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Average Joe

Scenes from Dunkin' Donuts' 1,200 New York stores—and counting.  

Okay, about that coffee. The cup before me at the 40th Street and Second Avenue Dunkin’, the first stop on my official tour, is carefully brewed to land somewhere on the java-quality spectrum between Starbucks and deli swill (and it’s priced accordingly: A medium cup of black coffee costs about $1.99 at Starbucks, $1.60 at Dunkin’ Donuts, and $1 at your average deli). The beans and brewing methods Dunkin’ uses yield a product that is neither too strong and bitter (Starbucks) nor too watery and weak (deli joe). Although the mildness of Dunkin’s coffee may offend aficionados (a friend who gets $90 haircuts and wears $400 glasses said, “I bought their unground beans once. They were the color and consistency of dried shit and tasted like they’d been in the warehouse for twenty years”), its wide appeal to others was codified in 2004 when Consumer Reports named Dunkin’s ground coffee the best in all the land. (Of course, this is sorta like Italian Vogue telling you the Ford F-150 is the world’s most reliable pickup truck.)

Unlike Starbucks, whose mermaid-logoed paper cups scream “I am a person with some design sense and an environmentally raised consciousness,” Dunkin’ serves its coffee in Styrofoam containers emblazoned with the company’s cheerful puffy-fonted pink-and-orange trademark. Viewed through an upmarket lens, Dunkin’s cups suggest landfills and Gymboree classes. “They’re fine in the car up to New Hampshire,” an Upper East Side publicist told me, “but not so much on Madison and 52nd.” From a populist perspective, however, the cups signify something simple and happy. “They remind me,” said a friend from a town outside of Boston, “of my suburban youth.”

At Starbucks, your coffee is lovingly prepared by that eager, bright-eyed barista, cup by custom-made cup. At the second Dunkin’ stop, a pencil-thin store at 43rd and Second, the Dunkin’ Eight watched approvingly as a nameless staffer took three orders in a minute, hitting a red button for two sugars and a green one for a dash of milk. Customers came and went as if on an invisible conveyor belt. “See how quickly we move them through?” said one of the Dunkin’ ocho. “In and out, in and out.”

What I was witnessing, of course, is the McDonaldization of coffee. Following the model of the Golden Arches, Dunkin’ prizes speed and sameness above all else (Dunkin’ is owned by Pernod Ricard, a French conglomerate, but its stores are all franchised). In addition to its state-of-the-art push-button standard-coffee machines, each Dunkin’ store has an $8,000 espresso-and-latte machine. The goal is simply for every cup to taste identical, whether you’re in midtown or Park Slope. It may not be the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had, but you can rely on its predictability. And, again copying the McDonald’s model, it will be there instantly. Three years ago, the company hired a consulting firm to go undercover into Boston franchises and study customer flow, food-preparation efficiency, and other issues relating to the time in which customers get in and out of the store. The result was a revamping and enlarging of menus so that the fourth guy in line would have a clearer view, meaning that when he got to the front, he wouldn’t dawdle and slow down everyone’s caffeine fix. The company also hosted a bizarre contest where New England area stores competed in refereed events to see which would be the king of fast service. “I think Dunkin’ dreams of one day being able to read their customers’ minds and tossing them their coffee before they get out of their cars,” says a marketing executive with a decade in the coffee business.

Like McDonald’s, Dunkin’ prizes speed and sameness above all else. Its coffee may not be the best you’ve ever had, but you can rely on its utter predictability.

Dunkin’s focus on efficient coffee is a smart play, according to John Moore, a former longtime Starbucks marketing executive who had a hand in creating the Starbucks coffee-as-lifestyle ethos. “They’re going for the lowest common denominator,” says Moore, who now runs Brand Autopsy, a marketing consulting firm. “And I mean that as a compliment. They strip away the entire pretense, they strip away the culture—the Venti, the Grande—and go for small, medium, large. They’re going for the coffee consumer who doesn’t want to think to drink but wants to get out fast.” At the same time, Dunkin’ is positioning itself above deli mud. “One of the great things about a mom-and-pop outfit is its randomness,” says Moore. “But that’s not what people are looking for in their coffee. Dunkin’ Donuts is always going to be consistent. Its customers may not want to think too much about coffee, but they also don’t want to think, Oh, is this the day I get a bad cup?

At our third stop, Steve Menexis, the franchise owner, gives me a tour of the pristine kitchen of his 14th Street and Third Avenue store, which also makes the doughnuts for four of his smaller stores. The stainless-steel ovens shimmer like mirrors, and the floors are cleaner than the bathrooms at The Four Seasons. “You should come back at 4 a.m. and see how it works,” says Menexis, referring to the doughnut-making. “It smells great.”