Dunkin’ Donuts returns to Minnesota after a nearly 10-year hiatus. What does this mean for the Twin Cities doughnut scene?
Story by Isabelle WattenbergCutshall
Call it doughnutgate or doughnexit: 2005 saw Minnesota say goodbye to Dunkin’ Donuts. That year, the Massachusetts-based company swept up the last of its sugared crumbs and sold its lone Austin, MN franchise, leaving those who craved their Dunkin’ fix with one option: roadtrip.
Specialty doughnut shops have been around the Twin Cities area since the 1970s, but after Dunkin’s Minnesota exit between 2010 and 2014, the number nearly doubled. About a baker’s dozen doughnut-devoted stores currently operate in the Twin Cities area, ranging from a mom-and-pop experience at A Baker’s Wife, to haute de doughnut Glam Doll Donuts. The doughnut has unquestionably outgrown its role as the last-minute, creased-corner box brought to the weekly office meeting. Bakers elevate the act of frying dough to a craft, using local ingredients, experimenting with savory flavors, and even straying from the traditional circular shape. Equal measurements of care and creative gaul have earned loyal and even fervent customers: Long lines trail down the street before bakery doors open, couples forego wedding cakes for doughnut towers, and National Donut Day (the first Friday in June) is celebrated with a reverence typically reserved for significant family milestones.
In 2014, the Massachusetts-based company confirmed plans to bring stores back to the Twin Cities. To date just one franchise has opened in Rochester, MN, and Roseville and New Hope are vying for the number two and three spots, with 22 additional stores to follow suit, offering up their lauded coffee and counters crowded with rows of glazed and jimmies-bejeweled indulgences.
“The timing was right,” says Patrick Cunningham, Dunkin’ Donuts’ senior director of franchising, since Dunkin’ is in the midst of expanding to West and midwest markets. Their research process, which examines the competition, franchisee interest, and consumer demographics, helped Dunkin’ identify Minnesota as a viable market.
“We needed to feel comfortable going into the market, so we started to put our feelers out there,
says Patrick. “We had great franchise partners approach us, and from there we determined it was a go.”
One such franchise partner is Stephen Silberfarb of Kod Kod Enterprises, which owns the New Hope location. Stephen says his own family offers a classic case study of Minnesota’s need for Dunkin’.
“For years [my wife and kids] have insisted that we stop in the Wisconsin Dunkin’ Donuts stores when we travelled along I-94,” Stephen says. “When we heard Dunkin’ Donuts wanted to launch in Minnesota, we were already very familiar and impressed as customers.”
Dunkin’s appeal is two-fold, according to Stephen. It offers an expansive menu, from frozen drinks to sandwiches—and the franchise model frees each location to essentially act as a small business that knows and cares about its local customers. Plans for the New Hope location include reaching out to and collaborating with community organizations and those in public service, such as teachers and firefighters.
“A coffee, doughnut, and sandwich place is a community gathering place, and that’s how we see it,” he says.
Dunkin’s arrival mobilizes a dedicated following for reasons that are intangible, but powerful. For the East Coaster, nostalgia is one since many childhood memories were fueled on Dunkin’, like post-soccer practice stops, breakfast runs for that caffeine fix, and lazy weekend doughnut runs to feed the whole family. Consistency is another beneficial factor. Like any franchise, each store delivers the same flavors, frosting, and waxed paper bags. You won’t face an evolving menu: That Boston Kreme is never going out of season. But what does this mean for all the local shops and for the Minnesota foodie?
How the Cake Doughnut Crumbles
Just west of downtown Saint Paul, owner Lisa Clark and four full-time bakers make doughnuts fresh every day at Mojo Monkey Donuts in a kitchen that has neither a freezer or microwave. For Lisa, Dunkin’s arrival has one big implication.
“[Dunkin’] has massive marketing power,” Lisa says. “Anything they say about doughnuts is great for me.”
