Lunch at Dunkin Don’t-nuts

July 13 – Lucky Peach

When I proposed to write a story about Dunkin’ Donuts and their hamburgers, I wanted to use the opportunity to make some substantive observations about India’s market for international fast-food chains.

Some companies are solidly established on the subcontinent: McDonald’s first opened in New Delhi in 1996—the first location in the world not to serve beef—and has since opened some three hundred outlets across the country. KFC has nearly 350 restaurants spread across eighty cities in India. In fact, the KFC in Bandra, my fashionable Mumbai neighborhood, is one of the area’s two most prominent landmarks, used constantly to help taxis and auto-rickshaws navigate the practically nameless streets. Dunkin’ Donuts, for its part, first opened in India in 2012, and currently has only fifty-six shops in twenty cities (they plan to open thirty more in 2016). What I hoped to find out was: How did they develop their menu? Why did they decide to include burgers, of all things? Who was their target demographic? And who decides all this stuff, anyway?

As it happens, the Dunkin’ Donuts India PR team was bizarrely evasive and actually very rude over the course of the week I spent trying to weasel basic information out of them. (DD global in the States was the opposite—exemplary, really, of how PR is meant to work—answering my every question within two days while managing to say nothing at all; bravo.) A few hard facts I can share:

— On May 10, 2014, Dunkin’ Donuts opened its first two Mumbai outlets, one of them located on Linking Road, just up the street from KFC Bandra. The brand already had twenty-six stores in cities across northern India, and generated so much excitement in Mumbai that a line formed around the block just to get in.

— About 60 percent of sales at Dunkin’ Donuts outlets in the U.S. are coffee and other beverages. India, despite being a major producer of coffee beans, consumes precious little of the stuff—about sixty grams per person annually, way less than most other coffee-producing nations. (According to a story in The Atlanticlast year, Indians drink about as much coffee as Egyptians and Uzbeks.) And those sixty grams are principally instant coffee, made at home or at local tea stalls.

— On the day I visited—along with a fellow journalist/neighbor/research partner (henceforth, RP)—the Bandra shop was populated exclusively by young professional women. Seriously: RP and I were the only men in sight. All of them were chubby, dressed in plaid shirts, stretchy jeans, and chunky glasses. Some were taking selfies in front of the heavily branded back wall. They were all there for lunch. No one was drinking coffee. I didn’t see anyone so much as glance at the glass-fronted display of donuts. Which means they were there for burgers.

Anecdotally, I can tell you that American fast-food chains in India are middle-class institutions: inexpensive enough to be affordable for people in low-earning, entry-level professional positions at, say, PR and graphic design firms, but just expensive enough that they remain inaccessible to the truly working class. Especially for young people, they also represent the globalized worldview that many young Indians, particularly in cities, want to cultivate. Beyond that, I can only report on the four specific “burgers” that RP and I chose from the menu’s profligate-seeming fourteen options (the bits in quotes are DD India’s product descriptions from their online menu). We did it, in the end, in the sincere hope that no one else would ever have to. Our findings:

THE “CRUNCHY JOE CHICKEN” BURGER

“Don’t stop yourself from biting into the crackling crunch of its buttery buns. Give in to the overload of its chunky minced-chicken sloppy-joe filling. Fall into the trap that the new Dunkin’ Crunchy Joe Burger is. Of course you’ll regret eating it. But it’ll be worth it.”

Advertised as “something that you’ll regret,” the burger lives up to its promise. RP initially said, “I don’t find it that terrible,” but redacted his assessment upon his second bite. Sad, limp lettuce dominated. The crunch in the inexplicably yellow bun was mostly a product of its staleness. We did not finish the sandwich.

THE “NAUGHTY LUCY VEG” BURGER

“Its center-filled veg patty gushes out warm, loving cheese. Its raw green mango tickle adds a touch of mischief. Its fresh veggies, chipotle sauce, and sourdough buns do whatever they can to make you feel loved. Because in an extra harsh world, you need extra comforting.”

The patty, made of potato and corn and maybe also barley, was remarkable primarily because it had neither discernible texture norflavor. We had to do some digging to find any of the promised raw mango mischief. As for its purported cheesy comforts: it could not, would not, did not gush. We felt no love and received no succor. The world remains extra harsh.

THE “BRUTE TOUGH GUY CHICKEN” BURGER

“Obviously. You’re frustrated/resentful/angry and you’ve been waiting to take it out on someone for a really long time. And the Tough Guy Brute Burger is not going to take it lying down. Just look at it. The scarred buns. The bulging muscle. The scorching harissa sauce and chili mayo. ‘Messy’ isn’t just a foregone conclusion, it’s the understatement of the year.”

The totally creepy and bizarre appeal to castrated masculinity and sublimated gender-rage is rendered more or less innocuous only by the inherent absurdity of anyone considering a chicken burger tough or brutish (there’s a veg version, too). Aside from being bigger than the other burgers, the Brute Tough Guy stood out only for being spicier. Good old RP captured it nicely with his first bite: “It’s the worst one so far. The taste of the spice is so raw. So brute. It’s brutishly…” He shook his head, abandoning his attempts at wit. “It’s just bad.”

THE “HEAVEN CAN WAIT” BURGER

“Attempt this only if you dare! Loaded with pepper chicken and spicy chicken patties, fresh-cut veggies and delicious cheese, creamy chili mayo and cheesy jalapeño sauce.”

This burger had two patties instead of one. The first was, for some unknown reason, orange. The second looked similar to a sausage patty, the kind McDonald’s might use on a Sausage McMuffin, except that it tasted like wet cardboard. We found no discernible evidence of fresh-cut veggies, nor any distinction between creamy chili mayo and cheesy jalapeño sauce, which, for that matter, seemed to be identical to the Brute Tough Guy Burger’s harissa sauce and the Naughty Lucy’s chipotle sauce. RP succinctly and accurately declared it to be “vile.”

And with that, we walked down the street to McDonald’s to have an actual lunch.

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