The untold truth of Dunkin' Donuts

They say, "America Runs on Dunkin'" and that's no joke. In 2018, CNN reported Dunkin' Donuts was looking to the future, and it was a bright one filled with a lot more locations. After a recent revamp, refocus, and a little polish to the concept, the final part of the plan was to open 9,000 more stores and double the number of locations for around 18,000 total. Sounds like a lot, sure, so let's put that in perspective: Starbucks only has a tad fewer than 14,000 stores, and they're everywhere.

It's all about the convenience for Dunkin', and cashing in on that early morning rush, the time you probably most often find yourself sitting in a Dunkin' drive-thru, eagerly waiting for the caffeine pick-me-up of a giant cup of coffee and possibly the sugar rush that comes with one of their donuts. There's a lot that's changed at Dunkin' since their early days — but even if you've been a devoted Dunkin' fan for years, there's undoubtedly still some things you don't know about this favorite chain.

They started very small

Dunkin' Donuts was founded by William Rosenberg, and he's a pretty fascinating individual. He grew up in Depression-era Massachusetts, and after the family grocery store went out of business, he dropped out of the 8th grade and went to work to help support his family. He shined shoes, shoveled snow, and made a fortune when he started buying huge blocks of ice, turning them into ice chips he sold at a local racetrack.

Later, he sold ice cream out of a truck, and worked at a war-era shipyard, then turned the profits he made off war bonds into a post-war food truck business that specialized in hitting construction sites. He built his own vehicles, and created the now-familiar concept of the food truck with the roll-up sides.

Rosenberg's biggest sellers were coffee and donuts, so he decided that was the direction he was going to go. He started with 52 donuts — one for every week — and opened a place called Open Kettle in Quincy, Massachusetts. It was his architect who came up with the new name of Dunkin' Donuts, and the rest is history.

Revolutionary business practices

Inc. says Dunkin' was a massive success right from the beginning, and Rosenberg opened six more stores within five years. At the time, franchising was seen as a bit of a shady practice, but Rosenberg saw it as a brilliant business template that allowed for some serious growth. It caused controversy for him, too. According to his biography at the University of New Hampshire's Rosenberg International Franchise Center, he originally went into business with his brother-in-law, Harry Winouker. The two fell out over franchising, and while Rosenberg kept Dunkin', Winouker kept their other stores under the Mister Donut name.

Rosenberg went on to help normalize franchising, and in 1959 he started the International Franchise Association. At the time, franchising had such a negative connotation there was legislature in the works to make it illegal, but Rosenberg's association pushed back and changed the way the nation did business.

Fake ingredients

Dunkin' has gotten in more than their fair share of trouble for questionable ingredients, and there's been several lawsuits over what some consumers considered false advertising, with 2017 being a particularly bad year for the chain.

In March, the Boston Globe reported a Worcester man sued two different groups of area Dunkin' franchises for replacing butter with margarine or another butter substitute. The grand deception had been going on since 2012, he claimed, and even though his attorneys even acknowledged the world had bigger problems, they also said it was important to hold businesses accountable for selling exactly what they're advertising. At the end of the case, the 10 people who brought the suit got $500 each, while the attorneys walked away with a cool half million.

In June, they were sued because the meat in their steak-and-egg breakfast sandwich was beef, not steak, and in July, another suit was filed over their blueberry donuts. Consumerist says the basis of the lawsuit is that the blueberries in their items aren't actually blueberries, they're "blueberry flavored bits". (And, to be fair, most blueberry-flavored things you buy contain bits instead of berries, as we discovered here.)

Their weird menu in China

Everyone has their favorite donuts, whether they're the ones with sprinkles and cream filling or a simple glaze. Finding your local Dunkin' just put out a fresh tray of your favorite means it's going to be a good day, but if you happen to head to China, don't expect to find many of your favorites on offer.

According to the Boston Globe, Dunkin' made a serious push into China in 2016 after failing twice before. Their 20-year rollout plan included 1,400 stores and plans to revamp donuts to cater to the tastes of their customers, and that means some flavors that look super-weird to American eyes. Since sweet treats for breakfast don't hit a sweet spot in China, the menu got a makeover to include donuts sprinkled with seaweed, topped with chili oil, and even sporting slices of dried pork. While some look familiar — there's still glazed and frosted donuts — there's also raisin-topped donuts, a curry beef donut, corn crumb donuts, and donuts dipped in a green tea glaze.