Mojo puts itself on the map with doughnuts that walk a little on the wild side—mango coconut, s’mores, and banana pecan fritters. The base dough is made tender with potato and parsnip, while local, Minnesota-brewed beer adds flavor and lift to the raised doughnuts. Coffee and bacon in their specialty varieties come from Minnesota sources too. Mojo has its regulars and often sells out before closing time at 3:30pm, but Lisa is excited to see the media buzz that has accompanied Dunkin’s announcement bringing more awareness to the fact that Minnesotans are already making—and eating—darn good doughnuts.
Cynthia Gerdes, co-owner of Angel Food Bakery in downtown Minneapolis, operates on a “blinders on” system: Dunkin’ will do its thing, and she’ll focus on doing hers. Gerdes, who co-owns Angel Food with head pastry chef Katy Gerdes, says her customer base is willing to swallow a higher price point than they’d find at a Dunkin’ or a grocery store because Angel Food offers an unparalleled bakery experience: fried-before-your-eyes doughnuts. The boutique bakery features an open kitchen format with a counter offering a full view of the bakery. Customers can polish off their pastries while they watch the next batch take form. Elegant and modern chandeliers hang above the counter, providing soft lighting that highlights the bright display of pastries whose names often recommend the event where they are best enjoyed. Among the selections are ‘Date Night’ and ‘Saturday Morning Cartoon’ doughnuts.
“The creativity, technique, and quality of everyone's unique offerings is truly what sets each bakery apart,” says Cynthia. “In our case, we're a very small boutique bakery with a wide-open, ‘see us do our thing’ layout. Because we don't hide behind walls, folks love to sit at our counter and watch our pastry chefs decorate wedding cakes, roll out doughs, crack organic eggs for cake batters, pull hot cheese-laden pretzels out of the oven and, of course, make donuts right before their eyes.”
Conveniently situated a block away from the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus in Dinkytown, Minneapolis, SSSDude-Nutz tempts the college popular with doughnuts distinguished by their square shape and toppings inspired by other dishes (think cereal and cookie dough). University of Minnesota grads Bradley Thomas and Ashley Peterson co-own the store, and for them, Dunkin’s arrival reinforces that doughnut demand is high in Minnesota, and that SSSDude-Nutz has an opportunity to feed that demand. They currently run on an ‘open until we run out’ schedule, but Bradley and Ashley have plans to establish stable hours, hire more counter staff, and build out the kitchen that they share with another business.
“I directly communicate with all my customers,” says Bradley. “We make it really personal on top of selling really good donuts.”
A visit to SSSDude-Nutz on a Saturday morning confirmed the statement. Despite a steady stream of customers, nearly everyone lollygagged to chat with Bradley, who was manning the counter solo. Conversations leapt from doughnuts to taco spot recommendations to weekend plans. Although SSSDude-Nutz exudes a high-energy, extravagant vibe—doughnut names include ‘Yass Queen’ and ‘Oprah Money’—the shop itself is all no-pressure, lazy afternoon hangout. With the large chalkboard wall and the video game station tucked in the corner, SSSDude-Nutz seems to recognize and support the often at-odds lifestyle of its clientele: Hit the town one night, and hit the books—doughnut in hand—the next.
Why is Minnesota a Doughnut Destination?
With summer doughnut crawls, restaurants swapping out sandwich bread for doughnuts, and bakeries perfecting recipes to accommodate all diets from gluten-free to vegan, Minnesota is a doughnut aficionado’s destination. What makes the Twin Cities so welcoming to those whose art is the practice of frying dough? There might be an element of secret sauce to the whole thing—or perhaps one doughnut lover begets another—but shop owners have a few ideas. Cynthia proposes that a healthy, fit population invites a higher propensity to indulge. For Bradley, the doughnut taps into an element of Midwesterner nature that appreciates what is comfortable, unfussy, and personal. And when the server you’re telling to “keep the change” is also the baker who woke up at dawn to mix the batter, your treat to yourself is helping an artist maintain a craft and helping a community maintain its character.
Looking for your fried fix? Here’s a list of doughnut shops in the Twin Cities:
Isabelle Wattenberg is a Digital Strategist at MSP-C, a content marketing agency in Minneapolis. She spends her spare moments searching for the best biscuits in the Twin Cities , re-reading Alice in Wonderland, and writing about Minnesota happenings.