Do You Know the Donut Man?
Donut Man is a Southern California legend. Owned by Jim and Miyoko Nakano, the iconic donut shop on Route 66 stands out because of their consistent quality and service. Their perfectly timed donuts are hand-made with care and a true donut connoisseur can taste the difference. Throngs from the LA Basin and beyond pilgrimage to Glendora to pay respects to one of the highest rated donut shops in the nation. How many shops can boast that Elvis indulged in their product? The stand is open 24/7 and a line never ceases as the infamous strawberry donuts glisten. We sat with Jim while eating tiger tails and learned how he became the Donut Man.
By Eric Nakamura and Natalie Mark
Photos and Video by George Ko
GR: What were you doing before you started Donut Man?
Donut Man: I worked for J.C. Penney’s. My wife said to me, “We should start our own business. The American Dream.” I said, “We could do that,” but I didn’t know what to do. I was thinking about hamburgers or pizzas and she said, “I like hot donuts.” There was a new franchise up in Ventura where we were living at that time. I said, “Okay, let me look into it.” The owner of the new franchise said, “I’m really interested in starting it.” We looked into it and said, “Yeah, we could probably do that.” The owner said he was going to open two or three shops. One in Glendora, one in Burbank, and one in Goleta. We thought, “Oh! We like Goleta!” But he said that one would be in about a year and a half away. If I wanted to do something I wanted to do it right away. So we came here and looked at Glendora. We liked the community; it was small only about 35,000 in 1972. That’s how we began. In 1975, we were quite successful, but we said we were going to start our own place. The owner told us we could buy this franchise him. So we bought him out.
GR: This is a franchise?
DM: It started as a franchise. The owner still owns some of them.
GR: Are they all Donut Mans?
DM: No, we came up with Donut Man. Once we started our own franchise we thought, “We got to get a name. We can’t call it ‘Jim’s Donut.’ No way!” We were struggling to come up with a name. My best friend and I would always go to dinner. We were at dinner, and this little girl came up to me and said, “Hi Donut Man!” and that was it. All because a little girl came up to me and called me ‘Donut Man.’
GR: What were you doing at J.C. Penney’s?
DM: I was a department manager. I was real successful at it. I had set up goals and Penney had a problem: they were starting to disperse some other managers. I was very close to the district manager; I was his first promotion. He talked to me and said, “I don’t think we can get you your goal.” I had a six-year plan. I said I wanted to be at this position at this, this, and this. I was way ahead of schedule but he said, “I know we can’t make your schedule.” That’s why we started looking at other places.
GR: I always hear these stories that Elvis ate here.
DM: Let me tell you about strawberries, first. In 1974, the oldest area had quite a bit of strawberry farmers. One of my Japanese customers was a grower. He said, “We got so many strawberries. Why don’t you come up with a strawberry donut?” I said, “Let me think about it.” I had a friend who was in a bakery. He said he would set me up and teach me how to make the glaze and everything. He said, “I’ve got some equipment I can give you.” He taught me how to make a strawberry glaze adapted to donuts, and same with peach. We naturally thought peach, and he taught me to make the glaze for that.
GR: You’ve had a strawberry and peach glazed donut since 1974?
DM: Peaches don’t start until mid-July and it ends sometime in August. Peach season is very short but everything is fresh. Nothing is frozen. We have to time it just right. We have to make sure it’s ready to go. It’s a problem both for strawberries and peaches to keep them fresh.
GR: Have you noticed a difference in the quality of fruit since 1974 to the present?
DM: They’re different. At one time, the berries weren’t that good tasting because they were trying to get shipping berries. The more sugar you add to the fruit, the riper it gets, and they spoil much quicker. Nowadays, they’ve got new types of plants that are much sweeter. There’s about three types of plants that we get all the way from San Diego— actually the Mexican border— and all the way up from Watsonville and Salinas. Right now we’re in June and we’re getting a lot of fruit mainly from Oxnard, some from Watsonville, some from Orange County—which used to be big. San Diego is all done now. Most of their stuff is going to canneries and things like that. Our peaches come from the high desert all the way up to Fresno and up that way.
