When an old brand adopts new techniques, can consumers tell the difference?

Stephanie Klein-Davis | The Roanoke Times  Franchise owner Ken Walker makes French crullers at his Dunkin Donuts store on Franklin Road. He and his staff roll, cut and fry doughnuts by hand.

Stephanie Klein-Davis | The Roanoke Times Franchise owner Ken Walker makes French crullers at his Dunkin' Donuts store on Franklin Road. He and his staff roll, cut and fry doughnuts by hand.

Jenny Kincaid Boone writes in The Roanoke Times an in depth story about the new and old donut making she writes, Ken Walker spent five weeks at Dunkin’ Donuts school near Boston in 1978, where he learned how to mix doughnut dough, cut out the round shapes and pop them in the fryer.

Walker still rolls out mounds of doughnut dough by hand many mornings at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Franklin Road in Roanoke, where he is franchise owner. He’ll easily spend three and a half hours making these sugary sweet treats in the back kitchen.

On a recent morning, Walker pounded the dough with a wooden roller so hard that he was short of breath.

His labor-intensive doughnut-making routine is becoming an antiquated technique at the more than 6,000 Dunkin’ Donuts shops across the country.

Watch the Video: Its Time for Ken to Make the Donuts

To increase efficiency, this Canton, Mass., chain is quietly changing its doughnut-making model.

Increasingly, new franchise owners, who are required to open a minimum of five shops, are receiving the already prepared dough by truck, frozen in round shapes. In what Dunkin’ Donuts coins on-demand baking, these shops simply bake the doughnuts and do all of the necessary finishing work, from adding sprinkles and spreading pink frosting to inserting jelly, before the confections are lined up on the shop’s long display racks.

Andy Rod, a franchise owner from Charlottesville who opened a new Dunkin’ Donuts on Keagy Road in Southwest Roanoke County this month, said the bake-on-demand doughnuts are as fresh as ever, because they are made around the clock (the store’s drive-through is open 24 hours).

Customers shouldn’t taste a difference between the two kinds of doughnuts, Dunkin’ Donuts claims. The chain conducted extensive taste tests to make sure the quality and taste of their products remained the same, said Andrew Mastrangelo, a spokesman for Dunkin’ Brands.

“It should be transparent,” he said.

Even so, culinary and restaurant experts say a difference in taste is inevitable, and it’s creating a healthy rivalry between the two local Dunkin’ Donuts stores. The real success test is whether these baking differences actually matter to customers.

Baking a standard

Efficiency may not have been a primary concern when Dunkin’ Donuts founder Bill Rosenberg sold his first doughnuts out of a truck in Quincy, Mass., in 1948. He first named the business Open Kettle, and two years later it became Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s now one of the largest coffee and doughnut enterprises in the world.

Dunkin’ Donuts has made a huge footprint in the doughnut world as a place for hot, on-the-spot doughnuts and coffee. A new slogan, created in 2006, reflects this focus: America runs on Dunkin’.

The chain’s also on a mission to increase its franchise base, largely in the West and in the South. In March 2008, privately held Dunkin’ Donuts said it wanted to open 34 new franchise locations across the Roanoke Valley, Lynchburg and Harrisonburg.

Rod, a native of New Jersey who has lived in Charlottesville for 11 years, took the plunge in an agreement to open at least 14 Dunkin’ Donuts shops between Southwest Virginia and the Charlottesville area. He opened two shops in Charlottesville last year, and another one’s in the works for that area. He’s also scouting out a Blacksburg location.

Rod and his growing Dunkin’ Donuts operation are the brand’s modern examples of franchise owners. It’s uncommon for franchisees to have only one store, Mastrangelo said.

Walker’s an exception. He opened his first Dunkin’ Donuts on West Main Street in Salem 31 years ago with his father. He’s had four total in the Roanoke Valley and Lynchburg, but now he has only the Franklin Road shop, which is combined with Baskin Robbins.

Walker, 52, said he’s not interested in opening additional franchises because Dunkin’ Donuts would require him to sign on for multiple locations in a certain period of time. “They make you buy a territory now,” he said.

Through the years, Dunkin’ Donuts has adopted new models for more efficient doughnut-making. They include central bakeries where doughnuts are baked before being distributed to nearby Dunkin’ Donuts stores.

But there’s not a central bakery in Southwest Virginia. Bake-on-demand is the logical choice for the local Dunkin’ Donuts.

“It’s simply easier for them,” Mastrangelo said. “They can focus on the front of the house … focus on the customer experience … as opposed to physical baking.”

Other benefits include the ability to whip up a Boston creme doughnut or another variety if the shelves are running low, and a customer asks for it.

“You never run out,” Rod said.

Also, no special culinary expertise is required to bake the doughnuts. Essentially, Rod said, he expects the 20-some employees of his Roanoke County Dunkin’ Donuts store to rotate baking duties.

The process also cuts down on wasted food, he said.

