Friday, February 18, 2011

A tradition creamed

Another wonderful tradition, tossed out like a used Wetnap: Tonight, for the first time in my life, I had to draw my own coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.

One of the chain’s service signatures was drawing and fixing every coffee to the customer’s specifications. The counter personnel didn’t hand you a cup and point to a press-pot pump dispenser; if you wanted a medium with milk and two sugars, that’s precisely what you were handed, even during the morning rush.

It was a subtle distinction that hadn’t really registered after a lifetime of frequenting Dunkin’ (when you grow up on the East Coast, you spend a lot of time during your teens with a Boston Crème in one hand and three or four Munchkins in the other). Lee Sanders, the current president of T.G.I. Friday’s operations, opened my eyes to the ironclad policy while he was working at Dunkin’ Brands, back in the years when it was owned by Allied Domecq. “You’ll never see a press pot at Dunkin, ever,” he said, explaining why the chain had hit some resistance as it moved into grab-and-go situations where speed of service was critical.

That policy has apparently been scuttled. For all I know, it was dropped years ago at some locations, and I just hadn’t encountered it. Then again, I’ve hit Dunkin’ units in all sorts of locations, from streetside New York City stores to train stations, airports, shopping malls and highway travel stops.

I learned of the tradition’s demise when I stopped at a gas station on Long Island that had just put a Dunkin’ station into its c-store area. I went to the counter and ordered a medium coffee with milk. The attendant didn’t even hand me a cup; he just pointed to a dispenser station. It was not an experience that defined hospitality.

Granted, I didn’t exactly risk Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from holding down a lever to fill a 12-ounce disposable cup. But it’s the principle, damn it.

Starbucks went through a wrenching retrenchment because the brand’s godfather and CEO, Howard Schultz, believed it’d drifted away from its culture and distinctions. Since that time, and not just for that reason, the brand’s fortunes have been revived.

I know of one Dunkin’ customer who hopes that venerable brand doesn’t drift away from what made it special.

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