GR: How do you find growers?
DM: I have a produce guy in LA from the largest produce company, Valley Produce. He’s the only guy we’ve received choices from and he guarantees me we will get them. Two years ago, there were no strawberries. Nobody had them! One of the ladies who had a post up produce place asked me where I got my strawberries from so I said “Valley Produce.” She said, “He doesn’t have any!” So I looked at the flats we got, and it said, “COSTCO JAPAN.” He sells all over the world. The strawberries were going to Japan but he diverted them to ship them to us. He’s really good.
GR: That was during the drought?
DM: Yeah. No one had them. But we always have strawberries and peaches, and he makes sure we always get the best. I don’t care what the price is. I need the quality to do it.
GR: What makes your donut better than the average donut shop?
DM: The main thing is we really pay attention to how they’re made. We time it. That’s very important. We watch humidity. All those things factor into your donuts. We use a potato raise too, so it’s a different taste. Those are the main things we watch: how we handle the dough and the temperature. Plus, we bake so much. Sometimes on the weekend we’re baking for twenty-four hours, only stopping to filter the oils. Our oil is changed once or twice a day so it’s clean. Those things make a difference in the taste and quality of the donuts. We’re baking so often, you’re always going to get a fresh donut. You can’t beat a hot donut.
GR: What happens at these other donut stores? Are they not changing the oil?
DM: I can’t tell you because I can’t go to other shops!
GR: You don’t visit other shops?
DM: I used to go, but for the last twenty years they come to me and talk to me. Or they just look around. You can tell because they’re looking at the prices or the donuts – different than a typical buyer.
GR: What do they ask you?
DM: They ask me how I do it and I talk to them. But often they say, “No, I can’t do that.” So I say, “You can’t afford not to do that!” A lot of them don’t do the research. They’re on the wrong side of the street. They’re building walk-in types but there are no customers. There are a lot of factors that impact their business. Maybe there are too many donut shops in the area. When we started in this town there were about 4 donut shops in the area. You have to figure out what to do. A lot of times they only bake once a day because they close. If you’re there and they bake at 2 o’clock and close at 10, 11, or 4, then those donuts end up getting pretty old. Especially if you don’t use preservatives. The time of day also impacts the donuts.
GR: Tell me about Elvis!
DM: Elvis is an interesting story. Elvis doesn’t go anywhere. He doesn’t go to any restaurants. My wife was at the window and this customer came in every so often. She knew who he was. One day, he parked in front and she said, “I really like your car!” It was a green Mercedes convertible. He said, “Elvis gave it to me.” She was quiet and said, “Elvis gave it to you?” He said, “Yeah. I don’t eat your donuts. He does. He eats your raspberry donuts, all the time!” He pulled out his wallet and showed us a picture of Elvis eating our donuts. She asked, “What do you do?” He said, “I’m his karate teacher. He comes down to Glendora or I go up to his place.” He showed us pictures of him training Elvis. But later on, we found out Elvis fired him because he told him to stop taking prescription drugs. Elvis was getting overweight. He told him it’ll kill him. There must have been two or three other guys who told him to stop taking drugs.
GR: This is late career Elvis then.
DM: This was around 1976. In fact, one of my wife’s highlights was when she went to see Elvis in Las Vegas. She didn’t get to meet him though. We’ve had other celebrities. It really doesn’t have to do with the donut shop— it does but it doesn’t. We were one of the questions on Jeopardy! We didn’t even know! Somebody from New York called us and posted on our Facebook. He said, “Hey! You’re a question on Jeopardy!” Naturally, we watched and it was a $1,000 question. It was a question about routes: “Sometimes you go to Glendora to visit Donut Man on this famous route.” The answer was Route 66. The man knew the answer so I thanked Alex Trebek. He’s eaten our donuts, but he hasn’t come out here. We’ve been on the Food Network four times. The last one, we weren’t supposed to be on. It was for the Food Network Star. Alton Brown called and said, “We’re not supposed to have the show at your place, Jim. But I pushed for you because I like your place. It’s our biggest show with the most viewers.” They did it and it was really great. He comes by every so often. The big one was Huell Howser and his KCET show in 1999. He became a good friend. He used to come by when he was going to his home in Palm Desert. His favorite donut was tiger tail, and he loved it hot. We miss him a lot.
