Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Dunkin' Donuts -- A more perfect pastry.

Dunkin' Donuts - The Great One. By Bryan Curtis (slate): "Something is amiss at Dunkin' Donuts. The store's loyal constituents—cops, firemen, construction workers—report disturbing sightings of soy milk. The Boston Globe says that the doughnut titan has hired a professional chef—trained in Europe—to perfect its new steak, egg, and cheese sandwich, which features "a higher-quality piece of meat and scrambled eggs instead of a fried egg." Some Chicago-area Dunkin' outlets are dabbling with wireless Internet, which had previously been the domain of high-end joints like Starbucks. One could be forgiven for thinking that Dunkin' Donuts, home of the blue-collar masses, purveyor of some of the most frightening fast-food on the planet, was angling for middlebrow respectability.

Dunkin' Donuts still boasts some gruesome pleasures: "The Great One," a 24-ounce coffee chalice, and the Double Chocolate Cake Donut, which carries 310 calories and has the texture and density of igneous rock. But over the past five years the chain has sought to burnish its pastries with a glaze of class: Dunkin' Donuts is reinventing itself as an upstairs-downstairs coffee house. It wants to lure more white-collar customers while tending to its loyal base of proles.

Rosenberg brought fire and entrepreneurship to Dunkin' Donuts, which he founded in Quincy, Mass., in 1950. Having peddled snacks to factory workers during World War II, he knew how to draw in the proletariat. His coffee was hot, cheap, and served in seconds; he offered 52 varieties of doughnuts, dozens more than his competitors. An early storefront was situated across the street from a Ford assembly plant in Somerville, Mass., guaranteeing him hundreds of loyal rivet-heads. When Rosenberg began granting franchise licenses a few years later, he hewed to the blue-collar wards of New England and the mid-Atlantic, which had built-in constituencies; even in early 2005, only 70 of the chain's more than 4,000 American outlets were west of the Mississippi.

Like all corporate behemoths, Dunkin' Donuts is a clever thief. The chain waits for other restaurants to innovate, a company vice president told Business Week Online, and then "Dunkinizes" their products. Rosenberg pinched the idea for his "52 flavors of donuts" from Howard Johnson's 28 flavors of ice cream. When Einstein's and other bagel houses surged in the mid-1990s, Dunkin' Donuts put bagels in its glass cases; within a year, it was the No. 1 bagel-seller in America.

But the looming specter of Starbucks—and Rosenberg's retirement in 1988—heralded a new era for the doughnut house. Piece by piece, Dunkin' Donuts shed its blue-collar trappings.

Dunkin' Donuts hasn't tried to battle Starbucks on the Seattle chain's upscale turf. It peddles a more engaging, populist tone: high-quality coffees without the cultural pretension. A 1998 Dunkin' Donuts commercial featured a prissy Starbucks-style barista, clad in green apron, mocking customers; the ad said that Dunkin' Donuts peddled "a rich, bold blend without all the bitterness." Dunkin' Donuts fended off a challenge to its other flank from Krispy Kreme, the North Carolina-based chain, which was trying to out-duel it by offering shameful pleasures to the middle class. Dunkin' responded by emphasizing its healthier items and beefing up its espresso menu. Krispy Kreme, once a hot Wall Street stock, was bleeding money by 2004.

In the age of the Atkins diet and Super Size Me, fast food has become a dicey business. If the late-1990s were about indulgence—Krispy Kreme, the Triple Whopper—then the new century requires a novel approach.

Even as Dunkin' Donuts tinkers with its menu, it still has a nagging problem: atmosphere. Whereas Starbucks channels the ambiance of the European coffee bar and Krispy Kreme the sleekness of the '50s diner, Dunkin' Donuts stores have all the warmth of a sanitarium—and an unsanitary one, at that. The color scheme is often exceedingly magenta. (A grand remodeling plan succeeded only in changing the name of the magenta to "ripe raisin.") Starbucks and Krispy Kreme invite customers to buy something and stay a while; Dunkin' Donuts chases them out the door, as if clinging to the '50s blue-collar ethos of "Back to the plant!"

This approach has made Dunkin' Donuts America's most aloof fast-food franchise. One could argue that doughnuts are meant to be a solitary pleasure, consumed silently and with great speed. But is there any chain where one is more likely to see people sitting alone staring blankly into the industrial lighting? I camped out in the crowded Times Square hub in Manhattan for nearly 30 minutes one afternoon before I heard a grunt that approximated human speech: a man asking another if he could share his table. The seated man replied, "You gotta give me half the stuff on your tray." That just won't do. Dunkin' Donuts can't hope to fend off Starbucks without appropriating some of its one-on-ones and cell-phone banter. It's time to make the doughnuts. But first, it's time to make conversation."

No comments: