We don’t talk about the assumption much, but it’s there, humming along as background noise in every Guy Fieri show: that food is evocative of culture. The unspoken premise behind “City Best” lists is that a region’s food and history are intertwined in illuminating, titillating, maybe even unseemly ways. And since “cultural” is really just the plural of “personal,” food tends to function as a repository for the stories we tell others about ourselves.
A lifestyle accessory.
This is why hip eyes gravitate to the “local” section of any beer menu and white people who have been to college but not Mexico make a show of preferring “authentic” Mexican food to Tex-Mex, as if a preference for mole sauce can atone for taking Texas. As of 2017, eating isn’t merely about extracting calories from product: It is about performing culture.
Look!, we seem to say to tablemate and Instagram follower. What a refined, inclusive palate I have. Digesting this culture.
And of course this self-presentation process is ridiculous, but I’ll be damned if turning food into an arena for Identity Politicking isn’t gobs of fun. Food simply tastes better when it is supposed to say something about the time and place that birthed it. The process of consuming food is more fun when it says something about the consumer.
Nowhere does this fraught dynamic hold truer than at breakfast — the first daily opportunity to present a version of ourselves that we wish existed. And is any food more perfectly designed to carry our fragile human weight than that life preserver of fried dough, the doughnut? Quick. Widely available. But also, absurd: dessert for breakfast. Precisely the kind of indulgence Americans should have given up long ago, when we kicked cigarettes and cockfighting. And yet, despite all odds, the doughnut remains a staple of workaday life both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. And yet, in each of those places, dough is sugared and (most importantly) served to different ends, especially at the most mass-produced level. These differences, too, can be instructive — of culture, worldview, zeitgeist.
I submit that the doughnut is every bit as vital to our self-presentation as the high-end breakfast fare more likely to show up in our social-media feeds. Further, by examining the myriad philosophical differences between each region’s most ubiquitous peddler of the fast-food doughnut, I think we can help explain our proclivity for defining ourselves by that bygone conflict between North and South.
Because we aren’t necessarily what we eat. But what we eat often inadvertently explains what we want to be.
Now, there’s a good chance you distrust attempts to tidily define the country by quaint notions of North and South. You might even find it offensive: Just what we need! Another hack explaining that Southerners like Paula Deen’s buttered garbage while Yankees prefer lobster.
You’re not alone.
John T. Edge, executive director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and the man who literally wrote the book on doughnuts (“Donuts: An American Passion”), told me that the entire premise of this piece was “corrupt,” with a chafing discomfort I could parse even over a spotty cellular connection.
Edge concedes that “food is a reservoir for the stories we tell ourselves about the places and people we come from,” but balked at transferring these narrative qualities over to the mass-produced doughnut. When asked what we can learn about a region’s culture by examining its corporate doughnut chains, Edge audibly snorted.
“Not a damn thing,” he told me, adding that he’s also not sure the binary juxtaposition of North and South is remotely instructive.
He’s not totally wrong.
Culture is so slippery that even attempting to define it in cartographic terms is bound to be fruitless. There’s probably no such thing as “the South,” at least in that homogenous, old-timey sense. Still, something doesn’t have to exist to be commandeered as a mechanism of self-definition. Kids invent imaginary friends for this kind of thing all the time. So even if the whole notion of Blue vs. Gray is fatally flawed as a way of understanding U.S. culture, the fact that it is so often invoked by folks on both sides tells us something.
For many, these nearly arbitrary regional distinctions continue to serve as containers of identity. So, at a certain point, maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep reiterating that your child’s imaginary friend is not strictly “real.” It’s probably more useful to shut up and attempt to decipher what the child is telling us about herself by inventing the friend.
This is where the seemingly disparate threads of regional cuisine, corporate foodstuffs, and cultural identity converge. What branded properties do is absorb how we aspirationally present ourselves and then attempt to connect their public ethos to ours. While I agree with Edge that N v. S can be a useless construct, we diverge on the point of it teaching nothing: I think it’s hard to examine the interplay between food, commercial culture, and regional stereotype without learning an awful lot.
They are all over Boston, which is where they first sprung up. Bismuth pink and sunset orange, seemingly selected to break the monotony of gray winter sky and dirty wet snow. They scream at you to come, to sip, to munch. Even if you don’t feel like crossing the street to get to the store, that’s OK, because there is another — conveniently located right here on your side of the street!
