Core Culinary Competency

Dunkin’ Donuts is in the midst of an identity crisis.

As reported by NBC News (and noticed by regular customers, I suppose), the Massachusetts-based coffee mega-chain has tweaked the look of its cafés in recent weeks, with the sudden appearance of big, cushy chairs, quasi-casual soft lighting and free Wi-Fi service.

That’s right:  Dunkin’ Donuts is turning itself into Starbucks.

As explained in a press release, “The modernized design incorporates many new features to create a warm environment for guests who seek a longer, more relaxed visit to Dunkin’ Donuts as part of their day.”

The article quotes a retail strategist, Todd Hooper, who reasons, “People are eating and drinking around the clock now and working wherever they have to.”  To better serve a growing demand for public spaces in which to do so, he continues, fast food establishments such as Dunkin’ are “going from just a kitchen to being an out-of-home den or office or conference room.”

Certainly, this phenomenon of coffee shop-as-office is not new.  For most people it has existed, albeit in increasingly ubiquitous forms, for as long as Starbucks has—the Seattle-based java house (and Dunkin’s primary competitor) having more or less introduced the form.

But then there is my point:  If I want a place to buy coffee and sit down to read or bang on my laptop for the better part of an afternoon, I will go to Starbucks.

However, if I am rather in the mood for patronizing a massive coffee behemoth but do not wish to linger—and if I am perhaps also nursing a hankering for Boston Kreme—then I opt for Dunkin’.

This is the dynamic we, the people, have agreed upon for a very long time, and the only one with which I am truly comfortable.

The term that springs to mind is “core competency.”  This is the notion that a successful business tends to excel at one particular thing, and should simply concentrate on perfecting its aptitude for said thing, rather than attempting to mimic said success on something entirely different.

The current proliferation of long-established fast food joints drastically altering their looks and menus in order to compete for the dollars of busy working folk would seem a flagrant violation of this principle.

For all the business sense it might make to embrace a model of evolving one’s identity to cater to America’s evolving needs and tastes, I lament this trend nonetheless, for the intrinsic dishonesty of which it smacks.

In point of fact, Dunkin’ Donuts reupholstering its interior is among the least alarming examples of this.

Within the big name food service industry, the true offenders of the “core competency” rule are the ones undertaking full-scale recalibrations of their actual food, and, in turn, their very selves.

After an increasingly lucrative period of revolutionizing the semi-healthy lunch market, Subway sandwich shops started selling breakfast food in 2010—a move perhaps not quite as odd as four years earlier, when it introduced pizza.

Amidst the worldwide weight loss craze of the last decade, the undisputed king of unholy portion sizes, the Cheesecake Factory, unveiled its “SkinnyLicious” menu in 2011, featuring dishes of more reasonable acreage and nutritional value.  Comparable “family” restaurants such as Applebee’s and Olive Garden have made similar moves to attract those rare Americans who do not wish to exit in a Category 5 food coma.

And of course there are the enduring hamburger staples like McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King, which have bent over backwards to sell products not completely drenched in salt and trans fats.

From an illuminating recent article in the New York Times, we learn that despite having these plentiful new “healthy options,” even the most otherwise health-conscious McDonald’s customers, by and large, are still ordering deep-fried crap.

While the article quotes all sorts of experts in an attempt to solve this so-called mystery, I suspect the true answer comes from food consultant Darren Tristano, who poses the radical theory that “consumers don’t see fast food as a place to eat healthy.”

You don’t say.

In his book Food Rules, Michael Pollan issues the injunction, “Avoid foods that are pretending to be something they are not.”  Per example:  If you want ice cream, eat ice cream.  Don’t waste your time with those non-fat, no-sugar-added “frozen dairy dessert” imposters.

In like spirit, we just might need to face the awful truth that when a person enters McDonald’s, it’s because he wants a goddamned hamburger, because that’s what McDonald’s is for.

Establishments that peddle culinary garbage ought to embrace their unique place in the food universe, and not attempt to be something they are not.  There are certain destinations whose core purpose is, and has always been, to contribute to the great American tradition of slowly eating ourselves to death, and by God, they should not stop now.

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