Like most people who grew up in the greater Boston area, I swear by Dunkin’ Donuts. Drinking coffee anywhere else would not just be fiscally irresponsible and disappointing – it would be an act of betrayal. Being surrounded by Dunkin’ locations was something I took for granted until I decided to take a summer internship in Seattle, where the closest Dunkin’ is in Northern California.
But the Pacific Northwest is famous for its coffee for a reason, and I figured there ought to be a place like Dunkin’ somewhere if I looked hard enough. So I made it my goal to visit as many unique coffee shops as I could afford over the twelve weeks I was in Seattle, and, as you would expect from a smartphone-armed teenager with too much free time, I captured the whole thing on Instagram at instagram.com/sea_no_dunkin (thanks to all of those supportive enough to follow me, and all the wonderful people who dealt with my insistence on always going to a novel coffee shop).
Over the course of the summer, I managed to visit over fifty distinct Seattle-area coffee vendors, which ranged from tiny stands on the sides of roads adjacent to trailheads to massive roasteries that were full of tourists. Of course, the best metric by which to quantify the quality of the coffee I enjoyed was its similarity to Dunkin’ – How similar was the store itself? How closely did the actual drink resemble the iced coffee I grew up drinking? How closely did the customer experience resemble the one I have committed to memory over the years? Of course, no place could actually resemble Dunkin’ perfectly, but different vendors approached Dunkin’ on different axes. Here are a couple of the closest matches:
Aesthetic: Aurora Donuts – As this place was a Dunkin’ location fifteen years ago, it falls squarely into the uncanny valley of DD-like coffee shops. Its vaguely familiar (and mainly empty) shelving and signage made me feel like I was back at home, though I will admit that the hours-old hot coffee with ice cubes in it in a styrofoam cup that I purchased for just over a dollar did not.
Coffee: Espresso Vivace – This sidewalk espresso bar in Capitol Hill was one of the highlights of my search for a coffee-drinking experience most aligned with Dunks. I’m not sure if it was because of the coffee beans themselves or just because of the ice-to-coffee ratio, but I distinctly remember sitting by the Cal Anderson Park reflecting pool, taking a sip of my drink, and genuinely thinking that it was from Dunkin’ Donuts.
Experience: Cafe Allegro – This historic coffee shop was hidden in an alley behind a bookstore in the University District. I got to make small talk with the barista about the art that lined the exposed brick walls of the store while waiting for my coffee. After that pleasant conversation, I caught some of a hockey game while finishing up on email, returned my glass, and left. A lot of the folks around me seemed to be doing the same – arriving, staying, and leaving with a purpose.
Most of the coffee shops I visited fell into one of two categories – either it was a place where the in-store experience started with ordering a drink and ended when you walked out of the door with that drink in your hand or it sat a community gathering space that also happened to sell coffee. But Dunkin’ has a distinct atmosphere centered around providing an almost universally palatable middle ground. I don’t think I internalized this until I, with the support of a dear friend, made the pilgrimage to a Dunkin’ Donuts location inside a Walmart in Madera, CA (thanks for everything, Kyle James Emmi) – even though it was a truly novel Dunkin’ experience, I immediately felt at home and knew exactly what to do and how to feel, and I knew that feeling was truly unique.
Most Dunkin’ locations have seating and WiFi, but they don’t usually have comfortable couches to spend a whole day in. I’ve seen local groups get together at Dunkin’ to play cards and have casual meetings, but it is unlikely to be the venue for an impromptu poetry slam. With drive throughs and on-the-go ordering options, they scaffold options for experiences that center around a physical transaction, not human connection, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel empowered to converse with the barista or a friend. The coffee is not made from carefully selected imported beans, but it’s certainly a step up from the vending machine.
Of course, Dunkin’ is not the perfect brand, and their stores do not provide the perfect user experience. But this summer-long quest to find a place that reminded me of it serves as a reminder of the importance of flexibility and nuance in a world defined by extremes instead of what fills in the gaps between them. Coffee shops can be powerful ‘third places’ to build communities around, but they don’t have to be – they can be places that meet each customer where they are. The road to success may not be orange and pink, but certainly some of the bricks lining the path are.