Wicked Brew 

Utah soon to experience Dunkin' Donuts coffee

Dunkin’ Donuts is headed this way. The first store will open in Salt Lake City this year followed by 15 more in the region by 2018. I can hardly wait!

If you speak a New England dialect, you would say Dunkin’ Donuts’ overdue arrival here is “wicked good news.” If you hail from one of the six New England states and are living in Utah, it’s not steamers, baked beans or chowder you pine for, but a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts (DD) coffee you crave. DD is such a mainstay in the Northeast that there is now one DD store for every 9,700 people. Were that formula applied to the Wasatch Front, we would have 19 DD stores in Salt Lake City alone. My son lives in a rural Massachusetts town of less than 7,000 people an hour’s drive west of Boston. The town has two DD stores. Both are busy.

Donuts aren’t the main attraction, however. It is the coffee that commands a devoted following. Call it what you will—flavorful, aromatic, mellow—it is what most New Englanders consider damned good coffee. DD’s brew has such a distinctive quality I could pick it out in a blind tasting.

My love of DD coffee developed over the 20 years I lived in Massachusetts. In my 30-minute commute to work, I passed three DD drive-thrus, and in the dark days of winter, I often stopped both coming and going. Once or twice a year, I had to drive to Washington, D.C., and I soon pinpointed the location of every DD store along the way. There was one just before the exit to the George Washington Bridge, so you could roll into the first tollgate on the New Jersey Turnpike sipping a large DD coffee—perhaps a glazed donut or two on the side.

For decades, DD has sold donuts as a sidecar enhancement of a good cup of coffee. In fact, the eponymous “dunkin’ donut”—a Q-shaped, unglazed, cake confection—has fallen by the wayside as bagels, muffins and croissants have found a place on the menu. Krispy Kreme, on the other hand, is a donut-factory outlet that also happens to sell beverages like coffee. That subtle distinction doomed Krispy Kreme’s much-heralded incursion into DD’s turf 10 years ago. Although its signature glazed donut might have been superior to DD’s, its coffee was not. Krispy Kreme survived in Utah, but withdrew from Massachusetts.

Of course, Starbucks has thrived in both places, as it has around the world. The first Starbucks coffeehouse opened in Seattle in 1971, 20 years after DD began selling coffee in Quincy, Mass. It’s no secret that Starbucks has outpaced DD by a long shot. Starbucks now serves coffee and espresso drinks in about 20,000 outlets in 61 countries. DD has 10,000 in 32 countries, but fewer than 100 stores west of the Mississippi River.

Apart from their core business of selling coffee, DD and Starbucks have little in common. A DD store has a working stiff’s ambience—a place more Bruce Springsteen than Miles Davis—and a business model based on no-frills efficiency. You wouldn’t loll in a DD store reading The New York Times, and if you asked the servers behind the counter what a barista was, they probably wouldn’t know. But you always get a good cup of coffee—small, medium or large—for a good price.

Starbucks’ sizing—tall, grande, venti—is intended to evoke a 20th-century Italian coffeehouse with all its artsy associations. I find the Italian words pretentious. Moreover, I am intimidated by the arcane ordering code whereby “a grande skinny, extra hot, split-quad-shot (two decaf, two regular) latte, no whip” translates into a fancy, medium-sized espresso drink with a fancy price and no whipped cream.

That Starbucks is my default choice for coffee is dictated mostly by the character of the coffee. For my taste, the Starbucks brews are too dense, too potent. I think many people feel the same way. In 2007, tasters from Consumer Reports wrote that Starbucks coffee was “strong, but burnt, and bitter enough to make your eyes water instead of open.” It has proven to be too strong for 40 percent of all coffee drinkers, including me, and that may help explain the 2 million cups of Arabica coffee DD sells every day. Starbucks’ response? The “lighter body and mellow flavors” of its new Blonde Roast. It is not as good as DD’s coffee, but it is the only drink I feel confident ordering at Starbucks—“I’d like a tall Blonde, please.” As I say the words, I can hear Groucho Marx’s voice adding, “and a small cup of light-roast coffee to go.”

No more Blondes for me when DD comes to town, at last. Salt Lake City’s coffee reputation may not compare to that of Boston or Seattle, but I believe DD will soon have a devoted following here. There are three reasons why DD’s expansion into Utah will be more successful than Krispy Kreme’s abortive move into New England 10 years ago. First, Utahns are certainly capable of fetishizing food. Think of lime Jell-O, fry sauce and funeral potatoes. Second, Utahns have an appetite for pastry, but the donut market is underserved compared to the heyday of the Spudnut.

Finally, Mormons now have the go-ahead to imbibe cold, caffeinated drinks. With all the health benefits attributed to coffee, it is only a matter of time until flavored frozen lattes find a place in the cupholders of Utah’s minivans and family trucksters.

Private Eye is off this week. Send feedback to comments@cityweekly.net.

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