It’s hard to believe, but along a desolate stretch of old Route 66, Jim Nakano’s The Donut Man has become synonymous with the best donut creations in California. In fact, for more than 4 decades, Jim and his wife Miyoko have created such a niche in the donut business, that customer’s line up for three city blocks to taste a luscious treat from The Donut Man. Like all good businesses, Jim and Miyoko’s business was grown through hours of hard work, attention to details and some freak luck. Born in Boyle Heights, Jim and his mother spent three years in a Japanese internment camp. After being released, Jim entered the Navy and later met his wife, Miyoko. Starting with nothing, the couple bought the ownership rights to a fledgling Fosters Donut shop. Jim and his wife immediately started experimenting with flavors and designs. Pretty soon, they had developed a name as the donut shop that makes the world’s best donut creations, including the strawberry donut, the peach donut, and their version of a Bavarian Cream donut. Despite economic swings, trendy fads and health-crazed Californians, the two have grown the small enterprise into a virtual landmark in the history books of California, exemplifying the definition of small business success, while humbly showcasing the necessary ingredients required to create a flourishing small business enterprise.
How did you get started with your business?
It’s a very long story. But basically, I was discharged from the Navy and went to work for JC Penny as a manager while also attending school to study marketing. One day on a train, I met my wife. We wanted to start a business, but nobody would lend us money and my job as a department store manager wasn’t my future. My wife had the idea of buying a donut shop because it didn’t take a lot of money to start, it was a cash business, and the profits would grow as Southern California grew. She is a smart woman.
How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?
We didn’t have funding. We had to put the money together ourselves. It was very hard at first, but it paid off.
Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
I learned it the hard way. I opened the store at 6 in the morning and I didn’t stop working until after 9 at night. I learned how to make better donuts each year and I was always trying different things. I never stopped experimenting. This was the key to our success.
Who was your first customer?
I really don’t remember.
What was the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
Money was so hard to come by back then. We really struggled our first two or three years. We were making money but barely breaking even. So I started changing my ingredients a little to try and save some money. I started added less sugar, not using natural ingredients. This was a big mistake and my customers told me right away.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
Well it wasn’t the first year, but it was one of the first years, we started adding seasonal fresh fruit in our donuts. I really started to experiment with flavors and presentation. After World War II, my father started working in downtown Los Angeles at a wholesale produce company, so was very familiar with the seasons and what fruit to buy when. Then I started making my own creations revolving around the fresh fruit in season. I am adamant about only using the freshest ingredients and the most flavorful fruits. That’s what has made us so successful.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
To start a small business from scratch. We built our business out of nothing and it makes me feel very proud of myself and my wife. I also think it is very rewarding when your customers walk away from your store and they leave with a smile. It let me know I am doing something right.
What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
The hours. I get up at 5 every morning and when the first signs of fresh strawberries or peaches arrive, I am in downtown Los Angeles buying fresh fruit before everyone else wakes up. I have a lot of energy, so it doesn’t bother me. But it’s still hard.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
How long we have been here. We’ve never changed our location and people come and look for us. Elvis Presley even used to buy our peach donuts. I can’t believe it’s been 43 years since we opened our store. It still really shocks me.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
My wife. She had the original idea for the store and she is up front at the counter, greeting customers every single morning. She always has a smile and really enjoys talking to people. I think that is what makes a successful businessman, the ability to enjoy what he does as much as his customer’s.
What I’ve Learned
If you could go back to when you were starting your business, what advice would you give yourself?
Maybe open in a location with a little more traffic and a little more space. I don’t know, this place has worked out very well for us, but maybe if I had to do it again, I would try and move us into downtown. But that’s about it.
What do you wish you had known before starting your business?
I wish I would have known how much work it takes. I always knew it would be hard, but I don’t think I’ve had a day off in 30 years. I’m not saying I would have changed anything, but I wish somebody had told me the truth about how hard running a donut shop could be. But then again, maybe I’d never have done it if someone told me.
About the Author — Vincent Aviani has been a professional observer of life for nearly 30 years. Starting out his career as a reporter, and then as a community banking communications officer and public relations executive, Vincent has spent his career listening to personal stories and conveying the histories and wisdom within each story to his receptive audience. For the past four years, he has been running his own small business as a professional communications consultant and storyteller.
This article was originally written on April 24, 2015 and updated on August 25, 2016.