Mark Patinkin: Chewing over why we love doughnut shops
Do we really crave the cake - or the caffeine?
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Rhode Island may well be known for quahogs and low-number license plates, but it turns out there's another item where we have national dominance.
Or maybe it's coffee.
A New York marketing firm called the NPD Group found that Providence has more doughnut shops per capita than anywhere else. Boston ranks second with one doughnut store for every 5,750 people.
That's nothing. In the Providence metro area, it's one for every 4,700. That's nine times the average -- nine times -- for the rest of the country.
I set out to figure out why.
Journal photo / Andrew Dickerman
Olga Rios works the counter of the Dunkin' Donuts on North Main Street in Providence. She says coffee is the main attraction among her customers.
I began with Dunkin' Donuts. They have 3,900 shops nationally, almost half of them in New England. Company spokesman Seth Bloom said 225 are in the Rhode Island region, making it the densest collection of any territory. Altogether, there are 342 doughnut shops of all kinds in greater Rhode Island.
Guido Petrosinelli owns eight of the local Dunkin' Donuts franchises.
He thinks our doughnut shop obsession is actually not all about doughnuts.
It's about coffee, too.
Coffee, he said, makes up more than two-thirds of the sales of most shops. Petrosinelli himself drinks 12 cups a day, decaf, small no sugar.
In 1965, when he began, coffee was only 25 percent of sales. It has grown every year since.
I asked why Rhode Island is so obsessed with coffee and doughnuts.
He said Dunkin' Donuts itself is one reason -- they pioneered the dedicated bakery/coffee shop idea and put franchises in most Rhode Island neighborhoods. It's now part of the culture to stop at one. And it proved a fit because Rhode Islanders identify with their neighborhoods, and like all kinds of shops not 10 minutes away, but in their backyards.
I wondered how other doughnut people explain our being the national standout.
I pulled into the Honey Dew doughnut shop on Providence's North Main Street. Helder Vasconcelos, 25, has worked at Honey Dew for three years.
I asked what he thinks it's about -- the doughnuts or the coffee?
"I'd go with the coffee."
As he put it, "the Atkins thing" has made doughnuts a bit less popular lately. "Low-carb, lo-cal, that's what everyone's going for these days."
The Honey Dip and Honey Dew varieties are their big sellers, but coffee is bigger -- two-thirds of sales.
I asked why Rhode Island so loves coffee and doughnut shops.
"People are more on the move here," Helder said. They like to grab and refuel as they go.
He thinks the local coffee obsession has a positive effect on attitude.
"Everybody's more upbeat," Helder said. "I think it's the caffeine. Everyone around here is on it."
His own shop, he said, has serious regulars, like a customer named Gerard who comes a half-dozen times a day for a Mocha Madness Iced Coffee, large, milk, no sugar.
"Gerard's very caffeinated," Helder said.
Outside, a customer pulled up and I went to speak with him. It turned out to be Mike Kelly, a retired Providence Journal photographer.
I asked why Honey Dew?
Proximity, he said.
He ordered a medium regular, one sugar with cream, and a raised doughnut -- which he gets about half the time.
I drove a few blocks to the next doughnut shop -- you seldom have to go farther.
John Hoyos, who works at the North Main Street Dunkin' Donuts, thinks people indeed come for the doughnuts, mostly Boston Kreme and glazed. But he may be prejudiced; he's the baker there.
Behind the counter, Olga Rios said it's more about coffee. These days, regular iced coffee and French vanilla are big. Personally, Olga prefers chocolate.
Finally, I drove to the Holy Grail of area donut shops, the state's Krispy Kreme outlet in Cranston.
Customer Eric Glifort, who lives on the Cape, was getting onto his motorcycle.
He said he travels the country for business, and often it's hard to find a doughnut shop. In New England, he says, you can't miss them. There are two Dunkin' Donut shops within walking distance of his home in Sagamore Beach.
Eric said he likes chain doughnut shops because you know you'll get a reliable cup of coffee. He takes a medium, cream, no sugar.
He, too, theorized that New England has lots of shops because the pace of life is faster, and people like to grab their caffeine on the run.
I went inside Krispy Kreme -- my first time there. I realized that part of the draw is you get to watch doughnuts made on an elaborate conveyor system. Plus, you get free warm samples, and free hats.
Bryan Mullin is the assistant manager. He said at Krispy Kreme, doughnut sales are as big as coffee. It's common, he told me, for one customer to buy several dozen -- even as many as 10 dozen.
He thinks the doughnut obsession in Rhode Island is far bigger than in the rest of the Northeast. His parents live in upstate New York, and when they visit, they remark on how odd it is here to see a doughnut shop on almost every corner.
Charlotte Deady, a Krispy Kreme worker, thinks it's about history. She remembers that 60 years ago, her grandfather used to go to a deli for doughnuts. It was part of the culture then, and handed down as a habit now.
Nearby, I saw two moms passing on the habit to the next generation.
Stephanie Culhane had brought her two kids, ages 3 and 1. Her friend Maria Tovar had kids ages 3 and 6.
Maria comes to Krispy Kreme for the glazed lemon-filled. Stephanie said she has been known to dream about the glazed variety. She added that she likes Allie's, too, the home-grown North Kingstown shop.
At her elbow, her 1-year-old, Katie, pondered a choice between a Chocolate Brownie Deluxe doughnut, last month's featured variety, and a Key Lime Pie flavor. Katie chose the Brownie Deluxe.
"Like any good woman," said Maria, "right for the chocolate."
Stephanie showed me how hard it is to break the habit. She told me she had just been to a doctor's appointment, where she had asked for weight-loss tips, then proceeded directly to Krispy Kreme for a New York Cheesecake doughnut and iced mocha, medium.
But in the end, she thinks the Rhode Island doughnut shop phenomenon is mostly about coffee.
Stephanie herself takes a large, milk, two sugars.
Maria prefers medium, cream and sugar.
"I don't know anyone," Stephanie said, "who doesn't drink coffee."
Satisfied, I headed back to Providence, passing doughnut shops all the way.
From The Providence Journal
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