Meet the King of the Cult of Dunkin’ Donuts
The taste of your Dunkin’ Donuts addiction is affected by everything from climate change to a guy with a white beard trying to stop it from tasting like Starbucks.
Here’s the thing. I’m from Massachusetts. I know that Dunkin’ Donuts is bad for you.
I get that throwing back a saturated fat soaked heart punch of pastry and chasing it with a Styrofoam-ensconced heavy cream and sugar caffeine calorie grenade isn’t good for you. But you know what? I don’t care. It’s in my genes.
No, jeans. I spilled my medium regular on them this morning when I almost dropped my Boston Crème.
I don’t eat at McDonalds (unless it’s for journalism), and I don’t get down with that red haired trollop at Wendy’s. But when you’re from the northeast, your birthrights are burning witches, clam chowder, embarrassing sports fanaticism, wicked good jokes that never get old about how we say things like “car,” and Dunkin’ Donuts. So when I had the chance to go and tour their test kitchen, you’re damn right I took it. It’s like Willie Wonka’s factory for Yankees who don’t care about carbs.
I just had to find that Willy Wonka. I wanted to find the man who was making the coffee, and asked him what brand of crack was in it.
The Dunkin’ Brands HQ—it’s pluralized because they also own all 10 million flavors of Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream—is appropriately located in a bucolic Boston suburb. Ironically, it’s also directly next door to Reebok’s home office compound. This locational happenstance is the first thing I mention as I’m greeted in the lobby by a representative of Dunkin’s internal marketing team, who assures me they have all manner of inter-company competition and, of course, barter. I can’t help but grin at the thought of a wiry, hyper-athletic Reebok employee in a shiny new track suit nervously buzzing the side door at Dunkin’ Brands, furtively looking this way and that way as someone hands him a greasy paper sack with a croissant donut in it to devour in shame behind the rhododendrons.
First, we hit the conveniently located and fully automated in-house Dunkin’ café. Thankfully, the “fully automated” part is there to ensure there is no confusion over how your coffee is prepared. For the uninitiated, a hallmark of the Dunkin’ Donuts experience is that they add cream and sugar for you, thus the term “medium regular,” which I think translates to roughly two heaping spoon fulls of sugar and about a stick of butter’s worth of cream, the flavor equivalent of coffee ice cream.
I would hazard a guess that one of the reasons rival Starbucks has never managed to overtake DD in the northeast is this: When faced with figuring out how we take our Joe on the go, we have no idea, nor do we want to think about it. Who has the time? We have the Red Sox curse and Deflategate to worry about.
After assuring that I’ve attained a level of sufficient caffeination—at any given moment before 7 p.m., 90 percent of all New Englanders operate at a level of surly hyperactivity that would make a hummingbird hang its beak in envy—I’m led through a series of normal looking offices full of normal looking cubicles and into a meeting room with a long table. It is here that I meet Jeff Miller, the surprisingly young and fit Director of Culinary Research and Design, who gives me a quick rundown on the itinerary they have laid out for me.
It sounds exciting, but with the amount of coffee and sugar already buzzing through my veins he could have been reciting passages from Finnegan’s Wake and I’d have been stoked. Plus, he’s sitting in front of a gloriously lit croissant donut poster, and I’m realizing that I haven’t eaten anything in hours. He does seem genuinely excited, however, and also excitedly genuine, which is an endearing combination. He also, in what will become a theme for the day, not so much espouses but instead radiates a pride in being a part of Dunkin’ Donuts. I can’t speak to the vibe amongst the pencil pushers and bean counters back in the normal offices, but here in the kitchen, it’s nearly ebullient, and decidedly less corporate than one would expect.
Throughout the afternoon I meet all manner of chef types, and taste test more donuts and sandwiches and sugary frozen drinks than I can comfortably recall without succumbing to self-loathing and the urge to join a gym, or at least undo the top button of my pants. Amidst the blur of smiling and listening and digesting and developing diabetes, there are two things that really stood out.
First, is meeting Rick Golden. A beaming, mustachioed monster of a man, Golden’s Dunkin’ employment lineage can be traced back to their original store in the Boston suburb of Quincy. His journey began at the tender age of 14, and he has risen through the ranks from baker to operations manager to his current impressive sounding title Manager of Donut Excellence. What this exactly entails I have no idea, but as he expertly fileted pastries into sample-sized bites, the deftness with which he handled the knife spoke to many years of experience. If there is a way to gracefully dissect a donut, without displacing so much as a glob of jelly or crème, Golden has it.
Second was the main event: the coffee laboratory.
While the rest of my tour took place in mini kitchens, there is no other way to explain the coffee chamber as anything but a mad scientist’s lab, if that mad scientist was obsessed with all things coffee. Bespectacled and decked out in a white lab coat like a jovial, legal Walter White, Dunkin’s Manager of Coffee Excellence Jim Cleaves is singularly focused on sourcing and producing their signature blends of java.
His small square kingdom consists of a coffee roaster, a round table on which multiple white ceramic cups of beans and grounds are arranged in a circle, various coffee-making implements, and a cabinet which, it turns out, is chock full of coffee beans from hundreds of different sources. No elevator to the sky, though.
