Where Do the Donuts Come From? A TFT Investigation
A dangerous journey in search of America’s biggest kept secret: the Dunkin’ Donuts factory.
Last week, Dunkin’ Donuts went public. Dunkin’ Brands IPO, the parent company of Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins, saw a nearly forty-seven percent increase in share prices in the first day of trading, from $19 to $27.85. While many other franchise chains have been suffering in the wake of the economic recession, Dunkin Donuts has been expanding faster than the waistlines of its customers. According to the company’s press package, Dunkin Donuts hopes to have 15,000 stores in the United States by the year 2020. Currently there are 6,395 stores in thirty-four states and the District of Columbia, and another 2,440 international stores in 31 countries. Perhaps the largest, sweetest empire in the history of man.
But how public is Dunkin Donuts? Do their public shares also mean public access? We decided we had to find out.
Finding things out is what we do. Partners in crime? More like partners in justice. We work for the city, investigating misconduct within the NYPD. We spend all day grilling cops and closing cases. We live to unravel secrets and sniff out the facts. We can’t help it, we’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the truth. And when we think someone is trying to give us the run-around, it only makes us that much more determined to get answers. We had been working cases together for about a year. Little did we think that an innocent coffee break would bring us the biggest, non-NYPD related case of our careers.
It was a Tuesday afternoon in July, and the beleaguered office workers of the financial district were out, looking to score a post-lunch caffeine hit like an army of zombie-junkies. The Rector Street Dunkin’ Donuts is little more than a store front, right across the street from our office. When we walked in, we weren’t looking for trouble. We were looking for coffee. Milk. No sugar. The pretty Bangladeshi woman smiled at us from behind the counter. She had skin the color of a dunkaccino, and a voice that was even sweeter.
“Where do the donuts come from?” we asked.
“There’s a factory in New Jersey that makes the doughnuts,” she said.
“Only one?” we asked.
“For New York City,” she said.
There are almost 500 Dunkin’ Donuts locations in the city, dotting the five boroughs like a constellation of rainbow sprinkles. The idea that one factory somewhere in the wilderness of New Jersey could service them all was mind boggling. Somewhere out there were giant machines, pistons pumping, gears turning, conveyor belts rolling, huge guns shooting sprinkles hundreds of feet into the air, rivers of hot glaze flowing down concrete channels, enormous nozzles squirting gooey batter with robotic precision into perfectly circular disks, and some insanely sharp cutting knife descending like a guillotine making the hole in the doughnut. A doughnut factory. How could that be anything but fun? We had to find it. And now that Dunkin has opened its shares for public investment, we thought that snagging a tour through the factory would be a piece of cake. Wasn’t everything now in the open?
“Where is it?” we asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, “we make our own.”
“What?” we asked.
“Twelve of these Dunkin Donuts are owned by the same family. They make their own doughnuts.” Suddenly she was changing her story. But why? Did we ask too many questions?
“But there is a factory?” we asked.
“Oh yes,” she said.
“Who knows where the factory is?”
She nodded to the back of the store, “He knows.”
We looked around. We had no idea who she was talking about. Who was this “He?” What could he tell us? Where could we find him?
Her eyes narrowed. She looked at us pointedly. “No one’s ever asked that before,” she said, as if she really meant to say, “Who sent you?”
“Most people would want to know where the doughnuts come from,” we explained, assuming that most people are exactly like us.
“No one would want to know that,” she stated, “Who cares? No one cares.”
“A doughnut factory!” we cried, assuming that that alone was a justification for our interest.
“It’s probably boring,” she said while she rang us up for our coffees.
“How could it be boring?” we asked, “It’s a room full of doughnuts!”
She took a step back and with her right arm outstretched indicated the entire back wall of the store and literally shelf after shelf of doughnuts.
“I spend all day in a room full of doughnuts,” she said. “It’s not that interesting.” But what she meant was, “Stop asking questions you don’t want the answers to.”
The woman at Rector Street may have stonewalled us with her cryptic messages and suspicious attitude, but if there really was one factory serving 500 stores, someone had to know how to find it. We pounded the pavement, trudging through the rain, store after store. We talked to Mohamed, Raza, Sham, Aza, but all they could tell us was that there was a factory somewhere out there, just out of reach. We went to a kosher franchise at 93rd Street in hopes that their strict dietary laws would require them to be more transparent about the origins of their donuts, but all we found were more questions and a lecture about how we weren’t eating enough.
We had been talking to munchkins, when we needed to talk to the big (egg and) cheese: The franchise owners. According to FranchiseDirect.com, a member of the International Franchise Association, it takes $700,000 in liquid capital and over $1.5 million in total assets to open up a single DD location, and usually one franchise will operate many stores. Indeed, the faceless Dunkin Donuts powers that be favor franchisers who own multiple stores.
