The History of Dunkin' Donuts

Box of Dunkin' Donuts
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 Hao dream-case / Wikimedia Commons

William Rosenberg, the founder of the international coffee and donut chain Dunkin’ Donuts, was born in Massachusetts in 1916 and raised in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. Rosenberg left middle school in eighth grade to help support his family, which had lost their family business during the great depression. 

A natural entrepreneur as a boy, Rosenberg purportedly transported a block of ice to a New Hampshire racetrack and sold ice chips for 10 cents each, earning himself $171.00 in a single day. After working a variety of jobs, including working as a telegram delivery boy for Western Union when he was just 14, Rosenberg landed a job driving an ice cream truck when he was 17 and worked his way up to management by the time he was 20.

Dunkin' Donuts is Born

The origins of Dunkin’ Donuts go back to World War II when Rosenberg worked at the Quincy Shipyards and realized that the workers had few options available to them for lunch. Following the war, Rosenberg borrowed $1,000 and used $1,500 in bonds to start a company he called Industrial Luncheon Services and served sandwiches, coffee, donuts, and snacks out of old telephone company trucks that he had converted into what we now know as food trucks.

In 1948, upon realizing that half of his sales were coming from coffee and donuts, Rosenberg opened a restaurant in Quincy, Massachusetts, called Open Kettle that sold coffee for ten cents and donuts for a nickel. While the shop was quickly a success and grossing over $5,000 per week, Rosenberg was not happy with the name, so he opted to change it. Noticing that customers dunked their donuts in their coffee, the Open Kettle was renamed Dunkin’ Donuts in 1950.

Before long, Rosenberg opened Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants across Massachusetts in towns like Somerville, Natick, Saugus, and Shrewsbury, where customers could watch as the bakers made the donuts. Rosenberg credited Howard Johnson and his chain of franchised ice cream stores with giving him the idea to franchise Dunkin’ Donuts. In 1955, the first franchised restaurant was opened in Dedham, Massachusetts, selling 52 varieties of donuts, enough to have a different special each week of the year.

By 1963, the company had opened its 100th restaurant and grew to over 1,000 locations by 1979. Today, more than 12,000 locations are operating worldwide with 3,200 international restaurants in 46 countries. Dunkin’ Donuts is sometimes co-branded with Baskin-Robbins, the other brand franchised by parent Dunkin’ Brand, Inc.

Family Succession

In 1963, Rosenberg’s son Robert took over the management of the chain at 25-years-old. A Harvard Business School graduate, the younger Rosenberg led until 1999, and under his leadership, the company streamlined its menu offerings, moved to paper and Styrofoam cups, and introduced muffins, bagels, donut holes (Munchkins), croissants, breakfast sandwiches, Coolattas, and other beverages.

In addition to introducing a national advertising program, Robert also changed the format of the stores by moving away from counters with stools to tables, and he began to offer Dunkin’ Donuts at non-traditional locations. He also started to sell franchises to multi-unit operators, introduced satellite locations and later a commissary system, each of which helped fuel growth by eliminating the need for buildings large enough to house donut manufacturing and finishing.

Dunkin’ Donuts Rebranding

The company’s evolution continues. In September 2018, at its Global Franchise convention in Canton, Massachusetts, the company announced that it was changing its brand, shortening its name to Dunkin’. With the help of Jones a trio of agencies Knowles Ritchie, BBO New York, and Arc Worldwide, the new branding was introduced in stores starting in January 2019. The company kept the color scheme of pink and orange, along with the logo font, both of which were conceived in 1973. 

“Our new branding is one of many things we are doing as part of our blueprint for growth to modernize the Dunkin’ experience for our customers,” said David Hoffman, Dunkin’ Brands’ CEO, and Dunkin’ U.S. President, in a statement. “We believe our efforts to transform Dunkin’, while still embracing our incredible heritage, will keep our brand relevant for generations to come.”

In addition to the changes to branding, the company, which is the top retailer of donuts in America with more than 2.9 billion sales annually, installed an eight-headed tap system for cold drinks and increased its emphasis on mobile orders, adding a special mobile order drive-thru lane.

The International Franchise Association

Although Rosenberg's most celebrated commercial achievement is Dunkin’ Donuts, his work in founding and molding the International Franchise Association is where his greatest impact is still being felt today.

In 1959, together with about a dozen franchisors meeting over a coffee table in a kitchen in Chicago, Rosenberg challenged the others to each invest $100, and the IFA was established in 1960. At the time franchising was being tarnished by bad practices and a host of scams; litigation was growing, and so were legislative actions to rein in the problems.

Rosenberg was committed to making sure that the franchise model would improve through the experiences of franchisors and franchisees. To accomplish this goal, he spearheaded the establishment of the International Franchise Association’s Education Foundation in the 1980s.

In addition to courses developed for its members, the foundation has a course of studies that offer Certified Franchise Executive certification when they are completed, which is the principal source of continuing research and education for franchising on a global basis.

Working with legislators, the IFA was able to assist in crafting laws that benefited both franchisors and franchisees and, through those efforts, cleaned up the problems in franchising and molded franchising into what it is today. Today franchising is used in over 120 different industries, and the IFA continues in its efforts to improve the performance of franchising for both franchisors and franchisees.

Rosenberg's Later Years

In his later life, William Rosenberg became involved in harness horse racing and opened Wilrose Farm in New Hampshire that he donated in 1980 to the state’s university, which later sold the farm and endowed the William Rosenberg Chair in Franchising and Entrepreneurship, the first such faculty position in the university world. Rosenbergl died of colon cancer on September 20, 2002, at the age of 86.

Many thanks to his wife Annie Rosenberg; Arthur Anastos, Vice President and Managing Counsel at Dunkin' Brands; and John Reynolds, President of the International Franchise Association Education Foundation; three people very important to William Rosenberg, for their assistance and contribution to this article.