Growing up, Jon* was aware of the possibility of a nuclear accident. He was five when reactor two at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania suffered a partial core meltdown, twelve when reactor four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what is now Ukraine exploded. He—or more precisely his mother—also had a plan: in case of disaster, go to the Dunkin' Donuts on E. Squantum St. in North Quincy, Massachusetts.
Three years ago, Jon, who works with a Boston news station, was heading back to Quincy, where he still lives, on commuter rail. He’d just covered the wheelchair division of the Boston Marathon, whose participants depart and finish before the race’s runners. Then he got a call from his mother. There had been a bombing at the marathon, she said. “Get to the Dunkin' Donuts,” she told him. He knew which one she meant.
Jon tells me this story at the breakfast chain’s original location on Southern Artery in Quincy. He’s drinking his usual: a large, hot, black coffee with three sugars. Despite the fact that we’re less than four miles from the Dunkin' Donuts on E. Squantum that still serves, in his mother’s mind at least, as the family’s emergency meeting place, he is remarkably unsentimental about the chain, less interested in waxing lyrical than in offering common sense explanations for its enduring popularity. The food is cheap and the employees are friendly, he tells me. Plus, the coffee is—unlike at Starbucks—easy to order. Dunkin' Donuts, Jon tells me “is the one place where . . . you can say, ‘I want a six and six,’ and they know what you mean: six creams, six sugars.”
As a California native, I’ve long been puzzled by Northeasterners’ loyalty to the chain often affectionately referred to as “Dunkies.” (My husband, who grew up in Medfield, Massachusetts, once worked with a man with an Irish last name and a shamrock tattoo who liked to announce that he was heading to “Dunkin' My Donuts,” but that nickname must be less common; I’ve never heard it used seriously with my own ears.) Though I’ve lived on the East Coast, on and off, since I was eighteen, until recently, I patronized Dunkin; Donuts only when it was very convenient, or I was very drunk, or both. (A bacon-egg-and-cheese Wake-Up Wrap sounds surprisingly delicious when you’re waiting for a train in Penn Station at two in the morning.)
Then I moved to Massachusetts. In an attempt to better understand my new home’s fervent devotion to a garishly colored fast food restaurant, I read think pieces and selections from academic papers. I clicked through slideshows and scrolled through oral histories and looked up the founder’s New York Times obituary.
Finally, I made a pilgrimage to Quincy, where I spent hours chatting up regulars over cup after cup of comfortingly inoffensive coffee. (A common complaint among the Dunkin' partisans I talked to was that Starbucks coffee is too “strong”; this might be another reason, along with cost and nonstandard sizing, why there are ten Dunkin' locations for every one Starbucks in Massachusetts.) I emerged not with answers, but with an observation and a hypothesis. My observation: New Englanders are strikingly pragmatic about their relationship to the chain. My hypothesis: this is because Dunkin' Donuts means everything to them. Not a lot: everything.
This is a side effect not necessarily of excellence but of ubiquity. There’s one Dunkin' Donuts franchise for every 5,000 to 6,000 people in New England; 269 “stores or kiosks within a fifteen mile radius of Boston.” David Foster Wallace began his now-famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement address with a story about an old fish who greets two younger fish by asking them, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The younger fish swim on; after a while, one turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is water?” The customers I talked to were swimming in Dunkies. No wonder they couldn’t quite fathom my interest in how they felt about the chain. “I don’t think it’s emotional,” Jon told me, when I asked him about the Northeast’s affection for Dunkin' Donuts. “It’s more of a necessity.”
In the original storefront on Southern Artery, I wait for the men I talk to—and they all are men, the people who have the time to chat with me in a coffee shop in Boston suburb on a Tuesday morning, and older and white—to tell me about their sentimental attachment to Dunkin' Donuts. None of them do.
Don, a sixty-four year-old insurance agent, tells me he goes to Dunkin' Donuts “most every day,” and brings his granddaughter munchkins once a week. One of his wife’s relatives happens to own the parking lot connected to the store we’re sitting in. “Dunkin' Donuts still pays her rent!” he says. He’s run into the same friend from high school in line two days running. (“She gets a blueberry coffee,” he says. He sounds perplexed. “I don’t like fancy coffees, I just like my plain regular coffee with a little bit of cream”.) While we’re talking, the friend’s brother walks in. He’s a local school superintendent. “I just saw your sister here earlier,” Don calls out. “I had to buy her coffee!”
Rich is sixty-one. He likes his coffee light, with six creams and two sugars, and he comes into Dunkin' Donuts once, sometimes twice a day. His enthusiasm for the chain is so over-the-top it’s almost aggressive. “It’s the best coffee in town,” he tells me, grinning. Still, his delight is presented not in emotional but logical terms: the proprietary glee that comes with discovering a good bargain. “You can’t beat them,” he says. “Nothing can beat them!”
A man named Tom, an electrician, offers a less exuberant appraisal: “it does the job,” he says evenly, of the coffee, “that’s all.” His wife, on the other hand, “can’t go by a Dunkin' Donuts,” without going in. Given the concentration of storefronts in the greater Boston area, I hope he’s speaking hyperbolically.
And then there’s Nick. Nick is wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt and jeans and his hair is long and partly grey, as is the stubble on his cheeks. When I approach him, he’s drinking an iced coffee with one cream and three sugars, eating a butternut doughnut, and doing a word search. He’s patient and kind, but initially reticent, almost to the point of wordlessness: when I ask him about his choice of doughnut, he only says, “I like it.” And then, a few minutes into our conversation, he tells me that his daughter used to work at Dunkin' Donuts and that tomorrow will be a year to the day since she died from a heroin overdose. I don’t ask him any more questions about coffee.
Go to the same place every morning for a month, for a year, for ten years. Have friends become employees, or employees become friends, or both. Run into people you knew from high school when you’re in line, decades after graduation. Have it be a haven in case of nuclear attack. Then tell me what it means to you.
The men can’t, so they tell me about advertising and efficiency. They talk about friendly cashiers who recognize their regulars. Don, the insurance agent, admits that his morning Dunkin' Donuts runs are “probably a little bit of a ritual”—after all, his wife buys the chain’s branded coffee beans and brews them at home—but that’s as far as he’ll go. (This may be a quirk of a typically unemotional demographic or a too-small sample size; Bostonians have admitted, in print, that Dunkin' Donuts is a “lynchpin of [New England’s] identity.”)
Maybe none of them have to say it explicitly, the role this apparently generic fast food restaurant has played and continues to play in their lives. Near the end of our conversation, nuclear-preparedness Jon tells me he got tickets to game six of the 2013 World Series. He took his then-girlfriend (now his wife). When the Red Sox won the game and the championship, everyone got hats and a coupon for a free coffee at the Dunkin' Donuts across the street. He rushed to be first to get a hat. And then he waited in line for three and a half hours to get his free coffee.
*Name has been changed.