Baked goods are only part of the story, however. Increased efficiency and expansion turned the brand into a local fixture, but the sales that supported that growth were fueled by one thing: coffee. Coffee, coffee, coffee, and then maybe a top off. The black stuff now accounts for 63 percent of Dunkin’ Donuts sales: 2.8 million cups a day, 16 percent of all coffee sold by the cup in the US. There have even some rumblings of dropping the “Donuts” from the chain’s name. “When they realized the strength of their coffee product,” Dettore says, “is when they started advertising more.”
WORTH THE TRIP: Top to bottom: Dunkin’ Donuts’s first store in Quincy, a recent franchise in Bali, and a translated sign in Chinatown (photo by Dan Watkins).
Increased advertising and franchising cannot fully account for the current turbo-hot efflorescence of the Dunkin’ brand, though. Deeper forces are at work — forces that have to do with who we are, how we see ourselves, and how we wish to be seen.
As coffee sales increased, the chain’s priorities changed. As did its competitors. Most Mister Donut outlets were swallowed by Dunkin’ Donuts’s then-parent company, Allied-Lyons, in 1990. Krispy Kreme’s briefly ballyhooed 2003 foray into New England was a bust. Dunkin’ soon had just one chief competitor. It may not be a coincidence that the beginning of the Dunkin’ Donuts apotheosis roughly coincides with the arrival of the first Starbucks in New England, on Charles Street in 1994.
“I would say what Starbucks has done is turn coffee into identity, as a way to make a statement about who you are,” says Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University who, as research for a book he’s writing about the Seattle–based coffee goliath, has been to more than 300 Starbucks locations in six countries. “That has meant that everyone has had to position themselves vis-à-vis Starbucks.”
It’s a simple dichotomy. And it shouldn’t be too hard to tell which side of the fence you’re on. Just look at the Starbucks in Central Square, and compare it to the Dunkin’ Donuts just across Mass Ave. In one, piped-in music percolates down and steam ascends ephemerally from behind a granite counter. Well-dressed people sit in upholstered chairs, squinting into placidly glowing laptops. In the other, folks line up in a spare and sterile space, brightly lit by fluorescent bulbs. They place an order perfunctorily — perhaps, on Valentine’s Day, an old man pauses for a moment to flirt with his favorite cashier. They get their coffee and their food. And they leave. Coffee as fuel. Coffee as lifestyle. Which you choose is up to you, but very few people choose both.
So why does Dunkin’ Donuts hold the edge in these parts? The home-town advantage is one obvious factor. Outside the original Dunkin’ Donuts — it’s barely recognizable now compared with the image in an archival photo; its sparkling Eisenhower-era cheerfulness and jaunty signage having been remodeled and abraded into a drab, generic strip-mall storefront — Quincy native John Menz, 65, confesses that he pops in “about once a day. I lived here all my life, so I been coming here since it opened. They’re an old Quincy family. Its roots are here.” And, not for nothing, “I like their products. I usually get a pastry, just to start the day.” He holds up his cup. “Lahge regulah.”