George Nelson reports in the Business Journal Daily that the upcoming opening of the region’s newest Dunkin Donuts store in Austintown will bring to 16 the number of locations the national chain operates in the five-county northeast Ohio/western Pennsylvania region.

Expected to open sometime this month, the new store — at the prime location of Interstate 80/Route 46 interchange — will be the eighth to open or relocate since 2005. That includes a new Market Street Boardman store, which opened earlier this year, just a mile and a half south of its first Boardman store, and another store on Route 46 across from the Eastwood Mall.

“It’s a good market for us,” says Lynne Schroeder, regional field marketing manager for Dunkin Brands Inc.

Bryan Stolte, co-owner of six of the area stores, attributes the brand’s strength in the market in part to the area operators, as well as a “strong marketing presence“ on television and radio.

Stolte previously was director of operations for 440 stores from Pennsylvania to Chicago. A few years ago, when the corporation was downsizing, local operator Ted Rogers approached him about forming a partnership.

Area franchisees have always been “really good, solid operators” who are “operationally focused,” Stolte says. “They engage with the guests. They protect the brand from a quality perspective.

“We really positioned ourselves well,” he continues. “We cover almost every corner of the area, so there is a convenience there.”

The Dunkin brand is well recognized, says longtime operator Joe White, who with his son owns six stores, including the Girard and Hermitage, Pa., stores, and two in Salem.

In the doughnut business for more than 30 years, White operated stores under the Mister Donut name when that chain was acquired by Dunkin in 1990. As he saw his choices at the time, he could either convert his stores to operate as Dunkin or “die on the vine. So I decided to convert to Dunkin,” he says.

The chain, White notes, was “a big brand on the East Coast,” and in recent years decided it should become stronger in other areas of the country. “So they went to other markets where they had a presence,” he explains.

White opened the Salem store in 2005 and the Girard store in 2007.

Like Stolte, Jim Braga, who owns the current Austintown store and is opening the new location in the township, credits Dunkin’s success in the area in part to local operators. “We’re one of the few markets where we do have strong average weekly sales,” he says, which he attributed to good products and service.

Braga has been in the business for 27 years. Originally from Rhode Island, he came to Ohio in 1982 and worked for his brother and sister-in-law, who had purchased a shop in Cleveland. About a year later, he bought his first store in Wilkes Barre, Pa. There, Braga met a local woman who became his wife. He bought the Austintown store in 1994, and in 2002 relocated that store to its present spot on Mahoning Avenue.

The new Route 46 store is 4,000 square feet, and the retail area will occupy about two-thirds of that structure, Braga says, with the rest devoted to offices. He has four franchises in the Youngstown market now and although he’s had the opportunity build more stores, he wanted to be able to own the land they were built on. “I’m better off having two stores,” he says, “rather than having four or five stores and paying tremendous rent. That’s how I look at it.”

Dunkin diversified its offerings about 10 years ago, adding bagel sandwiches and expanding beverage offerings. “Coffee is probably our biggest signature item,” with the coffee beverage line today representing about 60% of Dunkin’s business, Stolte says.

“We feel we have the best coffee going, and many people tell us that,” White affirms.

Introducing bagels in 1997 provided “the biggest boost in years,” Braga adds.

The expanded beverage offerings include iced coffees and lattes. But when iced coffee was introduced 10 years ago, however, “We couldn’t give away,“ Stolte recalls. “Now it’s one of our biggest sellers.“

To broaden its business beyond the morning, the chain recently added flatbreads.

Although he acknowledges business is a bit slower due to the economy, Dunkin is “somewhat recession-proof,” Stolte suggests.

“We’re not a high-ticket-item business. You can get a cup of coffee for $1.29 — people aren’t cutting back to that extent,” he says. In fact, several stores are seeing positive sales increases and customer counts are up over last year’s.

Business Journal Daily