Sunday, January 22, 2012

Seriously, Who Hasn't Made Up Their Minds On Dunkin' Donuts? A Most Comprehensive Review!

Dunkin' Donuts

The Good: Some delicious coffees, donuts and even surprisingly good breakfast sandwiches
The Bad: Some of the latest gimmicks fail, Expense of sandwiches, Dining-In experience
The Basics: Disturbingly below-average establishments and (often, but not always) service hide a chain that produces food and drink that are well above the curve for a coffee and pastry establishment.

There are any number of psychological problems that could keep me from sleeping (but hey, until they find the bodies, I don't have to talk about them!). I, however, have been up all night for a vastly different reason. Today, er, yesterday now, was free iced coffee day at Dunkin' Donuts. I hit four different Dunkin' Donuts in my quest to sample as much in order to write the most comprehensive review of Dunkin' Donuts I possibly could. I have no illusions, though; no matter how comprehensive this review is, it does not stand much of a chance as: 1. It will be buried behind thousands of other reviews already on the internet, and 2. I'm writing for a mythical individual; someone who has not already made up their mind about Dunkin' Donuts. So for you, visitor from Zimbabwe (who just so happens to be reading my review), I offer the following!


Dunkin' Donuts is a chain of donut shops that seems to have its largest concentration of restaurants on the East Coast of the United States, extending down from it's largest concentration in New England west and south. There are some 5,300 Dunkin' Donuts in the U.S., with 195 in the Boston area alone. Yes, they have a powerful presence in this part of the world.

For those keeping track of such things, CEO of Dunkin' Donuts Jon Luther is a contributor to the Republican Party and, according to Buy Blue, Dunkin' Donuts' parent company, Allied Domecq, PLC, is also a prime Republican contributor (donating $31,320 - 74% of their political contributions - in the 2006 election cycle to the Republicans). So, for those of us who have the guilty pleasure of eating donuts from Dunkin' Donuts, you ought to know exactly what your money is supporting. Perhaps as a nice balance to this, Dunkin' Donuts has a refillable mug that allows one to be environmentally responsible and one gets one's drink at a lower price when one uses it.

Spread along the east coast and heading into the west, Dunkin' Donuts is a franchise-operated donut shop that specializes in donuts, coffees, and breakfast sandwiches as well as an assortment of muffins, bagels and (bafflingly, for a donut shop) cookies. Dunkin' Donuts is instantly recognizable for its appalling color scheme of maroon, pink and bright orange on its signs and seats (in most shops).

Dunkin' Donuts are frequently freestanding buildings anywhere in town, with few being within malls or strip mall settings. Because they are owned by the same parent company, some Dunkin' Donuts are joint ventures with Baskin Robbin ice cream shop. In the northeast U.S., Dunkin' Donuts shops have been growing as a presence along interstates, thruways and right off major highways.

The average Dunkin' Donuts opens into a discrete standing area where patrons are filed up to a (usually appallingly orange) counter where they place their order, pay and are ushered toward a nearby area to pick up sandwiches (especially if it is busy). Most locations have a sitting area with five to twenty tables and/or booths that customers may sit at to eat. Cleanliness of these facilities varies dramatically. My local one in Canastota is spotless, as it the new one in Rome, NY. However, the local one in Oneida, NY is frequently overcrowded, busy and tables are occasionally unclean. On a trip recently through Pennsylvania, I encountered one where the tables were absolutely filthy and in Massachusetts, there was one that was generally in disarray (though the one in Salem, MA was immaculate and one of the few I sit down to eat in!).

Several Dunkin' Donuts I've been to have bathrooms that are constantly locked and/or require a key or permission to be buzzed into. This is just a hassle and it's problematic when there is a line and one's thought is "I'll just go to the bathroom quick and let the line move forward a bit." This is an annoyance that, fortunately, is not shared by all Dunkin' Donuts shops.

Usually, I do not eat in Dunkin' Donuts only because I've found their booths to be almost universally uncomfortable and uninviting. Some have televisions on and they never seem to be on anything decent. Dunkin' Donuts is largely not designed for a dine-in experience and the walls are usually underdecorated, encouraging patrons to get in, make a purchase, and get out.


