America Runs on Dunkin’ Until it Can’t
To be an American, one has to have an appetite.
In Cultural Hegemony in the United States, Lee Artz and Bren Ortega Murphy write, “The American Dream is a dream of consumption,” though we need something to feed on before we can achieve the Dream. Before we can gobble up the riches of success—the house, the car, the high-paying job—we need sustenance.
To me, the flavor of that American promise is the syrupy sweet goodness of Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee. For the better part of four years, a large iced coffee fueled my race to the finish line: cream only, a flavor that would change with the season, and an added shot of espresso, if it was one of those days.
By the time I started college at 17, my dependency was full-blown and my hometown was the great enabler. Compared to any other city, Chicago offers the most opportunity for making Dunkin’ the fabric of one’s life. According to Thinknum, a platform that indexes data for investors, the Windy City is title-holder for Dunkin’ ubiquity with 226 locations to boot.
When I was working long hours for my college newspaper or pulling the overnight shift at my social services job, a large plastic cup filled with enough artificial sweeteners to shock my nervous system sat right next to me. And when I was working on assignments for my advanced writing courses, or in the middle of a full, summer course load to get enough credits to graduate early, one Dunkin’ cup after another left a set of condensation rings on every surface I worked on.
I was always expected to be on an academic fast-track, so I finished my Bachelor’s degree in journalism just a few weeks shy of my 20th birthday. Within a month, I was offered a full-time job at a trade magazine niche enough to promise job security in an industry that’s contracted and halved newsrooms across the country. My family was ecstatic.
During the 1990s Balkan wars, my relatives spread across Europe and North America as genocide raged on in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. What makes the displacement worth it are the success stories, children accomplishing what their parents couldn’t. Everyone, myself included, is too proud of what I did with nothing to wonder why I had less than the other kids, anyways.
Coming up from nothing is a special source of pride for immigrant families, but America has always loved a good journey from humble beginnings. Dunkin’ Brands’ CEO, David Hoffmann, has been vocal about his own rise in the food industry, painting himself as a hard-worker that now leads the coffee brand that caters to other hard workers.
“That our station in life is earned rather than inherited is one of the founding principles of the American Dream, it is fair to say, and that we are a meritocracy versus an aristocracy something in which we have taken special pride,” writes Lawrence R. Samuel in The American Dream: A Cultural History. In a July 2018 interview with The Street, Hoffmann—who is quick to remind that he got his start as a line cook at McDonald’s—where he returned to take on executive positions for 20+ years after getting his business degree—was quoted saying, “I am sort of a product of minimum wage. I grew up in restaurants. That has been my whole life.”
Late founder William Rosenberg was the first to embody that industrious spirit at Dunkin’, and the public has eaten it up, as exhibited through stories like “How this 8th Grade Dropout Founded a $5 Billion Company.” The birth of Dunkin’ is an American story, started by a guy who sold ice chips for 10 cents at local race tracks during the Great Depression. He started selling coffee and donuts out of a post-World War II food truck after borrowing some money from his family and cashing in some war bonds. In 1950, the first Dunkin’ Donuts opened up shop in Quincy, Massachusetts.
We love stories like these. It's a chance to self-project, to fantasize that one day we, too, can reap the rewards of our back-breaking work. It’s easy to fall into the mythos of the branding strategy. The country affords us sustenance if we agree to swallow the ideology that our food is flavored with. “America Runs on Dunkin’”until our knees eventually give out and we’re forced to ask what we were running for in the first place.
Less than a year into my first job out of college, I was ahead on paying my student loans for a degree that’ll probably be worthless in a decade. Every penny I saved amounted to a handsome savings that I was terrified of touching out of fear it would vanish. I had already managed to work away my youth, all before turning 21.
So I quit.
I took the money and on April 8th, I left for Europe where I will be milling about until September. Think of it as Eat, Pray, Love with enough self-awareness to know that it isn’t an act of rebellion, and that pasta in Tuscany isn’t going to lead to some great epiphany. But three days into my trip, I realized one thing: I had become a true American. My trip to the Dunkin’ on Baker Street in Central London—the first city I visited—proved just as much.
I was delighted by how similar London was to Chicago, but the feeling was bittersweet. The similarities made the small differences between my home and this city unnerving. London felt like Chicago viewed through a funhouse mirror. That Dunkin’ was familiar, but it wasn’t right. Being teased with the comfort of home cast a harsh spotlight on the things that made London so foreign, and that foreignness caught me off-guard.
Americans are an interesting bunch when it comes to what we find “acceptable.” According to a 2019 study conducted by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of Americans have agreed that racial, religious, and ethnic diversity makes a country stronger. But study participants also believed there's a set of criteria one has to meet to be a “real” American, like believing in God, or being born in the United States.
Many Americans embrace cultural diversity as long as it still obeys the social standards we’ve set. To find success in America is to pass a test none of us even know we are taking. The closer to the American Dream one gets, the more American one becomes. The Dream is as much about starvation as it is about consumption. People must make room for the American way of life in order to eat their way to the Dream.
After immigrating to the U.S., my grandparents refused to learn English. They played by all the rules, working hard for most of their lives so they could now enjoy retirement, but in their home, only Albanian is spoken. For them, even though they want a piece of the American life, they are Albanians first.
