Santa Monica, California
This is the city: Los Angeles. I work here. I carry a box of doughnuts. In a metropolitan area that nearly 12 million Angelenos and transplants call home, you would think a box franchise staking their tent would barely register a blip on the West Coast foodscape, but the recent opening of the first Dunkin’ Donuts in the area has polarized dough nuts across the Southland. Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A’s foray into Los Angeles would have gone largely unnoticed were it not for the tenets of its anti-gay management; Virginia’s Five Guys crept in and successfully convinced the locals to try a chain burger besides In-N-Out. Sonics are popping up, and it would not be surprising to find Whataburgers, White Castles, Shake Shacks, Portillo’s, or Culver’s setting up shop here in the near future. In the Boston area, another Dunkies opening would have simply created another obstacle in giving driving directions (there’s pretty close to one on every corner), but here in L.A. a strong anti-East Coast contingency is girding its loins for battle against this caffeine and confection behemoth.
What is of curious interest is the legions making a big deal out of those making a big deal about DD’s presence here. For the doughnut dynasty’s opening in Santa Monica at the beginning of September, fans and the curious began lining up two days before the event. One could discount the first person in line, who held in their sights the promise of free coffee for a year, and the first 100 prize whores through the door who walked away with an orange Dunkin’ Donuts swag bag, but Angelenos’ heads were exploding, wondering why there would be a line around the block that persisted for days after the opening. Dunkin’ Donuts corporate office was not making any mistakes – three hours into the line (where I was) there was still a glut of sugary lumps of dough filling the trays behind the counter. Workers handed out loyalty cards; forms were distributed so that you could select your choice of sinkers to make up your dozen while waiting in line and have the box waiting for you when you reached the register; the full menu, including breakfast items, were available. The big brass were on hand, including president Paul Twohig (who designed the day’s Manager Special – a cake doughnut with blue frosting, Twohig’s favorite color) and VP of Operations Weldon Spangler, as well as a bakers’ dozen of news outlets and television stations.
An impromptu poll by yours truly estimated that approximately 90 percent of those in line were East Coast expatriates (easy to pick out by their “Dunkie Junkie”, “Fluffernutter” or college T-shirts), possibly the most reviled demographic on the West Coast. Most of the outcry from the pitchfork-wielding villagers falls along the lines of, “We don’t want your kind here”, a sentiment echoed by local outlets such as Eater LA and LAist. Some media sources labeled those in line “hipsters”, although there was nothing even remotely similar about those waiting on a nostalgic bite of a Munchkin and the throngs who queued up for over four hours in the rain for a chance at getting an original New York-based Dominique Ansel Cronut at The Grove. To put things in perspective, imagine a displaced Southlander living in the Big Apple, eschewing waiting an hour in line for a Shake Shack burger but camping out at the grand opening of an In-N-Out in Times Square.
So what is the appeal of Dunkin’ Donuts? Surely, even those who were nursed with a “regular” in a baby bottle will admit that Dunkies’ coffee is not the best by a long shot – the vended variety tends to be thin and bland. Part of their success in the coffee market is most likely attributed to what longtime caffeinator Juli Couture has dubbed “coffee for people who don’t like coffee” – it doesn’t have that just-burnt flavor that permeates every cup of Starbucks’ brew, and costs considerably less. And what of the doughnuts? There’s nothing spectacular about them – they’re about on par with Winchell’s or Yum Yum; in fact, there are superior doughnuts to be found on Dunkin’ Donuts’ home turf, including Kane’s in Saugus, Massachusetts. Gone are the days when Michael Vale’s Fred the baker let us know it was “time to make the doughnuts”, or DDs advertised their sinkers as “fresh every four hours” – most stores in metropolitan areas are supplied from distribution centers rather than having the doughnuts baked on site. The phenomenon makes sense once you travel out of Southern California – in addition to the high concentration in New England, there are almost half of the 10 thousand-plus outlets located outside the United States.
The bottom line is that Dunkin’ Donuts has been an East Coast comfort food since 1950, and the teeming masses who emigrated to the land of swimming pools and movie stars from Maine down to New Jersey are happy to clamor to relive a part of their past, despite it not having a high class pedigree. They will have a hard time winning over the natives who think that Dunkin’ Donuts has Donut Man, Nickel Diner, or the appropriately named Donut Snob in their crosshairs, although DD has the unbridled audacity to set up shop a block in either direction from Starbucks and Krispy Kreme. There’s nothing to be afraid of – it’s a cup of coffee and a doughnut folks, and they’re not trying to inject it with foie gras mousse.