The new Dunkin' Donuts.

Dissecting the mainstream.
March 2 2005 7:16 PM

Dunkin' Donuts

A more perfect pastry.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

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. As its chief executive officer, Jack Shafer, boasted in 1998, "Our average customer would be as likely to pull up in a BMW or Lexus as they would be to pull up in a pickup truck or on foot."

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The middlebrowing of Dunkin' Donuts reverses a half-century of blue-collar bona fides. For years, Dunkin' Donuts embodied the working-class ethos of its founder, Bill Rosenberg, who was raised in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood during the Great Depression. Rosenberg had a reputation as a hustler and street fighter. He had little use for a formal education—he dropped out of school in the eighth grade—but was wont to enter dreamy reveries over baked pastry. His 2001 memoir, Time To Make the Donuts, is testament to their inebriating power."Boy, those big jelly donuts, yeast raised with granulated sugar on the outside, were so loaded with jelly that when we took a bite out of one, it would squirt. It was fantastic! … This great experience left an indelible memory of how donuts meant so much to me." (Rosenberg got the idea to write his memoirs from Mario Puzo, whom he met at a weight-loss clinic in North Carolina.)

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 assemblyplant 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. An early company icon, Fred the Baker—who tirelessly rose in the wee hours and declared, "Time to make the doughnuts"—was pink-slipped in 1997. The 50-year-old "dunkin' donut," which came with a handle for dipping in coffee, and was itself an emblem of proletariat manners, had disappeared from most stores by 2003. Meanwhile, to its array of coffee and doughnuts, Dunkin' Donuts added a wide-ranging "espresso platform" and a Starbucks Frappuccino knock-off called the Coolatta.

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. Hulking globs of grease are out. They haven't been replaced by healthier fast food, exactly. They have been replaced by what one might call aspirant fast food: hulking globs of grease that want to be something. This is perhaps what prompted Dunkin' Donuts to create the Whole Wheat Donut, which sounds benign but contains a whopping 19 grams of fat. Or to suggest, as oneformerDunkin' executive did, that the product's most crucial ingredient isn't enriched flour or partially hydrogenated soybean oil but … love: "Customers most commonly associate 'love' with our coffee and doughnuts, ice cream and sandwiches."

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.

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