Rosenberg, who grew up in hardscrabble Depression-era Dorchester, understood early on the importance of keying into a loyal customer base. His Industrial Luncheon Services had sold meals and snacks from gleaming carts to factory workers during World War II. And it was those same grease-stained Joes who’d spur his early donut success.
One early Dunkin’ store sat across the street from a Ford assembly plant in Somerville, Slate’s Bryan Curtis writes, “guaranteeing [Rosenberg] hundreds of loyal rivet-heads.” And when Rosenberg started granting franchise licenses, “He hewed to the blue-collar wards of New England and the mid-Atlantic, which had built-in constituencies.” But for all his working-class bona fides, Rosenberg was a businessman. His coffee, even in the 1950s, was overpriced: 10-cents a cup was twice the going rate.
At first, Dunkin’ Donuts expanded slowly. (And a bit haphazardly: anyone who wanted to open a franchise could.) Dettore remembers the early ’60s, when a smaller, almost identical chain, Mister Donut — founded by Rosenberg’s brother-in-law, Harry Winoker — was Dunkin’s chief rival. Neither was exactly big business. Mister Donut ran three or four branches, which weren’t exactly dwarfed by Dunkin’s 10 or 15.
Things were different then. “On Sundays, I can remember times in our shop that we would make 1300 or 1400 dozen,” Dettore recalls. “By the time Mass got out — nine o’clock Mass was probably the biggest — you might have three bakers in the kitchen. And the manager, maybe even the owner, four or five counter people, everybody went to the counter at 9:50. You worked on selling donuts, and they cleaned you out.”
The next decades saw steady growth and greater attention to branding: Fred the Baker; “Time to make the donuts”; “It’s worth the trip!” By the 1980s, everyone in New England knew Dunkin’ Donuts. But no one, it seems, remembers it ever being quite this popular. Airwaves blanketed with ads. New stores everywhere you turn. Lines 20-people long on Monday mornings. Curt Schilling shilling for the New England Maple Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich. Sidewalks strewn with pink and orange. When and how did Dunkin’ Donuts go from being a damn good donut store to an omnipresent symbol of Greater Boston identity?
“I think the transition happened probably 15 years ago,” Dettore speculates. That was when Dunkin’ expanded its business model to include kiosk outlets. Before then, each Dunkin’ franchise was a full-service shop, fully equipped and with its own baker. But bakers are the highest-paid employees in the donut business, and baking equipment is a major investment, so an outlet would have to attract some serious traffic to offset the expense.
In his day, Dettore says, “We would have our bakers doing minimal tasks just to justify their existence. If you let them produce as much as they can produce in eight hours, you have to throw most of it away.” Now, a smaller shop “can be part of a network where they have three or four kiosks in the area and they drop product off to each of those once or twice a day.” As a result, Dunkin’ counters have become ubiquitous, and brand visibility has skyrocketed.