GR: I thought you invented the tiger tail, but I guess I was wrong. You’re one of the only places that make it, right?
DM: Our tiger tail is different from anyone else. It’s what’s in it. People don’t realize what we put in our tiger tail.
GR: Is it a secret?
DM: No, I could tell you. If you ate it you would probably be able to figure it out. Most people just put chocolate in a tiger tail or glaze or syrup. We actually put the batter for a devil’s food cake inside. You’re actually eating a devil’s food cake that’s twisted around. A lot of people don’t fool around with that because it’s an extra process. But when I came up with it, I said we had to do something different. I worked on it and came up with the devil’s food cake. I liked this taste. I develop the fillings for a lot of the donuts we’ve come up with. Everyone wants peanut butter. I had a really good peanut butter but after a while I didn’t like it anymore, so I cut it out. If I don’t like it, then you don’t see it. A lot of people ask me, “Why don’t you do this?” Because I don’t like it. I do coconut because I get many requests, but I’m not a coconut lover. We don’t have much coconut in the store.
GR: You’re actually the donut taste tester.
DM: That’s what I do. Nowadays, I’m just a gopher. I don’t make donuts because they tell me I’m too slow at my age. Everything is timed and they tell me they have to get the donuts out faster. I can make the donuts but our production is so high now that I slow them down. Here at the shop, I’ll eat half a donut or break them just to look at the texture to taste them just to make sure it’s right.
GR: Every day?
DM: Every day. I’m here seven days a week. I eat maybe two or three. I’ll break open maybe one or two. I still like devil’s food. It's still one of my favorites, that’s why it’s in tiger tail. Mostly, I’m supporting the cash now.
GR: Your devil’s food is one of your favorites?
DM: It is the favorite. All these years. Sometimes just plain, though. The only cake I eat is chocolate cake.
GR: That’s kind of surprising.
DM: It is. I like cookies. I’ve always wanted to do cookies here but I just don’t have the room. Cookies are probably my favorite, then donuts, then pies, and then cakes.
GR: Donuts aren’t even your favorite?
DM: No, no. It’s always been cookies.
GR: You’re the Donut Man!
DM: My mother made the greatest cookies. I’ve always loved cookies. I was interned in Poston, Arizona in Camp 3, Block 39. I think you could find me in museum records. We came out of the internment camp in late 1945 and we moved to East LA. My father was still in Europe in the army. He was drafted out of the camp in Poston. He was in Germany so our friends said we could stay with them until we could find our own place. We stayed there, and at that time Helm’s bakery was in existence. They usually had a truck that went by all the time. There was a cocker spaniel named Danny in the neighborhood. Every time we heard a whistle, we would race out there to get to the donut truck. The driver would always give Danny a donut before giving one to me. I liked glazed and sugar donuts. Then he gave me a lemon donut and that became my favorite for a while.
GR: Those were the first donuts you ever ate?
DM: The first donut I ever ate was right there from Helm’s bakery. Maybe fifteen years ago, there was a person in Monrovia that bought one of Helm’s trucks and he brought it over here. I was really happy!
GR: How do you keep Donut Man in the top ten donuts? It’s always in the conversation nationally and locally.
DM: Through social media. I’m sure the guys back east pick it up on social media. One of the best donuts I’ve had is from George Izumi from Grace Pastries. George was a top-notch baker. His associate baker opened up Amy’s Pastries in Montebello. They made good donuts, too. He came out and he talked to me about donuts maybe 30 years ago.
