Gotham City may have Batman. Metropolis may have Superman. But Glendora has the Donut Man.
“I am the Donut Man,” says Jim Nakano. “Everyone calls me that wherever I go now. They don't know me as Jim anymore. Even my good friends a lot of times say, ‘oh, he's the Donut Man.’”
People come to Nakano for what many call the best donuts in Southern California, lining up at the window of his small shop that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week on Route 66.
On this commercial stretch of the Mother Road at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday, there’s not a lot of kicks to get, unless they involve donuts. And at The Donut Man, there’s one kick above all others.
“I definitely heard a lot about the strawberry one,” says Jason Abdalla. He’s from Chicago. This is his first Donut Man experience. “That's like, kind of the iconic one if you look them up online or anything like that.”
Abdalla eyes a fresh tray of the legendary strawberry donuts in the window and gives his assessment.
“Insane. Absolutely insane,” he says with awed appreciation. “I don't know how you eat that.”
The source of this insanity, “the strawberry one,” is a shell of fried dough jammed with fresh strawberries drenched in a thick strawberry syrup. It's been the main attraction at Donut Man since its debut in 1974, two years after the shop opened.
"My wife, in the early '70s, she said we should just go for the American dream and we were thinking, 'what kind of business?'" recalls Jim Nakano. "And she said to me, 'I like hot donuts.'"
That’s how it all began, though Nakano has survived a lot more than just 45 years in the donut trade. An East L.A. native, he and his family were sent to an internment camp in Arizona during World War II. During the Vietnam War, Nakano joined the Naval Air Corps. He made it through to make a life in donuts.
That’s what’s happening right now in the small shop, where quarters are close and the handful of employees on the morning shift go about their business -- frying, baking, mixing and sprinkling -- with military precision.
For Katelyn Johnson, who fills fried shells with strawberries, it comes with a sense of pride.
“I mean yeah, cause you turn around [to the window], and you watch people's faces come up and they’re like, ‘Oh my God -- that thing’s huge, it's massive.’”
Johnson lays out yet another tray of the confections. The donuts glisten in the morning sun as customers ogle them through the window.
“Just looking at them, you get hungry,” she says. “It's like, you're happy because people look at it and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want one.’”
During strawberry season -- between February and September -- Nakano and his crew of 36 are moving donuts as fast as they can put them out, baking around the clock. Why not? In Nakano’s world, any time is a good time for donuts.
“You can eat in the morning, you can eat it as a snack and you can eat it for lunch because it's so big,” he says. “And a lot of people eat it for desserts in the evening. So you could use that strawberry donut for many uses.”
Including glazed apologies.
“The strawberries have gotten me out of trouble with the wife so many times,” admits Jim, a Glendora local, who began coming to The Donut Man 40 years ago. He shows up on an almost daily basis, chatting and joking with Nakano and the crew as he picks up a box to take to his job as an usher at Angel Stadium in Anaheim.
“The donuts are fantastic, the people are even better,” he says.
For Nakano, the feeling is mutual.
“I think that's one of the reasons I'm still here, is that the customers are just so good,” he says. “We're on about our third generation of kids. You see the grandparents say, ‘God, Jim, I’m bringing in grandkids now and all that’ and I laugh. 'Yup. I remember when you were kinda young too. We were both young.'”
At 77, Nakano is still at the shop every morning at 6:30 a.m. He says he has no interest in retiring from the business of making donuts, and of making people happy.