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Choosing our religion

How one little post-war doughnut shop became synonymous with Boston’s identity
By MIKE MILIARD  |  March 2, 2007


It’s all about the coffee. When I told my mother I was writing about Dunkin’ Donuts, she shot me an impish look: “Gonna find out if they put anything in it?”

Mom’s got it bad. Who can fault her for hoping to pin blame on nefarious additives for her daily five-mile trek to and from a Dunkin’ drive-thru for a fix in a Styrofoam cup? She’s not alone. Heck, she’s better off than a lot of people. Like the lady in the TV ad — based on one Brocktonian’s true story — who bushwhacks her way through what seems like miles of highway-side bramble, finally steps gingerly over a guardrail, and crosses three lanes of traffic to bring coffee to her gridlock-stuck carpool mates. Or the transplanted New Englander in Houston who drove 35 miles every weekend to the nearest Dunkin’ just for a cup of that sweet, creamy Arabica nectar.

People far afield know about us and our affliction. They’re piteous and perplexed. A few years back, when my girlfriend was living in San Francisco (sadly bereft of Dunkies), her friends quizzed her incredulously about the caffeinated cult they’d heard rumors of back East. “What the hell,” a guy asked her, “do they put crack in the coffee?”

Of course, they don’t. (I don’t think.) So what is it? You and I both know what Dunkin’ Donuts means to Boston and New England. It’s a lynchpin of our identity. It’s a religion. It’s a cult. People in these parts freaking love Dunkin’ Donuts. Why? This has become much more than mere caffeine addiction. And it can’t simply be ascribed to its hometown roots. (Do people start MySpace pages paying tribute to Fidelity or Gillette?) What is it that engenders such fervent loyalty? How does a huge multinational corporation maintain such a stranglehold on the affections of a region?

“Good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub,” mused Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. A better one would be to traverse the Hub without passing a Dunkin’ Donuts. There are 269 Dunkin’ stores or kiosks within a 15 mile radius of Boston proper. Indeed, it often seems there’s one on every other corner. Across New England, there are nearly 2000 Dunkin’ outlets: that’s one for about every 6000 people.

Every day, Dunkin’ Donuts serves 2.7 million customers in 4400 stores across 36 states (including New England), and in 1700 locations abroad — as far away as Bulgaria, Qatar, and South Korea. Worldwide sales, as of August 2006: $4.7 billion. And they keep getting bigger. Canton-based Dunkin’ Brands Inc. announced plans last year to grow to nearly 15,000 locations by 2020, more than tripling its US presence. But even as it pushes onward into Cincinnati, Jacksonville, and Indianapolis, Dunkin’ Donuts remains king of New England. And we its ever-loyal subjects.

Blue-collar roots
Dunkin’ Donuts was founded in Quincy by the late William Rosenberg in 1950 (the original location, at 495 Southern Artery, is still extant). The first of what would become those thousands of additional franchises opened its doors, in Dedham, in 1955.

In the beginning, says Gus Dettore, who worked at — and later owned — the third-ever Dunkin’ store (on North Beacon Street in Brighton, between 1960 and 1995), things were very simple: “Coffee and donuts. That’s all.” The joe was hot and fresh. There were more varieties of donuts than ever seen in one place before. But that was pretty much it. When Rosenberg started to expand, slowly, there were plenty of naysayers, Dettore recalls. “People said, ‘You are so crazy. Coffee and donuts? That’s a little Ma and Pa’s job! How you gonna get your money back?’ He was right, they were wrong.”

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.

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