They worry that I’ve become too American: I can’t speak Albanian; I don’t follow the traditions; and I know more about the States than I do about the Homeland. I starved myself of my family’s culture to get ahead as an American. I spent so many long hours studying how to write pretty words in English, that I never had the time to learn a coherent sentence in my family’s native tongue. Subtly referring to my relatives as uneducated low-level workers, some of my mentors in college heaped praise on me for overcoming my family’s background without ever asking what parts of it I wanted to carry with me. But to hell with cultural hegemony. I just wanted iced coffee.
The London Dunkin' I visited did not have iced coffee. According to the cashier managing the small storefront, the location didn't have permission to use the chain's iced coffee brand, instead advertising only cold brew in its place. And it was upon ordering that I had realized that putting cream in one's iced coffee is, well, a pretty American thing, since that wasn't available, either. I settled for whole milk. At least I had a gift card.
But there would be no saving money on this Dunkin' run. I never bothered to read the fine print on the back of the gift card that said it was only valid in the U.S., so I purchased my most expensive Dunkin' iced coffee ever, at a whopping $5.31 USD.
I’d traveled thousands of miles to see something new only to retreat back into what was familiar, what was American. I left because I was disillusioned, but my palate still appreciated that specific American flavor, whether healthy for me or not. Though I had the background to know better, it’s easier to pursue the Dream when you disregard reality.
Most of my family that ended up in the U.S. has been trapped between two warring ideas: they aspire to be Americans, while still fondly remembering communist Yugoslavia and the prosperity the wars took away. They uphold the socialist state but scoff at the idea of questioning why they had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. At once, my relatives have had to swallow American truths while still clinging to their own, no matter how contradictory the two are.
At home, my relatives remembered Yugoslavia for me, but in school, I was like most American students, “routinely sheltered from trends in international political and social thought, especially those that include Marxist influences,” Artz and Murphy write in Cultural Hegemony in the United States. Other than a small blurb in my high school World History textbook about the Balkan Wars, I never received a formal education on the region. I had to piece together the anecdotes from my relatives with whatever I heard Americans say. I hadn’t even understood that Yugoslavia was a Communist country until I was 13. My family’s wistful recollections of the good times in the Homeland, before the war, were at odds with what I learned about the so-called evil Communists who prohibited people’s pursuits of the Dream. I wasn’t invested enough in learning about where my family came from to get the facts right, and my parents wanted me to excel in school, so I listened to what my teachers told me. “Like urban preschoolers who think milk comes from the supermarket,” Artz and Murphy continue, “we haven’t yet seen the cow.”
A couple of weeks after my botched Dunkin’ run, I struck up a conversation with a local shop owner in Berlin. She was morbidly fascinated by life in the U.S. “I’m sorry to say this—please don’t take offense,” she started, about to make the most succinct observation on American exceptionalism I’d heard, “but it seems like, in America, anything not the American way is the stupid way.” I always had the facts right—by American standards, at least. But the shop owner was right, that’s just not enough.
In 1977, Dunkin’ refused to include French translations on the company’s donut boxes sold in Quebec, leading agriculture officials to seize and destroy 15,000 containers in response. Back then, the company’s overarching message to consumers was less lofty. Fred the Baker, played by Michael Vale, simply pushed that going to Dunkin’ was “worth the trip.” It wasn’t until 2006 that Dunkin’ rolled out the enduring “America Runs on Dunkin’” campaign, just after the company was acquired by a group of private equity firms, including Bain Capital. Six years later, Dunkin’ employees joined other aggrieved workers employed by Bain-managed brands to protest unfair working conditions.
No matter the scandals or the class-action lawsuits brought on by franchisees, the Dunkin’ brand has prevailed as America’s favorite cup of Joe. The marketing pitches change, but the message remains the same. In 2010, Boston Magazine published an oral history of Dunkin’ Donuts and the business machinations behind the creation of this humble brand, as told by long-time customers and company executives. It’s always eerie to learn about the faces and motives behind big brands. Naming the executives takes the magic away; the curtain is lifted, and you find out that profit margins were behind the show all along.
After years of acquisitions, devastating business deals, and ongoing corporate rivalries, Dunkin’ coffee finally replaced the doughnut as the brand’s bread and butter. Dunkin’ saw unprecedented growth in the 90s because the coffee was cheap to make and easy to sell. “For Dunkin’ Donuts, the money is in the coffee,” says Eddie Binder, the former Vice President of Marketing. By 1997, Dunkin’ had no use for Fred the Baker anymore, even though “it’s really hard to overstate how important he was to building the brand as unpretentious, hard-working, and fun,” says Will Kussell, the former president of Dunkin’, in the oral history.
The Dunkin’ story has shifted over the years, much like “the Dream has continually morphed yet somehow also remained much the same, this paradox a result of its profound ambiguity,” Samuel writes in The American Dream: A Cultural History. Maybe the Dream is a test, or a fantasy, or a cup of Dunkin’ iced coffee. Whatever it is, it’s satisfying enough to keep America craving it, even when the hunger pangs go away.