They are, of course, Dunkin’ Donuts.
Never mind the absurdity of being able to stand in one Dunkin’ Donuts and stare into another. Doesn’t it feel good to be an American Running On Dunkin™? This is, after all, Boston. It doesn’t get any more American than Boston. And if you’re biting into one of the 52 doughnut varieties offered at any of DD’s 8,000+ American locations, it doesn’t get any more American than you.
That’s the motion-intensive gist of Dunkin’s stateside marketing, at least.
It really doesn’t get any more American than Dunkin’s founder, William Rosenberg, who sometimes seems more like a Horatio Alger protagonist than any actual person. The only Jewish kid on a rough, Depression-era block, Rosenberg quit the eighth grade to hustle as a Boston food-service whiz. The story of Dunkin’ Donuts as told in Rosenberg’s autobiography (“Time To Make The Donuts”) has the founder staring down Mafiosos who wanted a piece of his doughnut action and hitching bikes to idling trucks in order to skate more efficiently through metro Boston. Rosenberg is a self-styled Yankee Forrest Gump — inexplicably intertwined with important 20th century moments, armed only with a naïve belief in his own American dream, stumbling from poverty to glory.
Yet, for all of DD’s success, the concept of franchising is perhaps Rosenberg’s most quintessentially modern contribution to American life. The founder believed nothing encapsulated free enterprise like franchising, which allowed him to expand his empire without laying down capital (the franchisee provided that) while giving franchisees the opportunity to own a business without building a brand (Rosenberg provided that). The eighth-grade dropout did as much to popularize the notion of franchising as anybody, essentially creating the modern interstate spread by plopping DD stores across the road from each other and organizing to fight restrictive expansion laws — ensuring, in the process, that every interstate exit from Bangor to Boca Raton became visually identical.
These days, the average American probably doesn’t have positive associations with the term “franchise food,” but Rosenberg’s initial intentions were noble: In an era dominated by packaged garbage, Dunkin’ Donuts afforded working New Englanders the opportunity to purchase a handmade doughnut and better-brewed cup of coffee. In fact, so maniacally picky was the founder that Dunkin’ famously required franchisees to raise a hand and pledge to “make doughnuts fresh every four hours, coffee every 18 minutes,” a fact that might surprise anybody who’s grown up thinking of Dunkin’ as a pastry-intensive analogue to McDonald’s.
In a New England dominated by factory labor and all the wretched packaged food that comes from it, Rosenberg pioneered the kind of quality that can be mass-produced only by expensive infrastructure, then set about maniacally spreading that quality into every cranny of the country without counting the cost. He probably should have called his book “Manifest Destiny.”
They are very much not all over Atlanta, or Birmingham, or Charlotte. Despite expansion around the turn of the 21st century, you’ve still got to go out of your way to find Krispy Kreme stores. In fact, it’s almost like they find you. You’re driving down Atlanta’s magnolia-draped Ponce De Leon Avenue, and red, cursive neon, evocative of a ’50s downtown movie marquee, unexpectedly beckons. Majestic Ks that trail to the end of each word — somehow without connoting the South’s tortured history with such plosive consonants and alliterative acronyms — calling you to come.
The inevitable dilemma comes when you spot that anachronistic “Hot Now” neon sign ablaze. The promise you’ve made to yourself or spouse or kids: that if it’s hot, we stop. But shit, that’ll mean pulling a U-turn across three lanes of traffic. That’ll mean turning around and fighting to get in the parking lot. Is anybody in this car even hungry? Can’t we let it slide this one time? What inviolable principle are we even abiding by with this “it’s hot, we must stop” directive, anyway?
For me, the prospect of wearing the paper sailor’s hats on Instagram usually ends the argument.
While I always associate the Krispy Kreme doughnut with the birthplace of its franchise (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), the recipe itself — a study in the juxtaposition of fried potato flour and sticky-sweet glaze — actually hails from New Orleans. Company founder Vernon Rudolph’s uncle purchased the scrawled recipe, along with the name “Krispy Kreme,” from a displaced Louisianan chef before opening a doughnut shop in Paducah, Kentucky. After a few failed stints, the uncle sold the business to Rudolph’s father, who found success peddling doughnuts across the South. But it wasn’t until 1935 — when Vernon Rudolph himself, presumably in some show of prodigal, adolescent folly, set out to seek his fortune (armed only with a jalopy, a couple of friends, the original KK secret recipe parchment, and about $200) — that Krispy Kreme came into existence.
