Dunkin'

Still from “Men seated around a table dip donuts in coffee cups and eat during the Donut Dunk...” (1946)

Upon first encountering Dunkin’ Donuts in my first trips to the mid-Atlantic coast, I took its title literally. I had been vaguely aware, but never attempted to try myself, the practice of dipping a donut into coffee. There was some murky cultural imprint, a grainy black and white image, unfocused: an unadorned donut—an old-fashioned-style donut, a cake donut variation created after the advent of the yeast donut but still somehow ancestral-feeling—lowered into mud-black coffee—for a moment—and lifted back up.

The old-fashioned donut—especially those available at Dunkin’ Donuts—seems to necessitate the coffee, suffering total incompleteness without it. One bite of the donut alone reveals a compact dryness that demands more moisture than your mouth could possible offer. It’s the baked good born stale, transformed into something new by a cup of coffee. 

Not just any coffee either. Watery and bitter when black with only a shallow, whispered taste of coffee flavor in the coffee. Imminently drinkable, chug-able, and reminiscent of a thousand diners and nondescript carafes across the country. The kind of coffee they serve at Dunkin’ Donuts.

The donut and the coffee are brought together and both are changed. Immediately, the donut begins to break apart and disintegrate. This has a double effect. The donut becomes less of itself and the coffee takes on parts of the donut. It takes the width of a moment for the old-fashioned donut to become coffee-saturated to the point that its true nature is revealed, its dryness relieved, and its flavor profile heightened. 

The coffee, in all its one dimensionality, takes on a new texture and flavor. The donut detritus now floats on the coffee’s surface. This adds sugar to the coffee while larger pieces of donut maintain some of their shape and smaller shards break fully apart. This brings a texture that is, at first sip, reminiscent of drinking a mouthful of backwash. But this is a problem of perspective. More sips bring on a growing comfort with the texture and a realization that the formerly unremarkable coffee has grown more interesting and made more complex by each encounter with the donut. 

“Coffee and Donut” by Ralph Goings (2005)

Somewhere in the nearly two century-long history of the old-fashioned donut, there is some person, some originator of this ritual, the first person to dip their donut in coffee. Or perhaps there is no one person, only persons, only an action that was necessary and so it was performed. When the first Dunkin' Donuts was opened under the name Open Kettle in 1948, it was intended specifically for laborers. In my historical imagination, the donuts and coffee served to factory and construction workers were just as stale and unremarkable as they are now, or perhaps even more so. The name change from Open Kettle to Dunkin' Donuts in 1950 must have been demanded by the way the coffee and donuts needed to be consumed. They even created a donut with a handle that facilitated the act of dunking.

By the time I dunked my first old-fashioned donut in a styrofoam cup of coffee in New York, Dunkin' Donuts was well into its rebranding as a coffee-first institution. At the end of September, the large and ever-proliferating chain announced the forthcoming 2019 name change to Dunkin'. The entity formerly known as Dunkin' Donuts has initiated the collapsing of itself that it laid the groundwork for when it first started pushing the phrase "America runs on Dunkin'." This is in attempt to align itself formally with its colloquial name, but also an abandoning of its traditional function in an attempt to position itself for a bigger share of the extremely valuable coffee market. 

In 2015, the entire economic output of the coffee industry was 225.5 billion dollars. 68.5 billion dollars was generated in profit from this industry the same year. Demand for coffee is growing exponentially, especially among younger people. In 2016, Dunkin' Donuts controlled about 21% of the coffee chain market (Starbucks currently controls 39%). The donut industry, while still relatively growth-oriented and profitable compared to other food markets, projects a paltry 16 billion dollars in revenue. The tenants of capitalism—the demands of endless growth—dictate that Dunkin' Donuts’ focus more on coffee and stake out a larger share of the extremely profitable industry. 

As savvy and all-knowing as the disconnected, hive-mind network constituted of business executives, ad agencies, and trend analyzers that serves as the Dunkin' Donuts brain trust must be, there must be some realization—unacknowledged publicly, of course—that though the demand for coffee seems to be exponential, the supply is not. As the coffee industry grows to meet its current and projected demand, it becomes worse for the environment and worse for any kind of sustainable coffee supply and the environment writ large. 

Olivia Wilde at the Dunkin’ Donuts tiny house in New York (2018)

It's reasonable to assume that this is what the coffee chain had in mind when it recently opened up a "sustainable tiny house" that literally runs on Dunkin' Donuts coffee in New York's Madison Square Park. You won't see Olivia Wilde there, but she did take a picture with it and added some thoughts on the design. The house looks like the loft home of a huge Dunkin' Donuts fan who is also a robot. 

It seems reasonable to assume that this marketing stunt to demonstrate how "it’s possible to live luxurious while limiting traditional energy usage" was produced as an image correction for Dunkin’ Donuts’ role in the rapid and continuing deterioration of the world's ecosystem, something that doesn't seem likely to change in any meaningful way anytime soon. An unstable climate will likely cause the end of coffee as we know it, the delicate coffee bean being unlikely to able to adapt to a harsher environment.

The truncating of Dunkin' Donuts to Dunkin' is more than rebranding. It's a movement away from history and a reaffirmation to its goals of wringing the coffee industry for all that its worth before the opportunity slips away entirely.

Within all of this, somehow, there's still beauty. There's still the old-fashioned donut—for now—awaiting the cup of coffee that will make it whole.