Who knew a Southern-bred delicacy could cause such fuss at a West Coast shopping center?

And yet, a laid-back, well-mannered pack of sugar hounds waited under a hot Union City sun to get a taste of

A lowly doughnut.

About 65 customers were in line, taking in the savory smell of baking pastries, before Krispy Kreme Doughnuts opened its fifth West Coast location at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The early risers waited just 20 minutes for their dozens but, as the morning wore on, people queued up for up to an hour on foot and in their cars for glazed, jelly-filled and chocolate-covered doughnuts. Most walked out with big smiles as they toted large boxes of warm doughnuts.

“I’m getting a taste of North Carolina,” said Ron Neal of San Jose. Neal reminisced about his first Krispy Kreme experience in 1946 as he patiently waited to buy his two dozen.

“Those were the best doughnuts ever made light, fluffy and all that.”

Others had come to see what the hot, glazed fuss was all about. A line continuously snaked out the glass doors of the small, bright shop, but periodically customers were rewarded for their patience with free samples.

Over at the 24-hour drive-through, Donna Boyle of Fremont settled in behind her steering wheel with a Danielle Steel book while her 6-year-old daughter Caitlyn sipped some of the free chocolate milk given away at the Berkeley Farms booth. By noon, they had spent 30 minutes inching their way to the window.

“We read about it in the paper,” Boyle says. “We’re just wondering why they’re so great.”

While drive-through customers can get them hot, as long as the “hot doughnuts now” sign is on (from around 5 to 11 a.m. and again from 5 to 11 p.m.), walk-ins also get to see the whole doughnut-making production through a glass wall.

The dough is extruded by air (“like blowing a bubble,” says spokesperson Maria Bruckman), is subjected to a sauna-like box where it puffs out, then is fried in vegetable shortening and finally glazed in a sugar waterfall.

Brad Bruckman, president of the Northern California franchise Golden Gate Doughnuts, estimated the harried staff was baking about 3,000 doughnuts an hour, and would continue at that pace through the opening week.

Union City was chosen, Bruckman said, because “it is a very good city, number one, as far as the East Bay. It’s centrally located, it’s a destination place and a hub for retail.” The shopping complex already has a 25-screen cinema, an Albertson’s, Starbucks, an In-N-Out Burger and a myriad other chains, with more on the way.

Krispy Kreme’s southern roots go back to 1937, when Vernon Rudolph opened the first shop in Old Salem, N.C. By the time Rudolph died in 1973 the shops had expanded to about 12 states, mostly in the South.

A larger food service company bought the properties, tinkered with the recipe, then tried to expand with no success. The company later sold out to franchise owners in 1980.

It took about a decade for the owners (who returned to the original recipe) to pare down the debt and launch national growth.

The sixth West Coast Krispy Kreme opens next week in Southern California. A Mountain View store is due in July, while the Sacramento location should launch in August. The list of East Bay possibilities includes Pinole, Pleasant Hill and San Ramon.

The company also plans to go public; Krispy Kreme will make an initial public offering of 3 million shares the week of April 3 for about $18 to $20 per share. So several customers, such as Sheila Truschke of Danville, came to the opening to sample their possible investment.

“One of our (stock club) members had been to one in Las Vegas,” and had talked highly of its investment opportunities, Truschke said.

“We had to have a taste of the product, you know.”

Union City police Sgt. Mike Shelton, on duty with Officer Brian Simon since 5:30 a.m., experienced nothing like other West Coast openings. The Las Vegas location, for example, had lines that measured a mile long.

At the Union City store there weren’t any traffic back-ups or sugar-induced chaos. “It’s been virtually no problem,” Shelton said.

Neither of the officers partook of Krispy Kreme’s fare.

“It’s a myth,” Shelton said of the stereotype that they are always eating doughnuts. “Police officers are a helluva lot more health conscious nowadays.”