There’s no explaining the logic involved in abandoning your father’s solvent doughnut business during the Great Depression to start your own version of the same shop in an unfamiliar market, but upon biting into a hot Krispy Kreme, it’s easy to convince myself that perhaps Rudolph’s departure represents some form of the same idiosyncratic genius that inspired Robert Zimmerman to hitchhike east in the winter of ’61. But why Winston-Salem?
After months of fruitless rambling — busted up, bummed out, and broke (the story goes) — the boys found themselves without prospect on a street corner in rural Illinois, sharing their last pack of smokes. During an interlude of self-pity, Vernon noticed that the Winstons the guys were smoking had been manufactured in W-S, North Carolina, and figured that any town housing a nationally advertised company had to be some sort of commercial haven.
Thus the South’s favorite doughnut was proliferated by a man who leveraged his last $25 and pointed his Pontiac toward the Carolinas because he mistook them for Madison Avenue.
Within a decade, the shop was pumping pastries in seven Southern cities via a space-age process of automation. The technological spectacle so moved Yankee doughnut tycoon William Rosenberg that he attempted to buy Krispy Kreme in 1968, calling it a natural, Southern extension of Dunkin’ Donuts’ values. Rudolph refused to sell, and, by the time of his death in 1973, the franchise had more than 70 locations, many of which sold as many doughnuts to grocery stores and wholesale accounts as they did in store — a practice that has endured, despite the fact that a cold Krispy Kreme is to a hot one as Chad Kroeger’s voice is to Kurt Cobain’s.
Rudolph’s death in 1973 had a destabilizing effect on company management structure, ultimately causing Krispy Kreme to be acquired by Chicago-based Beatrice Foods in 1976. Beatrice was, at one time, the largest conglomerate of American franchise food, a veritable Cyberdyne of pre-fabricated edibles, and to this day, Krispy Kreme bigwigs hardly speak the name “Beatrice” without angry tremors in their voice. The Beatrice acquisition did in fact represent a sort of alternate reality: Krispy Kreme might have become Dunkin’ Donuts — a ubiquitous chain everybody inevitably visits but nobody loves. Worried about immediately capitalizing on its investment, the Beatrice brass attempted to increase short-term profitability by introducing sandwiches and soups as KK lunch options, and <gasp!> tinkering with the original New Orleans doughnut recipe, removing key ingredients to cut costs.
Krispy Kreme owners grew restless, and by 1982, a coup had fomented: Longtime franchisees led a buyout of the brand by borrowing heavily during the high-interest 1980s to wrest control away from an increasingly disinterested Beatrice foods. The next decade was devoted to abandoning the disposable Beatrice culture and returning to the brand’s roots while paying off the buy-back debt. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that the Southern doughnut operation financially recovered and began answering the large pile of unopened franchise requests that had compiled over the decades. This is where the modern era of Krispy Kreme began.
This is when Krispy Kreme implemented its own Beatrician expansion plan for world domination.
Before we go any further, do I need to point out that not everyone is a fan of these alliteratively named doughnut franchises? There is a predictable criticism of both titans, a take as hot and ready as the Krispy Kremes themselves. “Where once stood local doughnut shops, communal spaces for old-timers to share stories” — the argument (plausibly) goes — “there are now only Dunkin’ Donuts or Krispy Kremes.”
There they sit, having barged into our communities like so much suburban sprawl. Identical. Sterile. Dystopian. These big-business operations litigate or buy competition out of existence and then swoop in to sell their sub-par product to a newly monopolized market. In other words, it doesn’t matter that the stale Dunkin’ Donuts are carted in from upstate — they’re now the only game in town. There’s really no economic incentive to keep them from getting even worse.
Now, is this criticism true? Probably. At least a little. While I distrust the idealized image of communities gathering in solidarity around the local doughnut counter, it’s not hard to imagine a time when better crullers were available for purchase from some guy you sat next to at church. Still, I’ve seen some pretty homey conversations take place in a Krispy Kreme store and even, I shit you not, Dunkin’ Donuts. But more importantly for our purposes, what does this swindle, this modern American tendency toward replacing the local with the global, the specific with the universal, the personal with the branded, say about these chains and their purveyors’ attempts to present them as stand-ins for their respective regions?
