meaningful Meals, and includes nutrition education.
“I call Philly my hometown,” Ho said. “It feels great to be able to give back to my community.”
Alice Ho, director of the management corporation, likened the food program to a dream come true for mothers worried about keeping children fed and healthy during the pandemic.
“We’re happy we can help whoever needs help right now,” she said. “The point is, the community supports us, and at a difficult time, we are supporting them.”
The couple attended a Nov. 19 kickoff event at the William Dick School in North Philly, where frozen turkeys and 20-pound boxes of food were distributed to several dozen families. The distributions are offered in neighborhoods that lack ready access to food pantries or other food-assistance programs. Meaningful Meals is being implemented by the district’s Eat Right Philly nutrition education service and Share, the nonprofit food distribution network.
“This donation isn’t just about writing a check,” said Amy Williams, principal of the K-8 school at 24th and West Diamond streets, where the families of all 440 students meet income-eligibility guidelines for free breakfast and lunch for their children.
With the pandemic forcing classes in the Philadelphia School District to go all-remote, those breakfast and lunch programs have been disrupted. The district is providing “grab and go” breakfasts and lunches at 60 sites; Ho’s contribution will help sustain the separate program, offering 16 fresh food distribution events at William Dick and the six other schools.
At the Nov. 19 event, Beatrice Sams, 67, called Ho’s donation “beautiful” and said she was recently laid off after having been called back to a part-time job. “I’m grateful for these volunteers,” she said. “And I’m grateful for the food.”
Sams’ cousin Rhonda Flowers, 63, was next to her in line. She said some of her neighbors “can’t get out, and I’ll be taking some of this food to them.” And Cindy Brooks, the mother of two students at William Dick, gave the distribution program “thumbs up, 100%!”
Sonny Ho, who is ethnically Chinese but was born in Vietnam, emigrated to the United States when he was 13. His father, a watch repairman, got a job in Philadelphia; Ho excelled at the Parkway Program, an experimental city high school that has since merged. He was a Parkway student when his parents bought their first house, in the city’s Juniata Park neighborhood. The seller turned out to be a baker at the Erie-Torresdale Dunkin’ Donuts.
“He asked me where I was working. I said, ‘I need a job to help out my family.’ The store had just opened and he introduced me to the manager,” said Ho.
Within a year or so, he was an assistant manager; by the time Ho was majoring in business at Temple University — his academic performance at Parkway had earned him a full scholarship — he was managing four Dunkin’s, including three 24-hour operations.
“I made the doughnuts. I made the muffins,” Ho said. “I made a lot of sacrifices.”
They paid off: In 1995, Ho became a partner in Northeast Donut Shops, and five years later, the CEO. All but two of the corporation’s 45 stores are in Philadelphia, and Erie-Torresdale, which has been closed due to fire damage, will be rebuilt and reopened in about six months.
Asked about the source of his success, Ho credited “education, hard work, consistency, and a great group of partners” at Northeast.
“When you don’t have anything, you have to work harder, and you need education,” he said. “I am very grateful to the Philadelphia School District. And I want to give something back.”