Like most fast food restaurants, Dunkin' Donuts does not so much have waitstaff as it has cashier/cooks who take orders, money and assemble orders. The quality of these culinary architects varies greatly with each location. The superlative Dunkin' Donuts, in my experience, has been the Canastota branch. The workers there are universally friendly, well-rested, clean and polite. I've never had a bad experience there. Conversely, while traveling through Pennsylvania recently, I stopped at a Dunkin' Donuts where the service was so sloppy and rude that the young man bagging up my donut tossed it in upside down, which left most of the icing on the bad and the donut itself was punctured.

So, service is drastically varied and the only place I've ever been truly satisfied is at my local one where I'm enough of a regular (I know, bad progressive!) that they pretty much can guess my order based on my expression when I come in. Most of the Dunkin' Donuts I pass through while traveling seem to be populated by vaguely unsatisfied post-high school young adults who are still figuring things out and see this as a rather temporary place of employment. As such, they tend not to give memorable service or even a performance of such.


Here's where I intend to make a genuine difference with my review. On the food front, I have sampled six different drinks and five different foods to evaluate the Dunkin' Donuts experience. Fortunately every now and again, Dunkin' Donuts does a promotion, like yesterday's Free Small Iced Coffee that makes such things easier on the wallet. In honor of that generosity, I'll start with the iced coffees Dunkin' Donuts produces.

First off, all of Dunkin' Donuts' iced coffees are exactly what they say they are. They are hot coffee poured over a mostly-full cup of ice. They take a moment to cool down, but they are usually served nicely cold. The problematic aspect of the way the iced coffees are produced is that because of the size of the ice (regular sized ice cubes, not chipped ice) those wanting sugar will find this almost impossible to mix. Sugar almost universally ends up in a heap at the bottom of the drink and the iced coffee is usually bitter. Cream disperses fine in the iced coffee. For those looking for a sweeter iced coffee drink, the Coolata is the way to go.

Dunkin' Donuts' current promotion is a Berry Berry blend of coffee. As an iced coffee, the berry berry is an unremarkable blend that is virtually indistinguishable from a standard coffee blend. In fact, the iced coffee did not even smell like berry. It smelled solely of coffee. Sometimes, a flavored coffee needs a hint of sugar to bring out the flavor. Not in this case. The berry berry iced coffee is a generic coffee flavor that fails to live up to even the insinuation of anything remotely fruit-like. There is no berry in the world that tastes like the mild coffee flavor of the berry berry iced coffee. Served cold, the berry berry iced coffee is a true disappointment for someone looking for something different in a coffee drink.

I was pleasantly surprised following the disappointment of my first iced coffee of the day to try the Cinnamon flavored iced coffee. The cinnamon smelled and tasted like cinnamon. The flavor was distinct and even in the iced version the taste was like dipping a piece of coffee cake into coffee. The problematic aspect of the cinnamon iced coffee is that it leaves a rather dry aftertaste. In fact, the overall flavor of this iced coffee was "dry." The taste that lingers on the tongue is not an aftertaste of a cinnamon roll, but rather sand. That's a kind of dry, gritty aftertaste that, by the end of the drink, nullifies the initial good taste of the coffee blend. This did not change significantly with the addition of sugar, though the initial cinnamon taste was accented by the sugar.

The superlative iced coffee at Dunkin' Donuts is the chocolate. With a fair blend of coffee and chocolate flavors, the iced coffee actually tastes like . . . chocolate. From beginning to end, this is a bold, deep flavor of chocolate and coffee blending into a mocha flavor that is delicious. In the iced form, the chocolate taste is accented and sugar was not needed to make the drink sweet. Adding cream made the iced coffee taste more like milk chocolate than dark chocolate. If you like chocolate and do not want to order hot chocolate, the iced chocolate coffee is a wonderful way to go. It leaves no unpleasant aftertaste, tastes like what it insists it is and requires no additional sweetener. (It was probably by this iced coffee that the caffeine and sugar levels in my body reached the point that my body could not shut down. I could probably be repeatedly shot at this point and run myself to the hospital, though please do not do that to me!)

It's not all iced coffee at Dunkin' Donuts and the better value does tend to be in the chain's hot coffee. Fairly priced in the low $2.00 range, the coffee flavors are generally distinct and in good portions for the price. I find myself sampling the different flavors frequently, though there are some favorites.