That is likewise complicated.
Both (occasionally) Krispy Kreme and (especially) Dunkin’ Donuts have engaged in this sort of thing — shoehorning their way into untapped markets, leveraging legal resources to expand aggressively at the expense of smaller operations, negotiating the end of competition by promising local doughnutiers a percentage of local DD or KK receipts in perpetuity if they will just close shop already.
What’s interesting, though, is the response these brands have managed to engender in customers, despite their oft-mourned status as “precisely the kind of big-box brands that are destroying mom-and-pop America.”
Krispy Kreme borrowed from the optimistic capitalist playbooks of Walt Disney, Truett Cathy, and Steve Jobs. It spun cynical customers into raving fans through showmanship, Southern charm, and sheer excellence. The enterprising minds that brought you the “doughnut theater” (a conveyor-intensive spectacle that traces the doughnut’s journey from doughy embryo to glazed adulthood) see themselves not as mere pastry peddlers, but merchants of multisensory nostalgic experience. Dunkin’ Donuts, on the other hand, pretty much invented the aggressively global interstate-franchise model we’ve come to associate with Subway and McDonalds.
Could it be that this is why a bite of Krispy Kreme so often acts as a Proustian catalyst for mentally reliving an idyllic childhood you and I both know we never had, while a just-bitten Dunkin’ Donut stares back at its eater with something like Back Bay contempt?
Krispy Kreme is in the business of inviting customers to stop and momentarily inhabit a past that never happened. Dunkin’ Donuts, on the other hand, knows 21st century customers don’t exactly have a lot of bandwidth to devote to the breakfast they hastily grabbed en route to obligations.
Despite similar roots, we’re dealing with two disparate regional philosophies here. This is idealized past rubbing up against utilitarian future.
And, in your experience, who usually wins that battle?
Did you know that, despite the warm fuzzies it bestows upon its eater, the Krispy Kreme doughnut is bad for you? Without substance and proud of it. A little too willing to trade on its kitsch. A little too proud of its worst qualities.
Remind you of the stereotypes surrounding any particular region of the continental U.S.?
And still, despite the fact that we should all know better, Krispy Kreme once established the type of brand identification among customers that fast food rarely inspires. By leveraging the nostalgia inherent in old Pontiac milk trucks, the marketing minds behind the cursive and hot neon manage to make you feel downright proud of your complicity in corporate enterprise.
Case in point: As I sit here eating a hot Krispy Kreme doughnut in Atlanta, Georgia, it’s not only easy to forget what was felled to build this place (Mom and Pop America), it’s also hard to do anything other than revel in my participation. That I am taking part in this guilty ritual. Allowing my childhood to be sold back to me in the form of puffed lard. Telling the judgmental hipsters and dieticians to shove it in my transgressive little paper hat. Given the spotless tile and milk-man cap, I can almost convince myself that it is the wholesome 1950s, and I am nothing more than a proud American stuffing my face with the same sweets that powered our boys to go out and win not one but two World Wars for the good guys.
Now. Lest this all begin to seem a bit navel-gazey and speculative, know that the corporate attempt to foster precisely these sentiments is both (1) intentional, and (2) not a secret. Famous franchisee Dick Clark (R.I.P.) once wrote, “Krispy Kreme is a throwback to the good old days of innocence when you spoiled yourself. Visiting a Krispy Kreme is a mystical, nostalgic experience.” Now, I dunno about mystical, although I suppose Dick Clark and I may have had different experiences inside of Krispy Kreme restaurants. He owned one, after all. It’s entirely possible he was, like, conducting séances in there. But nostalgic is right on the money.
Though the company does not advertise, make no mistake, Krispy Kreme — like Disney, Chick-Fil-A, and Apple — is obsessive about managing every aspect of branding. For instance, Krispy Kreme opts to design and manufacture its own booths, wall graphics, and tile patterns. This isn’t obsessive tinkering; it is gestalt management. These people know that within each of us exist memories of better times, eras of wholesome Americana and carefree indulgence, and the goal of every aspect of the interior design in a Krispy Kreme store is to promote this experience, to capitalize on our already positive associations with the brand and its era of inception.