In 2008, the Daily News ran a short series of articles on small franchise owner Cindy Gluck who, after attempting to hand over her franchise to one of her managers, was sued by Dunkin’ Brands for breach of contract. Gluck alleged that Dunkin Donuts was in negotiations with Kanstantino Skrivanos, also known as “The Greek.” Skrivanos was already the owner of the over a 100 donut shops in the northeast, and Gluck claimed that Dunkin Brands was trying force her out so that it could add her franchise to The Greek’s already massive empire. According to the Daily News, Dunkin Donuts has a history of suing its franchise owners. Between 2006 and 2008, Dunkin Brands filed over 150 lawsuits against its New York City franchise owners, while similar chain restaurants such as Subway and McDonald’s filed suits in the single digits.
Given the strained relationship between the Dunkin corporation and its franchise owners, it was not surprising when all our contact attempts were met with a wall of silence. After all, Gluck had talked to the media, and where was she now? Flipping burgers? Working the counter at Twin Donut? Dead? No one knew. We called up corporate headquarters in Canton Massachusetts and politely demanded a list of all the franchise owners, but Andrew Mastrangelo, manager of public relations, told us the following: “No.” The corporate office—which has been criticized for purposefully over-saturating its markets with multiple stores, thereby driving up the total number of Dunkin Donuts customers while forcing individual franchises to compete against each other – was now trying to protect its franchisers from us?
Who were these people, these corporate suits that were trying to keep us from sweet creamy knowledge? Generally speaking, donuts are Republican. Dunkin Brands is owned by a consortium of three private equity companies: Bain Capital, The Carlyle Group, and Thomas H. Lee Partners. Bain Capital was founded in part by Mitt Romney, current Republican front-runner for the 2012 presidential nomination. The Carlyle Group owns United Defense Industries which makes the famous Bradley fighting vehicle (and like many super villain corporations owns several priceless artifacts including a copy of the Magna Carta.) Thomas H. Lee Partners owns Clear Channel, Nielson, Warner Music, and at one time, Snapple, which claimed to heartlessly maintain a monopoly on the best stuff on earth. So what were they trying to hide from us? Why would Romney own Dunkin Donuts? Mormons can’t even drink coffee. Were news stations belonging to Clear Channel hiding the awful truth? Was United Defense using recycled parts of the B700 Bagel Toaster (a cornerstone of any Dunkin Donuts kitchen) in Afghanistan?
We didn’t care about tanks, Mormon politicians, or the Magna Carta. All we wanted to know was where the donuts come from. When we explained this to Mr. Mastrangelo, he gave us the only concrete information we were able to get out of anyone wearing the pink and orange double Ds. The donuts themselves are prepared in kitchens located inside different Dunkin Donuts locations throughout the City. (Can we see these kitchens? Again Mr. Masterangelo told us, “No.”) The ingredients for the donuts, the “product-mix,” non perishables, paper cups, signs, uniforms, and everything else comes from a distribution center located… in New Jersey. There it was: the sort-of answer. The Holy Grail we had been searching for, the mythical Shangri-La of enormous machines and vats of deconstructed donut goo.
“Can we visit your distribution center?” we asked.
He told us the following: “No, no, and no.”
After days of high-intensity internet searching and dozens of telephone calls to Dunkin’ Brands and local store managers, we had found the factory. We had visited a baker’s dozen of Dunkin Donut locations throughout the city and collectively spent almost $100 dollars on unwanted coffee and sweets in our search for answers. We couldn’t give up now. We had only one option left. Our very first contact at the Rector Street location had told us that the donuts were delivered from Jersey at 4:00 a.m. All we had to do was stake out the store, wait for the delivery truck to arrive, and follow it back to its lair somewhere deep in the Garden State.
At 3:30 a.m., we determined that there was only one way in and out of the store. We sat in the all-night café across the street sipping coffee and watching the door. Waiting. At 5:00 a.m. the lights came on, and a lone employee started stacking trays of fresh donuts. The truck had never come. We have no idea how he got inside. We ran across the street, burst through the front door past the gloating sign which read “Welcome to the bakery,” and demanded to know where the donuts had come from.
“New Jersey,” was all he said.
We were defeated. Out of options. We were two Davids crushed beneath the heel of a Donut Goliath. If America really runs on Dunkin, then America runs on secrecy. It’s a long road from the donut factory to your mouth, winding, dangerous and perverse. One week and we’re still searching. We can’t stop. The phantom donut factory is a mirage, elusive, always one step out of our reach. A gothic Lovecraft mansion. We follow the beaten path now, knowing we may never reach our destination, imagining the serpent spouts ejaculating jelly and the endless stream of vacant workers hammering the dough.
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