The new Berry Berry coffee is not one of them. Sampled before their pathetic iced version, the new berry berry coffee - fortunately available only for a limited time - is a weak excuse for a flavored coffee. The only advantage that the berry berry coffee has hot is that if one sits sniffing it long enough, they may imagine that it actually smells like some form of indistinct berry (don't ask me to pin down what fruit it's supposed to be!). No, this coffee tastes no more like berries than one assumes Juan Valdez's many mustaches would. It's coffee flavored, through and through. No amount of sugar, cream or dipped jelly donuts make this taste even remotely berry like. This is a terrible disappointment for coffee connoisseurs.

Fortunately for the survival of this chain, we never stay too disappointed with Dunkin' Donuts long. One of my favorites at the chain is their coconut flavored coffee. One might not think that coconut would taste good in coffee, but this is a combination that deserves your attention and sampling. The coconut aroma instantly opens up the nose and the taste of this coffee is an intriguing combination of bitter coffee and dry coconut. There is no aftertaste of dry, instead, there is a kick of sweetness that one associates with something like a coconut cream pie. This coffee is a taste experience with the flavor being exactly what it promises. With cream and sugar, the coffee flavor is sublimated somewhat, making the drink more distinctly coconut flavored. It's one of those few drinks that combines the flavor of coffee with the flavor of a fruit that achieves what it advertises.

The only flavor that more effectively combines the flavor of coffee with the taste of fruit is the blueberry coffee. Why do we want coffee that tastes like fruit? I suppose it allows us to believe we're drinking something with some nutritional value as we lurch toward becoming diabetic. The blueberry coffee is the reasonable answer to all of the problems of the limited edition berry berry coffee. This coffee tastes like there are blueberries, sweet and sour, somewhere in the cup. It tastes like coffee was poured over blueberries or there were blueberries in the brewing basket when the coffee was being filtered. What this means is that the coffee has the undertones of fresh fruit that is distinctly blueberry. This does not taste like blueberry juice mixed with coffee. No, it's coffee with the hint of blueberries. Cream and sugar serve only to bring the blueberry flavor out more, though cream tends to give it more of an aftertaste of blueberries and cream oatmeal (which is pretty good, too!).

So, now that you have a drink (and are wisely heeding my advice to avoid certain drinks!), what is there to eat at Dunkin' Donuts that will satisfy someone at breakfast, coffee break or after-dinner snack? Well, there are doughnuts. Delicious donuts. For those whose palates have been ruined by the airy, generic sweet taste of Krispy Kreme puffed pastry concept food, Dunkin' Donuts provides a far more substantial dessert treat. Even the lamest flavor of Dunkin' Donuts' donut is superior to the flavor of one of Krispy Kreme's . . . things.

The distinctly different doughnut that Dunkin' Donuts offers is the maple doughnut. The maple doughnut is a lightly-glazed standard hole-in-the-middle doughnut topped with a generous spread of maple-flavored icing. This is the reason to go into Dunkin' Donuts! This is a reason to get out of bed in the morning. The donut is substantial and not overly-sweet, so eating one (or three) does not set the body into sugar fits from the taste. Instead, what one finds themselves eating is a pastry with a little mass to it with a topping that tastes like maple sugar candy has been melted over it. It's delightful and it tastes exactly like maple syrup. There is no doughnut in the world quite like Dunkin' Donuts' maple doughnut and if you've never had one and you like syrup or maple sugar candy, this is an excellent choice for you.

Every doughnut establishment can be judged by their Bavarian doughnut (what Dunkin' Donuts calls a "Boston Creme" because of the chain's origins). The Bavarian is pretty much the gold standard of the doughnut. It is the round doughnut that is filled with a custard filling and topped with a layer of chocolate icing. Dunkin' Donuts's take on the Bavarian, er, Boston Creme, is one of the better ones on the market. Theirs usually is so well assembled that every bite has at least some icing or custard in each and every bite. That's important and this donut tends to be very well balanced with most bites having both custard filling and chocolate icing, making for a cakelike taste that is ideal from a Bavarian. You will not find a more consistently excellent Bavarian from any chain bakery in the world. Believe me, I've been checking!