Neil Morgan, a marketing prof at the University of North Carolina, calls this the “memory-management business,” noting, “If you’re tying people’s pre-existing memories to your brand…you have a huge advantage. One of the things they’ve done well is to link with Americana in better times…tapping into existing pleasant memories.”
I assure you Morgan is right. Some primitive part of my brain is entirely willing to buy into the suspect notion of a bygone national greatness while the goodness of a Krispy Kreme dances around in my mouth.
Jay Jung, an in-house designer for the Southern doughnut kings, put it this way: “Krispy Kreme represents a time when things were simpler and slower and maybe a little more real.” Now, please bracket for a moment the observation that we could strike out “Krispy Kreme” in the previous sentence and have an almost word-for-word version of the sentiments every obnoxious Southerner employs to describe what’s so great about their region. Let’s just focus on why it works. Jung’s statement is a tribute to KK’s effectiveness — not just corny PR copy. KK actually realizes the fantasy. Jung agrees, noting, “I don’t really think I’m going to Australia when I walk into an Outback Steakhouse. But I do feel like I’m going into a simpler time of Americana walking into a Krispy Kreme.”
It’s no coincidence that many Southern brands emphasize this notion of selling nostalgia and not product (Atlanta’s Coca-Cola, Chick-fil-A, and Waffle House all come to mind). The “simpler time” motif is egregiously Southern.
I’m not suggesting there’s anything evil about KK or Coke or WaHo. But what nostalgia always, inevitably stems from is dissatisfaction with change. And nostalgia is always present everywhere, because dissatisfaction is the human condition and change is constant, but it is especially present in the South (which, Edge notes, “has changed more quickly than any other region of the country in the last half-century”), making Southerners uniquely susceptible to nostalgia-based marketing — especially when that marketing is paired with undeniable products like Coke, Chick-fil-A, or Krispy Kreme.
It makes sense, then, that Southern companies are uniquely apt to opt for this good-old-days tactic. Here, we have a region of the country that was burned to the ground during a brutal Civil War, economically ravaged, and then subsequently marooned to exist in tenuous relationship to the rest of the country. Virtually every generation of Southerners has grown up hearing that the glory days are behind us, so it’s no wonder that “glory days” have become such a tempting way to sell a brand (or politician), especially to (uncomfortable cough) white folks. Morgan the marketing professor was right: The implanted notion itself practically does all the work, taking advantage of what’s been hammered into us since childhood.
And while I can’t prove causality, this kind of nostalgia-based, guilty-pleasure marketing appears to have become more common just as the cumulative weight of events like Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran Contra began eroding public trust in civic institutions. Likewise, during the years in which scandals rocked the Catholic Church and Clinton administration, Krispy Kreme transformed from regional snack brand to international pop-culture phenomenon. The timing is more than convenient, with Krispy Kreme’s cultural cachet cresting around Y2K, as A-list celebrities proclaimed their affection for the brand in otherwise non-culinary interviews and movie directors placed doughnuts into characters’ hands as pre-fabricated signifiers of hipness.
This doughnut renaissance also coincided with renewed interest in the American South itself. If the ’96 Atlanta Olympics gave the region an opportunity to present a reformed image to the world, then Krispy Kreme was one of this image’s first capitalistic forays west of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon, creeping into all the “more civilized” sectors of America to hawk forbidden Southern confections. Call it reverse carpetbagging.
Yankees and Midwesterners suddenly had access to Winston-Salem’s second most unhealthy export as Krispy Kreme opened hundreds of franchises across the nation, leveraging the Southern diaspora for profit by sending swag to dislocated Southerners all over the continent. Throwback KK hats, milk-trucks, and T-shirts swept the nation in the aftermath of 9/11, when it briefly became important for even the most cynical person to identify with the uncritical vision of America being sold to us in preparation for war — a sepia-tinted image Krispy Kreme happened to perfectly embody.
I’m obviously not suggesting that people were consciously thinking, “Ya know, in light of the recent failures of trusted domestic institutions as well as the volatility of the geopolitical stage, I’d really like to gorge myself on some hot doughnuts right now.” That would be stupid. But I do think Bono was onto something when he screeched, “You glorify the past when the future dries up” in U2’s “God Pt. II.” And beneath the jingoistic veneer of 2002/03/04, the future felt pretty dry.