GR: Do you think you bring anything different to donuts as a Japanese American?
DM: No. My wife demands good service. She believes in service, service, and service. That is probably one of the big parts when she was working here up until 1980. Everyone just loved her. She was the front of Donut Man. She set the standard. She gets mad now when she hears from people. The other thing she said, “You come here, and you get in line. If a friend comes, they have to wait. They can’t sneak in the back door.” Sometimes we have friends that do, but we try and keep that at a minimum. She always demands service, which is probably the extent of our Japanese influence.
GR: How do critics compare donuts nationally?
DM: There’s one person, John T. Edge. He’s the head of the Southern Foodways Alliance. He’s at the University of Mississippi, I believe. He still writes for some national magazines, but in the early 1980’s, he took a year off from his job to write four books. One on hamburgers, one on apple pies, one on donuts, and fried chicken. He went all over the United States to try donuts, hamburgers, and apple pies. In this area, he went to Apple Pan in Pasadena. He went to Pie and Burger. He kept hearing about us, so he came in and talked to us. By accident, we were here at the same time and started talking. He tried us, and came back and tried us again. He said we had one of the better donuts. I asked him where he ate the best donut. He said, “The best donut I ever had was in Cleveland.” I asked him what made them so good. He said, “Everything came out hot.” He had a bakery but he had a guy who only made donuts. Their donuts were really good because they were hot. I think other people just read about us. The Food Network people have been out here, they’ve been to a lot of donut shops. They tell others and I think that’s how people learn about us.
GR: What do you think about chain donut shops?
DM: They’re a completely different donut. We have a Krispy Kreme a mile away from here. They make theirs by machine. It’s a completely different donut. It’s very light. They pump it out that way. Their donut is a different consistency. What my customers tell me is that their donuts are only good when they’re hot. I think all donuts taste good hot. I’ve had a Krispy Kreme donut. I think it’s a good donut. I like the fact that they’re really good when they’re fresh. It’s a different donut, so we don’t worry about them. When they came a year and a half ago, some people asked me if they would hurt our business. I said, “They might be close but the pie is only so big. They’ll take a little bit.” We haven’t felt a loss of customers. In fact, we’re growing a little bit. We’re probably maxed out. We’re trying to give better service and get more donuts out. When we really get hit hard, I don’t have the varieties that I want and that hurts me. Everyone just talks about two or three donuts and they don’t try my other ones. I hope a lot of people come in the fall after strawberries and try our cream cheese and our pumpkin. Then they’ll say, “Okay, I see why they’re a good donut.”
GR: How many years have you been here?
DM: 45 years.
GR: Are there any aspirations to expand?
DM: Whoever takes over will probably expand. But I don’t want the headaches of growing again. This is a tough business. We’re lucky we have good customers and the volume. This is a volume business. Otherwise it’s just a job. A lot of donut shops are there because it’s a job for them. It’s very labor intensive. Every donut here is handmade; it’s not like Krispy Kreme or Dunkin' Donuts since they have machines. Many bakeries don’t do donuts because it’s so timely.
GR: What do you think of specialty donut shops?
DM: I think it’s great! Anything new or a change that will keep people interested is an advantage to me. We’re still trying to come up with new donuts. Unfortunately, the price point is getting pretty expensive. I just read an article in the Wall Street Journal about hamburgers. You’re getting hamburgers that are $6, $7, $8, and if you have a family of four and you want to buy a hamburger then it’s expensive. That trend is having a problem because a lot of people will go to a cheaper place. We’re finding that we enjoy some of those types of places. People are starting to come to us more and more. I’d like to go to other shops to look at them just to see what they’re like. I hope the fillings and all that are creative. Creativity is the most fun to look at!
GR: Your donut prices are so good!
DM: We haven’t gone up in a couple of years. We have to go up.
