Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks battle it out for coffee supremacy in Greater Boston

If you think there are a lot of Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks stores in Greater Boston, just wait. The competition between the two chains is about to get a lot more caffeinated.

The coffee titans, firmly entrenched in communities in and around Boston and fighting out it cup by cup, are vowing to expand stores and offerings in the area, although they are cagey about where, when, and how.

It promises to crank up an already epic battle for the hearts, minds, and taste buds of local java drinkers in a clash between two companies famous for their coffee — but dissimilar in everything else.


Just ask many fans on either side, who are passionate about their brand and intensely dislike the other. Everything is seen as different — the taste of the coffee, the ambience of the stores, even the business cultures.

“They have very distinct images,’’ said Nancy F. Koehn, a professor at Harvard Business School, who has written extensively in books and articles about the leadership and success of Starbucks.

Starbucks “is rooted in the Italian coffee bar experience. Dunkin’s is more centered on a cup of joe.’’ And the companies don’t like each other much, either, she noted. Dunkin’ even sells a T-shirt on its website, “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks.’’

To get a sense of the competition, the Globe obtained lists of every Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks store in the United States and their locations.

Dunkin’ Brands Group, the Canton-based parent of Dunkin’ Donuts, clearly has the edge in Massachusetts over Seattle-based Starbucks, at least in the number of stores — about 1,100 to 200. That may sound like a lot, but the coffee market is not close to the saturation point, “not even in Massachusetts,’’ said Koehn.

North of Boston, Lowell, Salem, and Somerville have the most Dunkin’s, with 16 in Lowell, 14 in Salem, and 13 in Somerville. Woburn, Revere, and Lynn have 12 each.


Somerville and Woburn have three Starbucks each, while eight communities, including Lowell, have two.

Statewide, Boston has the most Dunkin’s, with 131, and Starbucks, 55.

The competition sometimes means that the coffee companies locate stores within proverbial shouting distance of each other. For instance, Somerville has two Starbucks and two Dunkin’s on a short stretch of Somerville Avenue.

At a Starbucks in Saugus on Route 1 on a recent day, a large crowd drifted in, looking for morning java.

“Everything about the store is wonderful,’’ said Ross Cicero
of Revere, a voice actor who visits every day. He loves the atmosphere:

“The design of the stores is elegant and sophisticated, and the service is wonderful. The bottom line is, I love the coffee.’’

“It’s the only reliable place to get a rich dark roast,’’ said Louise Oremland of Peabody, who is retired. “How else can I go to Starbucks three or four times a week?’’ she joked.

She’s not a fan of Dunkin.’ “Too weak’’ was her verdict.

It’s a different story at the Dunkin’ at the nearby Square One Mall.

James and Kathleen Barker, a retired couple from Winthrop, stopped for their daily Dunkin’ while taking a break from walking the mall, which they do every day.

“I like the flavor of Dunkin’s,’’ said James. And they are such regulars that the employees know what they want. “They see us walking up and they get us our coffee.’’

Two friends walking away from the counter with their Dunkin’s had strong opinions.


“Starbucks is too bitter,’’ said Linda Conant of Peabody.

And Katie Muise of Rowley said Starbucks “is too expensive. And Dunkin’s is convenient. I usually go through the drive-through.’’

The competition between the coffee giants is as hot as their coffee.

Dunkin’ plans to grow aggressively, said John Costello, the firm’s president for global marketing and innovations. The company, with nearly $9 billion in sales, plans to open between 330 and 360 new stores in the United States next year, he said. It has more than 10,000 stores in 32 countries, and sells 30 cups of coffee every second.

Think that’s a lot? The company believes it can double the number of restaurants in the United States, to 15,000.

“I think the key to our success is great coffee and food at a great value, and service in a fast, friendly, convenient environment,’’ said Costello.

A key weapon: its franchise owners, who own the vast bulk of the chain’s stores. On average, a Dunkin’ franchisee owns six shops.

The local entrepreneurs who own these businesses understand their markets. “Our franchise system is a real strength,’’ he said.

Starbucks is hardly standing pat on a formula that since 1971 has turned it into a $13 billion company. In Boston and a few other markets, the company is pushing “clover brewing,’’ which brews individual cups of coffee as customers wait. It’s designed to bring out more intense flavors, said Alisa Martinez, a senior manager for Starbucks.

“It’s coffee in high definition,’’ she said. The system, which costs more per cup, is only available in some urban and university markets.

Dunkin’ and Starbucks have each benefited from the growing coffee market, especially for upscale drinks worldwide, that did not exist a few decades ago, said Harvard’s Koehn. People’s tastes have expanded from bland supermarket and diner offerings to lattes and cappuccinos.

“Since when were there 9,000 permutations on a cup of coffee?’’ said the business school professor, referring to the infinite number of choices on the Starbucks menu, when variations for “skinny’’ and decaf are factored in.

That has helped coffee brewers and roasters around the world, she said. Both companies have done their share to create new customers.

“It’s very segmented, very customized, and it’s added a big margin for coffee makers and retailers’’ around the globe, she said, as people have grown accustomed to paying more for specialized coffees.

As the two big rivals have grown, independent coffee shops have thrived on the growth in popularity of coffee.

Jamie Vanschyndel is the founder of Barismo Roastery in Arlington, a five-year-old wholesale roaster, which serves independent shops, mostly in Cambridge.

Unlike the giants, it’s hardly a billion-dollar operation — but it’s not business on a shoestring, either. Annual sales are “more than a million,’’ he said. He works directly with growers in Central America.

For him, it’s all about “freshly roasted, freshly ground, and freshly brewed.’’ When a local company brews his beans, they might have been roasted in the past week. Some people want them roasted that day. That’s not like the “big boys,’’ who roast their beans months and months earlier, he said.

Koehn said the growth of the coffee business is also a reflection of people who are sleeping less and working more.

Coffee “helps us get a lot of work done,’’ she noted, adding how important caffeine has become in giving so many that extra boost to get through the day.

“The faster we move and the more hectic our lives get, the bigger role there is for coffee.’’

By Matt Carroll | Globe Staff

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