In keeping with the nostalgic stories in this issue of Independent Joe, we asked writer Scott Van Voorhis to look back 20 (or so) years to a time when many feared an IT glitch would cause a global meltdown.

Some of the world’s top Information Technology experts were warning that automated operating systems – controlling everything from bank transactions to electric power grids – were in danger of going haywire when their internal clocks clicked from 1999 to 2000. According to this nightmare scenario, computers would misread the number 2000 and instead see 1900. The result, they posited, would plunge cities into darkness, disrupt airline flight paths and generally bring civilized life to a sudden halt.

That didn’t happen, but it did prompt Dunkin’ and most other companies to get caught up in the Y2K hysteria. As we look back at that and other nostalgic issues, we can consider what we learned then can help us emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.

From looming apocalypse to bad joke

Let’s set the scene. It’s the last minute of 1999, 11:59 p.m. on December 31 and the Times Square Ball is slowly descending. Around the world, even as people are celebrating, they are crossing their fingers and praying the world will not shut off in a few seconds.

For three years, computer experts had been warning that internal clocks in systems controlling everything from street lights to ATMs would be tricked into thinking the New Year was 1900 and not 2000. This techno-glitch would cause widespread mayhem, they predicted. Already, people had stocked their cupboards with canned goods and survival kits. One New York City woman actually had trash cans filled with water in fear her toilet would not flush. Companies paid IT experts and consultants millions of dollars to ensure their computers would read the date correctly when the new millennium finally arrived on Jan. 1, 2000.

By the time the ball had dropped in Times Square and the streamers and confetti were flying, it’s not what happened that took people by surprise, but what didn’t. Nothing happened. There were no major reports of any Y2K malfunctions anywhere. Yes, one man in New York State was charged with a century’s worth of late fees – more than $91,000 – when he returned a movie to the video rental store. Clearly, that store’s computer had glitched, but there were no midair collisions, no errant missile launches, and not even one power outage.

Before New Year’s Eve, Dunkin’, like other businesses, took the Y2K warnings to heart. Allied Domecq, which was Dunkin’s corporate parent until 2005, heeded the calls to prepare for a potential electronic apocalypse. In fact, the brand’s former owners spent more than two years preparing for the doomsday that never came.

CIO Magazine extensively quoted top Allied Domecq executives on their efforts to head off a potential Y2K disaster in its Nov. 1, 1997 issue – more than two years before the end of the millennium. Like many big companies, Allied Domecq hired a Y2K manager. It is estimated American corporations and the federal government spent roughly $100 billion preparing for a Y2K meltdown

Dunkin’s Y2K chief decided it would be an “insurmountable” communications challenge to get word of the impending Y2K meltdown to 6,000 Dunkin’ and Baskin Robbins locations, so he decided to enlist the help of the company’s CEO, CFO and COO.

The CIO article, which advised consultants to use “scare tactics” if needed to rouse the corporate bigwigs to the threat, approvingly noted that Allied Domecq’s COO intervened directly, authorizing the use of his name to clear away any “stumbling blocks.”

“The goal is to present Y2K conversion efforts as crucial to business continuity, not just another niggling computer upgrade,” the CIO article noted.

Not everyone was buying the hype, though, including Jay Fitzgerald, the editor of the Boston Business Journal that year when the fate of civilization hung in the balance. His mind turned to frightful thoughts, like whether he could get cash from the ATM, or whether lights at Boston’s crosswalks would still work. “How will Venice Pizza on Cambridge Street deliver if the phones are down or if its computerized ordering system is on the fritz?” What if Y2K shut down his local Dunkin’ Donuts shop?

Fitzgerald published his concerns in a column, noting, “In all probability, there should be no problem getting the [newspaper] out the first week in January unless … unless Dunkin’ Donuts is not Y2K compliant. How could the Bay State workforce function without Dunkies? This is a potentially profound problem indeed. Note to Dunkin’ Donuts: Don’t blow it. The nation needs you.”

As it turned out, Dunkin’ and pretty much everyone else passed the test with flying colors.

Other 90s nostalgia

Recently, QSR Magazine looked back at more than two decades of its coverage of the quick-service industry. Their article highlighted some of the major issues facing Dunkin’ and other quick-service franchise owners in the 1990s. Many of those, especially ones related to technology, appear rather quaint now.

In 1997, 1998 and 1999, QSR Magazine reported on quick-service restaurants venturing online, in this case to try and sell pizza, while also noting that other chains were still trying to connect with customers in a more traditional way, via paper newsletters. During this time, quick-service chains were beginning to accept credit cards and offer free internet service to customers. The magazine also discussed the importance of launching a website so restaurants could have presence on the World Wide Web, but cautioned franchise owners and executives to “beware Internet critics.” In 2000, QSR reported on restaurants turning to the Internet to recruit employees and an early, and apparently ill-fated attempt to use voice recognition software.

Technology was emerging at the time, but labor issues were already at the forefront. In 1997, the National Restaurant Association was urging federal lawmakers not to raise the minimum wage. In 1998, a week-long strike at an Ohio McDonald’s centered on “the industry fighting unionization,” according to QSR Magazine.

What was Dunkin’ doing back then? In 1995, the brand began offering Hazelnut and French Vanilla flavored coffee. Bagels rolled out in 1996 (read more about the Bagel Explosion on page 20). Coffee Coolattas and breakfast sandwiches were on the menu in 1997 and Dunkin’ celebrated its eight billionth cup of coffee sold in 1999. After the Y2K fizzle, Dunkin’s 5,000th restaurant opened in Bali, 10,000 miles away from the spot where Bill Rosenberg opened the first Open Kettle restaurant.

Be ready for challenges

Memories from the late 1990s can be hazy today, even as the days before Covid-19 can feel like a lifetime ago. Many of the challenges small business owners faced before the pandemic will be there in the coming months, but new challenges are ahead as well. Y2K reminds us that even though dire predictions don’t always come true, sometimes you have to be prepared for the worst.