There may have been flags flying in our front yards, but in our living rooms televisions piped in Nicholas Berg’s horrendous decapitation, the morbid fireworks display of “Shock & Awe,” and George W. Bush’s confounding inability to speak in complete sentences. Does it seem crazy to suggest that people lined up to commune at the glaze waterfall during those years — like they haven’t before or since — because (a) Krispy Kreme doughnuts taste extremely good, and because (b) a glimpse into the beautifully efficient “doughnut theater” can inspire ridiculous, Rooseveltian thoughts about how this country can sure make great things when it wants to? Is it overstatement to say that in so many ways, a Saturday morning at Krispy Kreme inspired more vague patriotism than any Bush State of the Union ever could?
Krispy Kreme capitalized on our basic desires for tradition, selling nostalgia for a time when it was easy to believe that labor-saving technologies (like the conveyor belt carrying all those sugar balls) were sure to cure the human condition.
And as for Dunkin’ on this front? Well, I’m sure you can find rabid fans somewhere in Massachusetts if you look hard enough. But have you ever screamed at a driver to stop the car because you spotted a Dunkin’ Donuts?
And consider this: according to the brand’s 230 page puff-piece, “Making Dough: The 12 Secret Ingredients of Krispy Kreme’s Sweet Success,” circa 2004 Krispy Kreme produced 2 billion doughnuts per year in just 300 global locations. That is 6,666,666.6 doughnuts per location annually. Dunkin’ Donuts, on the other hand, produced just 2.3 billion doughnuts per year for more than 5,000 stores. That is 460,000 doughnuts per store per year. Now, try and manufacture an explanation for the disparity between those doughnuts-per-store ratios that doesn’t amount to some version of “people like eating Krispy Kreme a whole lot more.”
Judging by this metric of enthusiasm, you’d think Krispy Kreme was destined to win any conflict between these two chains. And yet, as I write this sentence, Krispy Kreme stock remains a flatliner, while Dunkin’ maintains an eons-long trend of steady growth.
So what gives?
Dunkin’ Donuts is intentionally choosing to sidestep any notion of food as culture or personal signifier or narrative reservoir of the past, which may be why the chain seems impervious to economic trends.
Dunkin’ Donuts isn’t vying for raving fans.
Where they’re taking us, they won’t need them.
This cautionary tale makes the rounds in business conferences: An American coffee company whose jingles you could sing was once widely revered as a bastion of quality, until the 1980s, when testing revealed that customers were unable to distinguish between blends consisting of 94 percent and 95 percent coffee. The company opted to cut costs and dilute by 1 percent, since it was verifiable scientific fact that nobody would notice. But then a similar study brought similar results a year later regarding the perceptible difference between 94 and 93 percent blends. Again, company brass cried, “Dilute!”
Fast forward five years, and we’re down into the high 80s and you’d better believe customers can tell, because while it’s impossible to identify gradations of 1 percent, it’s obvious when something that used to be really good is hardly good at all. There is a palpable difference between 95 percent coffee and 88 percent coffee.
These days, people only buy that brand for the Mr. Coffee in their mother-in-law suite.
That coffee company was not Dunkin’ Donuts, but make no mistake, that was the story of Dunkin’ Donuts.
As the bakery ballooned from a couple of counters in Massachusetts to 11,300 global locations, shortcuts were inevitably taken. That level of expansion can’t happen any other way. First, you ask if customers will notice the difference between making doughnuts fresh every four hours (the Rosenberg way) and every five (the cheaper way). When they inevitably don’t, you wonder about the feasibility of reducing store size, consolidating labor, and transferring doughnut production into off-site facilities and then shipping doughnuts into stores. And the implications for the bottom line will be so good that the board will all but demand you do it.
This is the 21st century. There are investors to please.
Whereas Krispy Kreme’s attempt at world-dominating expansion was crippled by the uniquely Southern naiveté of its maniacal commitment to quality (it’s really expensive to build a doughnut factory in every single market, and once novelty wears off, smaller markets can’t sustain the expense), Dunkin CEOs have consistently understood the cost of doing business on a global scale: quality.