Which leads us to the unfortunate demise of Dunkin' Donuts's creativity with their abysmal Berry Berry donut. Their springtime obsession with berries takes a turn for the disturbing and terrible with their new berry berry donut. The berry berry doughnut is a little abomination in the shape of the average jelly doughnut. Like a jelly doughnut it is filled with berry-flavored jelly (though what fruit this goo is attempting to imitate, I've yet to reason through taste or logical deduction). It is topped with a pink (there's no flavor other than sugar to it!) icing and embedded in the frosting are chunks of something with the shape of chocolate bits and the taste of oversized sprinkles. Actually, the topping is closely analogized to the taste and consistency of stick bubblegum (like the kind in trading cards in the mid-1970s). This is an appallingly bad doughnut and it deserves to be discontinued as soon as possible. It does not taste like berry, the topping is disgusting in taste and texture and the icing and doughnut below it ought to be embarrassed for being part of the same whole. Even the generic jelly flavoring in the center would be passable were it not for the ridiculous crown of mashed something atop this abomination.

Fortunately for those looking for something more than just a dessert or a confection, Dunkin' Donuts offers a few taste treats of substance in the form of breakfast sandwiches. Fear not, breakfast is anytime when Dunkin' Donuts is your choice for an eatery! The sandwiches are served anytime and they are made fresh (as fresh as nuked egg patties can be!) to order.

I've pretty consistently been eating the Supreme Omelet with sausage on an everything bagel since I first discovered the combination (Dunkin' Donuts tries to sell the diner on supreme omelet with sausage on a croissant - don't be fooled by this lesser choice just because it is what is offered!). The supreme omelet is an egg patty that has green and red peppers in it. I like this option because it allows me to delude myself into believing the sandwich has some nutritional value outside the bagel. The egg patty rests on top of a sausage patty which has a piece of melted (presumably American) cheese on it. The reason I get this on an everything bagel is that it has substance in this form. The meat, peppers, cheese and various spices on the bagel interact to create a unique taste sensation that actually tastes. It's hard to conceptualize how the textures of the sesame seeds, poppy seeds and garlic scrape off the tongue to open the tastebuds up to the tang of the peppers, the saltiness of the sausage and the gooey texture of the cheese, but it works. It works well enough that I cannot recommend anything better for the taste and money than this.

But I'll come close by mentioning the new, probably available only for a limited time, Maple Cheddar sandwich. The maple cheddar is a slice of maple-flavored sausage with a melted slice of cheddar cheese on a croissant that has a vague maple flavor to it. Here, the croissant works well because anything heavier (like an everything bagel) overwhelms the taste of the meat and cheese. Now, I'm someone who enjoys cheese, so this was a little bit of a letdown. The maple flavor is excellent and prevalent in each and every bite. My problem was that the tang from the sharp cheddar does not balance the sweetness of the meat and pastry well enough. As a result, this is a disconcertingly light and insubstantial sandwich. If there were a piece of cheddar above and below the sausage, I think it might work better . . .


So here in the final analysis, what do we have? Dunkin' Donuts' breakfast sandwiches (even as a combo) are not cheap, but they don't taste cheap either. The coffees are drastically dependent upon the flavor, though I have never had a cup that did not taste fresh-brewed, so they have to get points for that. The doughnuts are the best on the market and reasonably priced.

This is not somewhere to go for a nutritious, balanced meal, though I doubt there are many people seeking this establishment out for that reason. But to their credit, Dunkin' Donuts is not trying to masquerade as health food. Whenever I travel - and I travel a lot - I seek Dunkin' Donuts out as a consistent source of something that tastes good and offers a fairly universal standard of quality regardless of where I run into them.

I just tend not to linger after getting my food. And I try not to think about how the CEOs are spending my money . . .

While not an ideal dining experience, Dunkin' Donuts has delicious food and drinks that keep me going back to them. And despite their recent failures with berries, I admire their pioneering spirit where they seem to want to try new things for their customers.

That wins them points with me. It makes it enough to recommend.

For other restaurants, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Hard Rock Cafe Times Square


For other restaurant reviews, please be sure to visit my Food And Drink Review Index Page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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