Many so-called coffee aficionados assume that Dunkin’s mellow flavor is comparable to cheap coffee, while they associate the burnt richness of Starbucks to sophistication.
To hear Cleaves talk, he’ll have you convinced that’s all a lie, even if it might not be.
Cleaves and his crack squad of coffee wizards claim to sample some 200 cups a day to ensure consistency and quality, in itself no small task. When you consider that the ubiquitous brand dispenses 1.8 billion cups of coffee a year, around 60 cups a second, it’s a daunting task to ensure the literal mountains of beans they procure from all over the world have that same taste.
It’s easy to imagine a high tech system of computers and roasters chugging away, automated and impervious to flaws. But since every crop of beans is different, and even the same coffee farm and trees will produce different flavor profiles from season to season, Cleaves et. al. do it old school. They select the good from the bad the same way coffee merchants have for over 150 years: with their noses and mouths.
This ritual is what the round selection of cups is for.
There are several groups, with each having six through twelve individual cups. Each group contains beans from a different source. The more cups there are for a sample, the more likely it is to have potential flavor problems. The goal is uniformity, so that they can be roasted and blended to achieve Dunkin’s profile.
“We use a huge quantity of coffee,” Cleaves states, “and it’s a huge undertaking to make sure it’s all right.”
Coffee, being a worldwide commodity, is affected by everything from weather to politics. And lately, he tells me, climate change is presenting its own unique set of escalating challenges.
“We’re looking at different regions, different growing climates,” he frowns. “The hotter it gets, the further up a mountain they have to go to grow the coffee, the more labor is involved. And the more the climate shifts, the more the flavors shift.”
“The processing on this coffee is different than these,” Cleaves says, pointing to the tray with twelve cups as opposed to the rest, which have less. “It’s more risky, or vulnerable for problems. So we put down more cups. When the exporters heard that we were gonna do twelve cups, they were like, ‘are you serious? Nobody does twelve cups!’” Cleaves’ says. “Yup, we’re really gonna.”
During growing seasons that have abnormal stresses on the beans, he tells me they’ve done as many as eighteen.
We start off by smelling each of the cups, then add hot water and stir it around, and smell again. Finally, the floating scum of wet bean on the surface is pushed back with a spoon–a technique called “breaking the crust”–and a small mouthful is inhaled with a loud slurp to aerate the liquid and get the full flavor profile. It’s then spat into a waiting container, and the palate is cleansed. Cleaves, who has 35 years of coffee industry experience, mentions different flavor notes, which are lost on my medium-regular palate.
“I fell into coffee when I was 18,” he laughs. “I’ve been doing it since the ‘70s. I started as a roaster at a tiny independent company, then had a family.”
He joined Dunkin’ 11 years ago, for the kids, obviously.
“Being an artisan roaster if you’re a single guy and you really love it is fine, but it doesn’t pay well,” he explains.
I’m told that a surprising number of bean samples don’t actually make the cut.
Every Wednesday, Miller interjects, the executive chef team gathers to do the same.
Cleaves takes a slurp from a cup, then another, and another.
“First we check for negatives,” he explains. “Is there moldy, dirty, medicinal, rubbery, any flavors that are off like that? Back when this technique was invented, they used to only look for negatives, and if they didn’t find any, they’d judge it good and ship it. We have moved beyond that.”
He takes another slurp, and wipes some foam from his white beard.
“If the coffee’s sound, what does it have to offer? And that’s a whole different way to look at it.”
Cleaves’ dedication to providing the best coffee factored into the new dark roast offering, which is a drive, whether they’ll admit it or not, directly into Starbucks’ territory.
“This, for us, was a huge R and D thing,” Cleaves admits. Finding a way to bridge the gap between dark roast bitterness and Dunkin’s traditional smoothness was no small feat, but it’s one they feel they’ve accomplished.
This is the first time the chain has brewed hot dark roast in their stores, though their pre-packaged line of coffee at grocery stores has had a dark offering, which is completely different, since 2009.
The new dark roast is also Rainforest Alliance Certified, joining their Fair Trade Certified espresso beans as a more socially conscious product. Dunkin’s far more popular regular blend, however, is still conventional. Cleaves and Miller indicate that, unfortunately, there are currently no plans to change that.
He brews me a cup of the dark roast, and I take a sip. It is good. And also notably smoother than a certain green and white competitor’s, though at this point I’ve just been talked out of that stuff, who knows?
I waddled out of the Dunkin’ HQ stuffed to the brim and exuding more grease than a teenager in heat.
The takeaway from this behind-the-scenes experience? I’m not sure. I was definitely impressed with the level of, for lack of a better term, humanity behind the brand. Do I think it was mostly a façade for a visiting journalist? I actually don’t. These felt like real people.
I don’t know if America “runs on Dunkin’,” as their ubiquitous ad campaign claims, though the tales of lines forming when the first Los Angeles store opened would seem to indicate that if it doesn’t, it may soon. Is that a good thing? My gut, hanging over my jeans sloshing with coffee and covered with crumbs, is an unabashed apologist, so I’ll let you make that call.
I also, my wife pointed out, smelled like a donut when I got home. I’m still not sure if this was a compliment or not.