Dunkin’ Donuts isn’t the only food company that has changed its processes to save money and operate more efficiently.

“We’re seeing some efficiencies that restaurant operators are trying to put into place that will either speed the process or lower the cost,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a food market research firm in Chicago. “This to me sounds like a good opportunity for franchises. There’s a lot to put in play to help the operator very quickly serve the food.”

Such a move can also save on labor and other costs, he said.

“It’s certainly a movement that’s been out there,” said R.J. Hottovy, a restaurant analyst with Morningstar, a Chicago investment research firm, citing other quick-service chains such as Domino’s Pizza as an example.

Often, private clubs and hotels use frozen baked goods, such as pastries and pies, when serving large groups of people, said John Berardi, a culinary arts instructor at Virginia Western Community College.

“A lot of times, frozen baked products usually will come out with a high quality,” he said.

Still, using frozen products “is mostly based on the cost of labor and the cost of the ingredients,” he added.

And although a hand-made doughnut may taste the best, “it’s a business and this is one way to really streamline operations,” Hottovy said. “Generally speaking, in a tough economy, more and more restaurant operators are looking for ways to cut costs.”

As for customer satisfaction, “it’s still going to be a question of the quality and taste and flavor. That’s what will be important to the customer,” Tristano said. “If there is a noticeable difference … some are going to taste it.”

Walker and some local chain and non-chain doughnut shop operators maintain that made-on-site doughnuts taste the best and freshest.

Dunkin’ Donuts’ competitor, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, still fries doughnuts at its individual stores, including the Roanoke location on Melrose Avenue. These stores receive the doughnut mix from Krispy Kreme and the mixing and frying takes place in the kitchen.

Similar to the Dunkin’ Donuts central bakery model, some of Krispy Kreme’s new and small neighborhood outlets receive fresh doughnuts multiple times a day from larger, nearby Krispy Kreme stores, said Brian Little, a spokesman for the publicly traded company based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Other Roanoke Valley doughnut shops, such as the Salem Donut Shop and Blue Collar Joe’s in Daleville, also make doughnuts by hand.

Tim Greigg, owner of Salem Donut Shop on Fourth Street, stays up all night making his creations from scratch. The round treats are ready when he opens the doors at 5 a.m.

“We get a lot of compliments on ours,” Greigg said. “You can tell they are fresh, even by looking at them.”

Who can tell the difference?

As for the different models for making doughnuts at Dunkin’ Donuts, “The company claims it’s not [different],” said Walker, whose doughnuts are made several times throughout the day in shifts by himself and several employees who are trained in baking.

Rod said his Keagy Village shop’s doughnuts are an “extremely fresh product,” because employees can pop them into the oven at any time of the day.

Rod’s new Dunkin’ Donuts is situated about five miles from Walker’s shop at 3620 Franklin Road. Rod said he doesn’t expect the stores to compete for the same customers.

Traditionally, individual Dunkin’ Donuts locations draw traffic from within a 5-to-8-mile radius, and that’s usually the coffee crowd, Rod said.

Also, 40 percent to 50 percent of sales come via the drive-through, he said.

Walker’s store does not have a drive-through, but its Baskin Robbins ice cream arm appeals to people looking for a cool treat, often in the evenings. He would not disclose the shop’s annual sales.

Dunkin’ Brands also owns Baskin Robbins.

As for competition among franchises, “to offer the consumer the convenience of more locations is going to be detrimental to some franchisees’ sales,” Tristano said.

Only four days after the new Dunkin’ Donuts opened its doors, Larren Duty, her husband, Greg Duty, and their son, Robert Duty, made their third doughnuts-and-coffee run. They walked about a mile and half, from their Southwest Roanoke County home behind the shop.

The Dutys are fans of the chain. Larren Duty wasn’t aware of a difference in the two doughnut production methods at the local Dunkin’ Donuts shops. She said she enjoyed the Keagy Village doughnuts just the same.

“They’re very light,” she said.

Another couple, Jan and Bert Norvell, had the same reaction.

“I couldn’t tell the difference,” said Jan Norvell, finishing off an apple spice doughnut and sipping coffee. The Southwest Roanoke County residents have waited eagerly for this new Dunkin’ Donuts to open its doors. Bert Norvell said he thinks the doughnuts taste as if they have less sugar than other chains’.

Still, Amy Whittaker clearly chooses her doughnuts for a unique flavor. The Roanoke County resident stops by the Dunkin’ Donuts on Franklin Road several mornings a week on her way to work in downtown Roanoke. She buys a cup of coffee and a doughnut.

“They’ve always tasted fresh … not like the store-brand doughnuts,” she said.

Whittaker’s favorite is the Dutch crumb. But she won’t find that doughnut in other Dunkin’ Donuts shops.

The flavor is Walker’s own recipe, unique to his Franklin Road store.

The Roanoke Times

Related reading at DDIFO.org: Donut Taste Test: Split Decision