Coffee, yes. Donuts… no

Rosenberg built his business on the idea of serving only the freshest coffee and donuts, and UNH says he had a strict rule about freshness. When it came to donuts, they only sat on the shelf for five hours. If they weren't sold, they were pitched. At the time he opened those first stores, the variety was unheard of, too. The typical donut shop offered only four varieties, while Rosenberg put 52 on offer.

You'd think the man must have loved his donuts, and you'd be right. When Rosenberg passed away in 2002 (the official cause was bladder cancer, and at the time, he was also a survivor of lung, skin, and blood cancers), his Los Angeles Times obituary said he'd often joke that if no one was looking, he could polish off two dozen donuts in a sitting. But when people were looking, he was good. He'd been cutting back on his intake due to weight issues and years of being a diabetic, and while he tended to pass on his chain's donuts, he still started every day with a fresh cup of Dunkin's coffee.

They tried blackface… in 2013

You expect one of SNL's parody commericals to be cringey, but in 2013, Dunkin' made their own, very real, very uncomfortable ad that got them in all kinds of trouble. According to The Guardian, Dunkin' was quick to apologize for the ad, which was actually the brainchild of a franchisee in Thailand. The ad was for their charcoal donut, and featured a woman with a beehive, bright pink lipstick, and full blackface.

The Associated Press noted it's not really anything out of the ordinary for advertising campaigns in Thailand, but the group Human Rights Watch called it out for being "both bizarre and racist." Dunkin's CEO for Thailand, Nadim Salhani, had the most baffling response you can imagine. He defended the ad, saying, "We're not allowed to use black to promote our donuts? I don't get it. What's the big fuss? What if the product was white and I painted someone white, would that be racist?" (Even stranger, it's also worth noting that the model in the ad is Salhani's teenage daughter.)

"Donut" is a legitimate, correct spelling

Would a donut of any other spelling taste as sweet? Yes, says Merriam Webster, and here's why.

"Donut" is actually a variant of the word "doughnut," and it started showing up in common usage in the middle of the 20th century, but there's a well-established tradition that created it. Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster — of the dictionary-writing Websters — championed something call phonetic-based spelling reform. It's basically the idea it's easier to spell things the way they sound, and "donut" actually makes a lot more sense than the more official "doughnut."

Huffington Post adds that the first printed version of the word is actually "dough-nut", and says Washington Irving referred to them by another name: oly koeks (or oily cakes). They also say that Dunkin' Donuts was the one largely responsible for the popularity of this spelling, as it skyrocketed around the time the chain was founded. It's infinitely better than Dunkin' Oily Cakes.

It's not a Cronut

Remember the hype around the Cronut? The half-croissant, half-donut hybrid was the brainchild of pastry chef Dominique Ansel, and according to The Guardian, it wasn't long after the Cronut's May 2013 launch that Ansel had news crews documenting the lines forming outside his bakery. It was revolutionary, and when Dunkin' Donuts announced their own croissant-donut hybrid, they were quick to add it definitely wasn't a Cronut.

Their "Croissant Donut" hit shelves on November 3, 2014, and Dunkin's president of global marketing and innovation, Joe Costello, told NBC News that a huge part of their business was tracking industry trends, and they had been seeing a decades-long, nationwide trend of bakeries combining the two pastries. Costello told them, "Are we copying a specific bakery in New York? The answer is no."

Interestingly, NBC also noted that the domestic Croissant Donut came almost a year after Dunkin' introduced the product to their South Korean stores, where it was called a "New York Pie Donut".

