America squanders on Dunkin’.

May 15, 2017

This paper has been percolating for 13 years. That is how long I’ve been driving to my current job.

The approach to my office takes me up Loudon Road, which is a four-lane street, two in each direction. There is a traffic light at the intersection of Loudon Road and Airport Road, and I quickly learned that I must always be in the right lane when I get to the light, because shortly after it is a Dunkin’ Donuts on the left, and the left lane has become, for practical purposes, a turning lane for the endless parade of cars into the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through line.

If I am in the left lane, I invariably get stuck behind one or more cars waiting to turn. Worse, there are times when the cars can’t make the turn at all because the drive-through line has wrapped all the way around the building and reached the street.

The majority of these people, as I understand it, are there primarily to buy coffee. And many, if not most, of them do it every weekday. Judging by the traffic at this one establishment, there must be thousands of people in central New Hampshire—and tens of millions nationwide—who follow this routine every single day.

I have struggled all my life to understand my fellow humans, and I have made steady progress. I can trace most aberrant behavior to one or more of a few common defects:  lust, greed, sloth, envy, stupidity, vanity. Sort of a “Dante’s list,” with a few additions and deletions. But the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee line stumps me. This one discovery has set my research back at least a decade.

Leaving aside the question of whether Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is any good (it isn’t), there are a few obvious points to be made.

First, even a small cup costs about $1.85, including tax. Assuming 240 work days a year, this means the loyal customer is spending $444 a year on Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Add a few bucks for the gas you waste with your engine idling, and we can round up, conservatively, to $450. Of course, if you’re buying a large latte, it’s closer to four dollars a day, or almost $1,000 a year.

For comparison, even the relatively expensive organic, fair-trade, shade-grown, save-the-rain-forest-and-celebrate-diversity-in-a-safe-space coffee that I drink at home costs me only about 50 cents a day, or $120 per year of workdays, a savings of at least $330 over the Dunkin’ Donuts habit.

Aside:  And does anyone actually buy a small coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts? I believe not. Most people go for the enormous Styrofoam buckets. I suspect this is because the coffee is so weak that it takes that much to deliver a noticeable amount of caffeine.

As an even cheaper alternative, many of us work in a place that provides coffee free of charge. (Yes, I know nothing is truly free, but as a practical matter, it’s free.) If you wait until you get to the office, you can spend nothing on coffee.

No matter how you calculate it, you are wasting hundreds of dollars a year on bad coffee. Can you think of anything else you could do with that money?

But obviously, money is no object for some people. Forget how much it costs, right? You’re in a hurry, and you DON’T HAVE TIME to make coffee at home.

Right. So explain this. I am possibly the slowest person on the planet, yet it takes me less than a minute to make coffee at home. That includes taking a filter out of the cabinet and putting it in the filter basket, taking the coffee out of the freezer, spooning it into the filter, filling a cup with water and pouring it into the machine, and pressing the start button. Well, yes, I then have to wait for it to brew, but I can do that while I’m getting dressed or shaving.

A minute. You will never complete a drive-through purchase in a minute, even if there is no line. (You must start the timer when you begin your turn into the parking lot, and not stop it until you are back on the road.) It is at least a two-minute process under perfect conditions. Five minutes is more likely, and with a long line, it could easily take ten. Assuming five minutes per visit, that is 20 hours a year, almost a full day, spent sitting in a drive-through line. Does this seem like an efficient use of time?

We’ve established conclusively that the loyal Dunkin’ Donuts customer is wasting significant time and money, two things that matter immensely to most Americans. What, then, explains this behavior? All things being equal, humans act in their own self-interest. What is that interest here?

Could it be that the coffee is so great? Don’t be ridiculous.

Wait, I know. Some people just like going out for coffee. It’s the ritual. It’s not about time or money or even the quality of the coffee. It’s just a matter of enjoying the event.

I get that. We all have our rituals. Although my daily coffee ritual usually takes place in the quiet solitude of my own kitchen or my office, I do appreciate the appeal of going out. I can enjoy a cup while sitting at the counter at the local breakfast joint, or while I read the paper at a cafe. It’s about the atmosphere as much as the drink. It’s familiar and relaxing and comforting. Understood.

But what, exactly, is the atmospheric appeal of takeout coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts? Is it the pleasure of sitting in a line and inhaling exhaust fumes for five to ten minutes? Is it the breathtaking artistry of the Styrofoam cup? The sensual appeal of slurping your coffee through a hole in a plastic lid? The challenge of doing so while maneuvering a car down a busy street, dividing your attention between the traffic and the effort to avoid spilling the scalding liquid on your lap? If that is your relaxing morning ritual—well, I will remember you in my prayers. Life should be better than that.

Because I have learned that anything, no matter how absurd, is possible in this country—an observation that of late has been reaffirmed in spades—I must return to the possibility that it is, in fact, the coffee. We’ll consider that next time.