I’ve reported stories on Colombian narco-terrorists, deposed heavyweight boxing champs, quixotic presidential candidates, and the stray multiplatinum-selling boy band. None had a posse like the white-collar army sent by the nice folks from Dunkin’ Donuts.
And it seemed like such a simple idea. Recently, I had noticed that new Dunkin’ Donuts shops seemed to be spontaneously materializing on every other block in New York. A little research confirmed it: Dunkin’ Donuts—whose previous claim to local fame was an epic episode of bad publicity in the form of 1998 New York Post photos of mice nibbling on doughnuts in a Dunkin’ window—has increased the number of its stores in the metropolitan area from 600 to 1,200 since 2002 and plans to open another 100 stores by next summer, bringing the total to 1,300 (by comparison, there are 237 Gap stores in the metro area). So I placed a call to Dunkin’s Canton, Massachusetts, headquarters with the hope of getting a flack to discuss its plans for New York coffee hegemony. After three months of negotiations and a dozen phone calls, I was instructed to be at the Dunkin’ Donuts at 40th Street and Second Avenue on a Monday morning in October. Imagine my surprise when I was met by not one, not two, but eight Dunkin’ employees. There was the flack, the outside-agency flack, three executives, the franchise owner, his son, and someone to drive the trail vehicle. Soon, I was deluged by a shower of business cards, fair-trade beans, and Coffee Coolattas. Over the course of the day, I would be shuttled to four stores, a building site, and a proposed location that I could see only if I swore on a box of Munchkins not to divulge its address. Oh, and as an afterthought, I was shown where they make the doughnuts.
All of which suggests how seriously Dunkin’ is taking its New York invasion. But then, it has good reason to. Food-industry experts estimate that New Yorkers spend more than half a billion annually on retail coffee consumption. Yes, the word is billion.
There was a time, not so long ago, when coffee in New York was just coffee. You drank it black with two sugars served in a blue Greek-diner cup. It was in your hand on the Penn Station platform when the Daily News screamed FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. You watched it go cold in your Upper West Side breakfast nook after the ’87 stock-market crash left you praying that your daughter wasn’t too attached to the pool in Southampton. And you drank it by the thermosful, with a splash from the flask, on frozen Sundays at the Meadowlands with your dad. Back then, coffee was just part of your New York life. It kept you functioning the morning after a late night, whether you were soothing a crabby baby or entertaining an insatiable Lower East Side ingenue.
Then came Starbucks. Suddenly, coffee was fetish elixir rather than morning fuel. Like wine, there were things to be learned: Ethiopian varietals, French presses, espresso macchiatos, and something called a Venti. This coffee was strong, too—quaffing a Grande or three a day marked you as a card-carrying member of the overachieving class. With its velvet couches, pleasantly bland mix CDs, and Wi-Fi, Starbucks became a living room away from home for the Norah Jones set and a mobile office for would-be screenwriters. No longer did you pick up a cup of joe on your way to work. Now you ordered a $4.81 skim-no-whip mocha Valencia and spent the afternoon hammering out the chase scene for your future Oscar-winning Miramax project in the public library–slash–pickup joint of the new century. The baristas gave you another reason to stick around. The guys were damp-haired brooding-musician types. The women, shopgirls before Steve Martin coined the term—shy, geeky-hot chicks who knew how to foam your 2 percent milk just the way you liked it.
But this is New York. Like cocktail culture, cigars, and trucker hats before, the prissification of coffee is subject to backlash. No one is saying that $5 java is liable to disappear anytime soon, but perhaps the Age of Starbucks has reached its peak. Maybe coffee isn’t something to be fetishized in a Rob Walker “Consumed” column in the Sunday Times, after all. Maybe New Yorkers are yearning for a simpler time when they got their coffee, got the hell out of there, and got on with their lives. Maybe, just maybe, coffee can be just coffee. Or at least that’s what my eight new best friends from Dunkin’ Donuts are hoping.
The name Dunkin’ Donuts is something of a misnomer. Coffee makes up 63 percent of the company’s $4.4 billion in annual revenue. And while Dunkin’ won’t say how much its coffee is marked up, industry experts say java carries by far the highest profit margin of any Dunkin’ product, perhaps as much as 95 percent (a $2 cup might cost Dunkin’ just ten cents). Dunkin’s fortunes, in other words, rise and fall not on the strength of its eponymous glazed, powdered, or chocolate-covered confections but on how much joe it can pour. All you have to do is look at its current ad campaign. The slogan, “Bring Yourself Back,” is meant to lure on-the-way-to-work-coffee customers into the store for a second cup of java mid-morning, or maybe an iced coffee in the afternoon. The message is simply this: Get your ass back here and drink more coffee.