So Dunkin’ Donuts’ decline doesn’t look like much of a decline at all. It is more ethical than financial. All material measures of success indicate that DD has — despite Krispy Kreme being infinitely more Instagrammable — proven a timelier business model for an era in which breakfast is either event or afterthought, painstakingly shared on social apps or desperately grabbed before pulling into work. Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t give two shits about the former scenario. They traffic exclusively in the latter. These guys know we may make a big deal out of brunch on Saturday, but for the other six weekly breakfasts, we need no theater. We have no time to perform. We simply grab and go. Dunkin’ is content to reign over weekdays and let Krispy Kreme and the fancy mimosa spots duke it out over who gets Saturday morning.
What’s ironic is how starkly this contrasts with William Rosenberg’s original vision. The man named his biography “Time To Make The Donuts” after a famous advertising campaign about the tedious process of spinning ingredients into gold. He cut windows into his kitchens to let us all watch this process, one that no longer even occurs at Dunkin’ stores. In a far cry from the fresh-baked motif of the Fred the Baker commercials, doughnuts these days are carted in by the truckload. Hence the uniquely millennial experience of visiting a DD, only to be told they have “run out” of doughnuts. Hence the odd response clerks give when you ask how long before it’s “time to make” some more.
The unstoppable force of Rosenberg’s capitalist dream — franchise expansion — has barreled right through the immovable object of Rosenberg’s unshakeable idealism, and the resulting commercial leviathan is more profitable than ever.
Remind you of the spiritual decline of any particular global superpower?
As a presentation-obsessed culture becomes more caught up in what a particular food says about its eater, Dunkin’ Donuts is winning by removing identity from the equation altogether.
The Krispy Kreme boom eventually ended. It had to. After years of historic stock gains in the early aughts, the brand has spent much of the current millennium in financial free fall.
Krispy Kreme simply couldn’t sustain the level of rapid expansion undertaken during the Bush years, and by 2005, accounting irregularities and massive dips in sales derailed the throwback doughnut retailer’s surging stock. In what must’ve seemed like a good idea circa 2006, the KK board of directors brought in an Enron executive to right the ship.
Went about as well as you’d expect.
Like (once-regional) Coors beer, Krispy Kreme doughnuts proved subject to the principles of valuation: If something is everywhere, it ceases to signify. It can no longer be effectively sold as identity accessory. There is an inherent “sell-by” date for any fad, because mass consumption dilutes brand potency, turning trendy favorites into mere entries in the lexicon of always-available logos. Though sales were always better in the newly tapped North, unit shifting eventually stagnated even in the chain’s native South.
John T. Edge (whose “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South” will hit shelves in May) compares this dynamic to music.
“Krispy Kreme was for Southerners this great indie band they saw in 500-seat auditoriums,” Edge says. “Then [the band] goes to playing 5,000-seat coliseums, and Southerners are like, ‘What happened to this intimate relationship I had? Now they’re everywhere.’ And the question you ask yourself is, if this brand you loved is everywhere, can it still be your brand?”
The answer seems to be “no,” potentially owing to the fact that Krispy Kreme was so intentionally personal. There are only so many times we can replay the same sepia-tinted memory before it loses associative power. It also doesn’t help that Krispy Kreme chose to attach its image to eras that have been critically re-contextualized as internet culture caught the social justice bug. For millennials — already more likely than their older counterparts to skip grease in favor of kale — the era Krispy Kreme evokes represents a time in which women and minorities had it bad. Not exactly social dynamics 20-somethings are itchin’ to recreate.
And so the chain has had its associative legs cut out from under it. You can only appeal to a customer’s memories of retro America as long as those memories remain happy. Once they sour, the jig is up. The façade has been stripped of its comfort.
When societal sea changes render a brand’s image worthless, the company is left with only its product. And fortunately for Krispy Kreme, the product happens to be unchanged. Call it the hard lesson of the Beatrice acquisition, but even when the brand was in jeopardy (between ’05 and now), corners weren’t cut. The flipside of this commitment to quality, however, is a reticence to change, a determination to dance with the one that brung you, even after it’s clear the one that brung you is all but danced out. Whereas Dunkin’ caters to changing tastes by adding “DD Smart” items as alternatives to their sugar-heavy staples, Krispy Kreme remains committed to hot, sticky sweetness. In fact, Krispy Kreme’s refusal to pander to health-consciousness seems almost intentionally obdurate: They know what you’re there for. They aren’t going to patronize you with a shelf full of kale.