They brewed their own beer

There's not much that's better than a donut and a hot cup of coffee, but a donut and a beer might be a very close second. In 2017, Dunkin' joined forces with Worcester's Wormtown Brewery to create a donut-inspired dark beer brewed from their coffee. According to CBS Boston, the beer was carefully designed to go perfectly with Dunkin's Double Chocolate Cake Donut, and it was called the DDark Roasted Brew. The limited edition beer was, sadly, only available at the brewery's own tap room, and they held a public keg tapping on the winter solstice to celebrate the partnership. Sales of the draught beer made from Dunkin's Dark Roast Coffee started at 11:28 a.m. on the solstice, and seriously, is there a better way to celebrate the end of the world's descent into longer and longer winter nights?

It was all for a good cause, too. Wormtown and the local Dunkin' franchisee, Rob Branca, took the opportunity to make a $11,500 donation to the local food bank.

They've offered an insane number of varieties

So, Rosenberg started off with 52 varieties of donuts, but you might not find that many at your local Dunkin'. How many are there, anyway?

Officially (and according to Boston.com), Dunkin' has 22 staple varieties that are the ones you're pretty much guaranteed to find at any location, at any time. Those are the kinds like the Cinnamon, the Jelly Stick, the Blueberry Cake, the Chocolate Frosted, and the Boston Kreme (which is, incidentally, the Massachusetts state donut).

As for how many others there are... it's almost impossible to tell. There are dozens and dozens of regional and seasonal donuts, but Dunkin' says there are more than 70 different varieties out there. As of 2017, though, any quest to find and sample them all will be harder. According to Today, Dunkin' stores across the country were going to start streamlining their menu, reducing the number of varieties on offer at any given time from around 30 to less than 20. Hopefully your favorites didn't end up on the chopping block.

They reinvented the Easter egg

Dunkin' is known for their holiday-themed donuts and in 2014, they proved even the most demanding sweet tooth could be overloaded with sugary goodness. That's when they introduced a special new donut to ring in the spring, and it was a flower-shaped donut topped with icing, drizzled with more icing, and sporting a marshmallow PEEP on top. They came with a contest and some prizes but not a toothbrush, which is admittedly a potential oversight.

It wasn't the first time they'd made special springtime donuts, either, and in the late 1970s, Dunkin' made Easter "eggs" you'd actually want to eat. They were egg-shaped donuts dipped in chocolate and topped with sprinkles, and they were even sold in an egg carton. Thanks to an ad from the Schenectady Gazette, we even know how much a dozen cost: $1.49. The ad also says they're only available for a limited time and implies there were limited quantities — at that price, it's tough to imagine they lasted very long.

Vanilla nut what?

In 2016, Saturday Night Live did their version of a Dunkin' Donuts commercial with Casey Affleck as the quintessential Dunkin' customer. It wasn't necessarily a flattering picture of Dunkin's fan base, but it was still pretty hilarious. Rather than getting offended by SNL's version of a Dunkin' commercial that was heavy on the holidays and on the cringe-worthy customers, Dunkin' waited several months for the perfect time to give the skit their own shout-out: April Fool's Day.

On April 1, 2017, they issued a press release (via Boston.com) stating they were making Dewey's favorite donut: the Vanilla Nut Tap. It's unfortunate it was only an April Fool's Day joke, because they actually sounded amazing. Adweek says they were an Old Fashioned Glazed Cake Munchkin filled with vanilla buttercream, covered in a butternut topping, and drizzled with vanilla icing. Anyone else think these need to be on a permanent menu?

Dunkin' and donations

Most companies support charitable organizations, but Dunkin' has a very personal connection to their charities. Founder William Rosenberg laid groundwork for supporting a wide range of causes long before his 2002 death, and one of the best examples is Rosenberg's donations to medical organizations and research. The Dorchester Atheneum says he gave millions, and in 1986 he founded the William Rosenberg Chair in Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, in partnership with the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. He was also a trustee at the institute, and years later he helped fund the Harvard Institute of Human Genetics's Vector Laboratory.

In 1971, Rosenberg decided to branch out from Dunkin' in the most unlikely way possible. The entrepreneur invested in Wilrose Farm, and according to his 2002 obituary, he was a Hall of Fame standardbred horse breeder by the end of the 70s. Then, in 1980, he handed the whole operation over to the University of New Hampshire (who he'd already partnered with to provide a practical working environment for some of their students) with instructions to sell it and use the proceeds to open a center dedicated to developing and teaching the future of franchising.