GR: But your donuts aren’t $4 unless you get the strawberry or peach one.
DM: One of the things my father told me was, “Don’t make your money all at once. They’ll come back. You want repeat customers.” So that’s what we did. This is a volume business. I’m sure some of these gourmet donut shops are working on many donuts. We have a chocolate strawberry at the beginning of the year and they’re a huge size. We sell it for $1.75. We sell tons of them. On Valentine’s Day we sell 10 or 12 dozen for $1.75. Other days we’ll sell 6 or 7 dozen. They say, “Why do you hold the price?” I say, “Because we’re a volume business.” A chocolate shop will sell chocolate strawberries for $3 or $4, $5 or even more. But they only sell maybe a dozen of those because there are other candies. We should go up in price, but I don’t want to slow us down too much. But we will go up in price.
GR: Can you tell me about your customers? At different times of day you must have different types of people come in since your shop is 24 hours.
DM: Going back to volume, my average customer comes from better than 6 miles away. You pass a lot of donut shops six miles away. I get a lot of customers from Santa Monica, from UCLA, from USC. A lot of college students. We get them from Palm Springs, Lake Arrowhead, Newport Beach, Corona Del Mar. We used to have a limo come up and a guy would buy donuts and he said, “These are for my boss in Newport.” We get them from the Valley. We had a person from Simi Valley that stopped by. He said, “Jim, I want to meet you!” Talk about location. There were two graduates from Pomona College, I don’t know how many years ago. He told me his wife is from the San Fernando Valley and he was from Arcadia. She asked him, “When we get married, where will we live?” He said, “We’re going to live here in the San Gabriel Valley.” She said, “No way! We’re going to live in the San Fernando Valley.” They went back and forth listing the perks of each valley. He then said, “Okay. We have the Donut Man.” She said, “We’re moving to San Gabriel!” He convinced her to live out here!
GR: Do truck drivers still come through here at 5 in the morning?
DM: We have a lot of regular customers. We’re here, the 210 is only a half-mile over the hill. We get a lot of customers from the west side going to Palm Springs or Las Vegas. They’ll stop here on the way. We get a lot of those like Huell Howser did. A lot of Japanese that live in Gardena or Torrance stop by and go back.
GR: What’s the future of donuts for you?
DM: It’ll end very soon. I traveled the world already before I opened the donut shop, before I worked at J.C. Penney. When I was in the military I was stationed in Japan. We went from Alaska to Thailand, especially during the Vietnam War. After I got out of the military and worked at Penney’s, I was actually going to quit Penney’s to travel Europe. They gave me a month off to travel. I was the only person they allowed to do that. I saw all of Europe and everything else. Then I saw Colorado and west Utah. I haven’t seen north like Washington. I have never seen the East except Washington D.C. and Virginia. I would love to see the East. I’d love to see New Orleans. I have a friend from the military who said we’ll go eat oysters because we ate oysters in Japan. I’d love to see much of the South and part of the North. I loved reading about the Civil War so I’d like to see those sites.
GR: Are you going to retire soon?
DM: I’d like to retire soon. I just want to be able to say, “Okay, let’s go and do this.” Nowadays, even when we travel, I don’t like to stay just 1, 2, or 3 days. I like to stay for a week or a week and a half. Even when we go to Europe, we stay for three weeks and then come back. I’d like to do that more and more.
GR: If you retire, will you still eat donuts?
DM: I will always eat donuts. I can’t thank the donut shop for giving us the life we have. We’ve met wonderful people. That’s the only reason I haven’t quit before. I should have retired ten years ago. My wife asked, “What are you going to do? You can’t just sit here, garden, or travel. You’ll get bored. Why don’t you stay at the store and be a PR person?” So that’s what I’ve been doing the past 5 or 6 years that’s all I’ve been doing. We have tour buses that stop here on Route 66. I get on the bus and give a history Donut Man and Route 66 they love that. I may still do it for a little longer.