Which is what’s actually kind of “Southern” about the brand, after all. Like the South itself, KK is hesitant to bend to the browbeating of interlopers who have no investment in its continued survival in the first place.
Broadly speaking, eras of great social upheaval tend to engender one of two polarized responses. There are those (often young), who blindly side with "progress," determined to ride happily into the future. And there are those (often old), who insist that what’s worked for eons shouldn’t be tampered with. For whatever reason, human beings tend either to jump headlong into the unknown future or fight change kicking and screaming. Now, there’s no doubting which personal response Krispy Kreme’s obduracy more closely resembles. And there’s even less argument over which paradigm Dunkin’s perpetual rebranding represents.
Notice that, for example, Dunkin’ Donuts does not demand that you “slow down” or “enjoy the moment.” Rather, it fits into your life as fuel to “run on,” feeding the frantic pace of modernity.
This is its success.
Krispy Kreme, on the other hand, asks you to stop, take a moment, and be present doing a single, pleasant, unproductive thing.
This is its failure. The notion of “slow” is entirely antithetical to modern urban life. And if there’s one thing “Southerners” distrust, it’s urban modernity.
Krispy Kreme belongs to the red-state world of porches and rockers and sweating pitchers of sweet tea, and it seems to be retreating as that world itself disappears. Dunkin’ Donuts is designed for the blue-state world of breakfast in the car and 90-minute commutes and late nights at the office, and it is expanding as that world tirelessly expands, creeping onto other continents and into rural America.
This all-consuming modernity is a stressor, a change that catalyzes our need to identify with something stable.
“Nostalgia is rooted in a recognition that the place from which you came, the place you love, is changing,” John T. Edge says. “Our nostalgia for a past or a place peaks when we perceive that place or time may not be attainable anymore.” And when we sense life as we know it morphing into something unknown, we unthinkingly, emotionally gravitate to one of two responses: “pro” or “anti” future.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest here that flying a rebel flag isn’t racist or supporting causes like equality isn’t preferable, but isn’t it possible that both of these acts are similar expressions of performative identification, opposing responses to the same stressful stimuli of rapid change? That for some folks, the rebel flag is (granted, obnoxious but) primarily an inarticulate protest against modernity — the rainbow flag acting as an equally inarticulate, opposing “bring it on”? What the much-discussed, oft-maligned “Southern thing” has almost always been (bigotry unfortunately included) is a suspicion of “future,” a reticence to “change,” a side-eye toward anybody who uncritically accepts elitist notions of “progress,” especially when that “progress” looks like a technocratic future that’s coming, whether we like it or not, to cannibalize Mom and Pop America and trap us in brutalizing commutes and leave us with pre-fabricated doughnuts made in distant factories.
Krispy Kreme twice tried to be a part of this coming world and failed — first as a Beatrice brand, later on its own. Despite its best efforts, the DNA of the Southern doughnut purveyor really does jibe better with that caricature of Southernness that you see articulated on T-shirts, cross-stitchings, and bumper stickers, of the South being “slower” and “simpler” and “more real.” And so it is no wonder KK does not see the surging sales DD does. Krispy Kreme tastes better, but who has time to care about a thing like that?
The South claims to be more hospitable, but that is partially true at best. The South purports to represent a more genuine, less duplicitous culture than the rest of the country, but it really doesn’t. The South, however, also claims to offer a slower way of life, and on that promise it actually, verifiably delivers. Ask any Atlantan who relocated from New York. What passes for frantic in Southern cities feels like a federal holiday in Manhattan. This is one real rub between the chains, ergo the regions that made them. Krispy Kreme is for people who have time to sit and enjoy the experience of a doughnut theater.
A doughnut theater!
The reality is that as Rosenberg’s America gains ground even in the South, the number of people willing or able to pause for any such self-indulgent moment is dwindling.
Dick Clark would be (rockin’ and) rolling over in his grave if he knew that we now only have time for these sorts of indulgences (artisanal brunch, glaze fountains, mimosas) on Saturday mornings. Which is probably why they seem noteworthy enough to photograph and post online in the first place.
Scarcity creates value.
So, on second thought, I’m holding out hope that this frantic future will eventually recreate a market in which something slow and Southern like Krispy Kreme is rare and valuable enough to stage a comeback after all.