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Dunkin’ Donuts Fans Remain Loyal Despite Drastic Changes

Nitro cold brew on tap and new store layouts mean the Boston-based chain is looking a little more like Starbucks

A person holding a donut with a bite taken out of it in one hand, and a styrofoam cup of dunkin donuts coffee in the other AP

Hazelnut coffee in hand, Boston native Lisa Hastings heads to work after stopping at a Dunkin’ Donuts near Beantown’s bustling downtown. “I’m here every day, that’s how I start my morning,” says Hastings, who visits the same store five days a week. She remains a decades-long customer, “loyal,” she says, despite recent, drastic moves at the nearly 70-year-old coffee stop.

The most obvious, and potentially contentious, change is in the name: Some locations, including the one Hastings frequents, sport a new, single-word “Dunkin’” sign out front — sans mention of the shop’s signature fritter. (The simplified moniker first appeared at a new store in Pasadena, California last August and is being tested at a few locations, including a few Boston-area stores.) A pared-down food menu began rolling out nationwide in January, and nitro cold brew on tap — a staple at third-wave coffee shops that’s also now available at many Starbucks stores — was added across branches nationwide.

Hastings says these changes haven’t affected her routine at all, a sentiment seemingly shared by many DD loyalists in its home turf of Massachusetts, where the brand was founded; the first store opened in Quincy in 1950. (New Englanders are known to abbreviate the brand’s name even beyond just Dunkin’; affectionate sobriquets like “Dunks” and “Dunkies” are regular in conversation.)

A test store in Quincy, Massachusetts goes by simply Dunkin’.
Dunkin Donuts

Online, however, others haven’t been quite as easy-going. The name change in particular has drawn ire from Boston-area publications: A Boston Magazine story bore the headline “Oh No: Dunkin’ Donuts Is Opening a ‘Dunkin’ Store in Boston,” and went on to say the brand “has brought its troubling experiment in re-branding... from the disruptive shores of California to the parochial heart of iced coffee country.” (Meanwhile, a Reddit user speculated on the longevity of the name change, writing in response to the news: “Remember when Pizza Hut wanted to rebrand as ‘The Hut?’ Radio shack as ‘The Shack?’ Sure worked out well.”)

Though it weathered the Atkins diet craze, the economic recession of 2008, and a scandal involving fake butter, the chain is still in a race against its main competition: other coffee shops. Heading into 2018, the company is contending with Starbucks, which has twice as many U.S. locations and takes a high-low approach, appealing to a wide swath of customers by serving both single-origin beans and sugary, multi-colored Frappuccinos. And as Dunkin’ expands with more locations beyond its Northeast stronghold, it can’t simply fall back on its reputation. Now, it’s chasing Starbucks with fancy new beverages, more modern store designs, and a mobile app, leading some to declare that Dunkin’s facing an identity crisis.

Whether it was poor leadership or a tendency to cling to tradition, Dunkin’ is well behind its competitors in embracing new technology. In mid-2016, well after Starbucks struck gold with the launch of its mobile order and pay system, Dunkin’ launched its own mobile order and pay app, which will play a larger role in stores starting this year. Customers can track the progress of their orders via the app, and can see their order status on digital display boards inside once they arrive.

The increased emphasis on mobile ordering is particularly evident at a futuristic test store that opened in Quincy in January: It has a separate drive-thru lane exclusively for customers picking up mobile orders, plus two other lanes featuring touch-screen ordering kiosks. (For those who still prefer face-to-face interaction, a fourth lane allows customers to order from a real live person.)

Going forward, Dunkin’ plans to introduce fully-integrated digital kiosks across the country in hopes of speeding up the ordering experience. In total, the company plans to add 50 stores that feature the updated designs this year.

But Dunkin’s got a long way to go if it hopes to catch up to Starbucks. At the end of 2017, mobile orders only accounted for three percent of Dunkin’s transactions. Starbucks, meanwhile, said in January that its mobile order-ahead feature was used for 11 percent of its sales. (Even more Starbucks customers are using the app to pay after ordering in-store: Mobile payments now make up around 30 percent of its transactions.)

Nitro cold brew, iced coffee, and tea on tap at the Quincy location.
Dunkin’ Donuts

The desire to get customers in and out the door more quickly also fueled Dunkin’s move to streamline its menu. Starting in January, the chain shrank its menu by 10 percent, nixing several lunch sandwiches, certain varieties of muffins and bagels, plus danishes and cookies. Meanwhile, its coffee selection expanded: The brand added cold brew in 2016, and began rolling out nitro cold brew, served on tap, in mid-2017.

“Customer response [to the menu changes] has been incredibly positive,” says Sean Sullivan, the franchisee who operates the Boston Common store. “From an employee perspective, the simplified menu makes operations much easier.”

According to Merieme Ouichou, a Dunkin’ manager in the Boston area, customers quickly adapted to the altered menu; when someone would attempt to order a sandwich that had been discontinued, there was typically an alternative option available. But in some cases, old favorites were sorely missed: People were pissed when the Coffee Coolatta was phased out in favor of a new frozen coffee.

A third round of changes involves interior design. Several newly constructed stores — including both the Dunkin’ on Boston Common and the aforementioned test location in Quincy — feature an open layout and lighter wood decor, along with new digital menu displays. All of this gives patrons a sense that Dunkin’ isn’t just a place to grab-and-go — it’s a place to sit, congregate, and engage with. Boston-area locations with the new layout say they’re attracting a steady stream of patrons willing to take a real break and sit with their coffee at a table.

“Guests have been commenting on the brighter, more modern space and have especially taken note of the lighter color scheme and updated lighting,” Sullivan says. “We’ve been told it feels more inviting.”

Digital menu boards, a bakery-style doughnut case, and grab-and-go snacks at the Quincy store.
Dunkin’ Donuts

In addition to the aforementioned mobile drive-thru lanes, the Quincy test store features a glass bakery case that brings the doughnuts closer to the customers, rather than keeping them behind the counter like a traditional store. There’s also a grab-and-go snack area featuring bottled beverages and healthy items like fruit, not unlike the setup in a typical Starbucks. Eight different cold drinks are available on draft, including the nitro cold brew and a few varieties of tea. The Quincy store is the first of 30 or more newly constructed or remodeled stores to come this year that will test variations of the new design.

Online at least, customers seem enthusiastic about the futuristic Quincy store. “This is DD’s new concept store, and I love it!” a Google reviewer wrote. “The interior was well kept and brightly lit... The donut display case evokes a more bakery feel.” Another wrote, “Love the concept store. Can’t wait for them to roll it out nationwide.”

Dunkin’ aims to expand growth outside of its northeastern hub in the next several years, with a goal of adding 1,000 new locations by the end of 2020. While a few other stores across the country will adopt the abbreviated name later this year, a rep for Dunkin’ Donuts said the company will not make final decisions on whether it will implement the name change at other stores until the second half of 2018.

In the meantime, look out for further tech developments as Dunkin’ pushes its mobile order app hard: Most recently, it added support for voice ordering via Google Assistant. Dunkin’s also moving in the direction of increasing its environmental friendliness, recently making a vow to eliminate the use of styrofoam cups by the year 2020; it also recently announced it was removing artificial colors from its doughnuts. And while some may grumble over minute changes, as long as Dunkin’ keeps serving regular coffee and doughnuts alongside its fancy new nitro cold brew, tried-and-true fans like Hastings will likely keep it a part of their daily routine.

Dana Hatic is an associate editor at Eater Boston.
Editor: Whitney Filloon