For seven generations, my family has lived in Evansville, Indiana. My great-great-great-grandfather came here from Ireland in 1828 to start a farm just a mile away from where I live today. He sought the wide open territory to begin life anew in a promising land. From this beginning, the Midwestern values of hard work, hospitality and a pride of place have shaped our attitudes about Evansville and, indeed, ourselves. We tend to welcome new things with a certain amount of skepticism. It’s not a jaded cynicism, but more of a healthy inquisitiveness, and it can have a lot to do with where a person lives.

Healthy inquisitiveness is a prominent characteristic of the West Side of our city: Mom and pop stores, family businesses and a tilt toward the traditional. The newer East Side has all the razzle-dazzle of an expanding metropolis: national chain stores, trendy eateries and a more transient population. It’s “where the young kids are,” as my father used to say. In the middle is Evansville’s North Side with some of the progress of the East and some of the stability of the West. Some of my neighbors say it’s been on the move in recent years, so maybe it’s no surprise that it is where Kam Patel chose to open his new Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin-Robbins.

Finding a sweet spot in the Midwest

I met Patel for coffee by the large window in his store. Outside, the relentless Indiana winter grayed the sky, but inside we’re embraced by the coziness of coffee and pastry aroma and the friendly chatter of other customers. I discovered that his path to Evansville mirrored the journey of my ancestors. Patel says his story is common among Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owners. He and his brother Nick started with the chain 20 years ago working the counter in Cherry Hill, New Jersey—just east of Philadelphia. Over time, each worked in different stores, acquiring new skills and responsibilities. They were finally ready to enter the system as franchisees in 2017, they decided to head to the Midwest. While Dunkin’ Donuts locations are commonplace in the northeast, they are still relatively scarce outside of major cities in Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky. Their quest brought them to southern Indiana.

“We found Evansville to be a good opportunity,” says Patel, “It’s not too big of a city and at the same time, it’s not too small a market”.

Evansville is a city of nearly 120,000 located on a sweeping bend in the Ohio River. We’re a regional hub for commerce, education and culture, and the area has enjoyed stable, steady growth. The city is home to several large, publicly traded companies like Springleaf, Berry Plastics and Mead Johnson Nutrition. We boast two universities, plus a soon-to-be-opened branch campus of the Indiana University Medical School. Evansville was settled 200 years ago and is steeped in a rich history and tradition. Interestingly, the Patels found their sweet spot on the North Side; an area with both legacy restaurants and stores and new business growth. The North Side doesn’t have the traffic congestion the East Side has, and it’s convenient to customers from the West Side.

Opened in late February, their store sits on busy First Avenue, the business corridor of the North Side. The site had been a McDonald’s for 40 years and is well-known and well-traveled.

“McDonald’s had so much traffic coming through this location, they relocated to be able to add a double drive-through, and we took the spot,” says Nick Patel, who manages the shop he owns with his brother.

I was eager to find out how Dunkin’s arrival was being received by North siders – and others from Evansville – as well as how the brand could compete with places like the Donut Bank, a long-time local business owned by an Evansville family and situated just down the street from Patel’s shop. In chatting with other customers, I learned a less apparent scenario: Dunkin’ doesn’t “compete.” It complements the existing stores with new choices, new locations and new flavors. The loyalty of my parent’s generation has softened a bit to be inclusive of the new and attractive.

Fond memories find a new home

On a Monday morning, after the morning rush for coffee, donuts and sandwiches in the drive-thru, the restaurant is still bustling with activity. Jessie Gross, a local realtor and mom is enjoying a donut with her 3-year-old son Elliott, to celebrate bravery shown at his first dental appointment. An Evansville native, Gross is encouraged by the new activity. “I’m glad the North Side is being reinvented. The new businesses cater to what people want. It’s something new and attractive,” Gross says.

At a table nearby, Patricia and David Mitchell have driven across town to sample the coffee and donuts at the new Dunkin’ Donuts for the first time. For the couple, now in their 70s, donuts have always signified a reward. “When I was a little girl, mom and dad would give us a nickel for donuts. It was always a little treat, a comfort food. Now we come here. I like the colorful décor of the store. The pink and orange catches your eye” says Mitchell.

For others, the arrival of Dunkin’ Donuts in Evansville evokes fond memories. Sarah O’Gara first experienced the donuts and beverages while living in New York. “When I was pregnant, I craved hot tea and donuts every day,” she remembers. O’Gara is sharing a pink sprinkle donut with her 2-year-old daughter Wyllow. “We drove across town this morning just for the memories. This place is different from what we have in Evansville. It’s new and fresh and brightly-colored.”

“The donut business here is very different,” says Kam Patel, “People love donuts at this place, very different from New Jersey where the primary seller is coffee and iced coffee. Here, the donuts are the big sellers and the specialty lattes and drinks. People are excited and happy that we are here. We’ve had great support from the community, even the mayor came to our grand opening and local media covered the event”.

“Years ago there was a Dunkin’ Donuts right next door to where the new one opened,” recalls Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke, “And as a young guy I had a paper route, and to run the Sunday route, I got up at oh-dark-thirty to deliver—my dad helped me—and every Sunday after we delivered papers we would go to that Dunkin’ Donuts. So, when I heard they were coming back to town—although I certainly love the local donut options—it was a flashback to some really great childhood memories to see they were going to be opening again on the North Side and right next to where my Dad and I used to go.”

Winnecke, now in his second term as mayor, is bullish on the new business. “I think it’s going to be a real gold mine for [Dunkin’ Donuts]. This is probably the greatest time in our city’s history for investment. There are literally hundreds of millions of dollars in investment going in all over our city. We are on a roll, there’s definitely a vibe that didn’t exist five or even 10 years ago. Now’s a good time to be in Evansville and making an investment.”

With one store up and running, the Patels are already looking to future expansion within the Evansville market. If customer enthusiasm is any indication, more stores will come sooner rather than later.

“When are you putting one on the West Side, East Side?” Those are the questions the Patels say they hear every day. “This tells us people are coming from all over to eat, even from 20 miles away. We are planning to grow, but only as fast as we can handle.” The next-nearest Dunkin’ Donuts location is in Owensboro, Kentucky, 40 miles away, so the options are wide open for now. “We can scout for the best locations at this point,” Nick Patel says.

The best location may be in the minds and hearts of the customers. By demonstrating their ethic of hard work and their hospitality and pride of place, the Patels are energizing the Dunkin’ Donuts brand here in Evansville and winning the loyalty of customers like me. We share the same values and the same life stories, as well as a love of life’s sweet rewards! 

Jeff Lyons is the chief meteorologist at WFIE TV 14 in Evansville, IN.