I was born and raised in Massachusetts, which explains a lot: my political sensibilities, my craving for two or three deep snowfalls every winter (no more, no less), and my unshakable preference for Dunkin’ Donuts over all of its pathetic lesser competitors. Here in Virginia the main competitor is Krispy Kreme, most of whose varieties seem like half-sugared lumps of white bread painted with various unflavored food colorings. The sole exception is their undeniably enticing hot Original Glazed, the crack cocaine of donuts; but those who claim that the Original Glazed are “better” than Dunkin’ Donuts are like unpersuasive junkies claiming that heroin is better than a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild.
In fact, I was born in the same city in which Dunkin’ Donuts started — Quincy, Massachusetts. (I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know this, which means my parents must have made it part of my pre-school education.) My dad and I used to visit the original shop together every Sunday; while he drank a coffee at the counter, I would scrutinize the tiled floor for dropped pennies. Fortunately, the constant sugar/caffeine rush must have made customers very jittery with their change, because I always found at least one coin every week, which is pretty exciting to a five-year-old. This was, in fact, my first lesson in the values of saving, meticulousness, and perseverance. (It didn’t occur to me until after my father died that he might sometimes have planted the pennies himself.)
Because of my long-held knowledge of the history and superiority of Dunkin’, I was surprised, when I moved to Tokyo in the 1990s, to discover two things. First: Mister Donut was far and away the most popular donut chain in Japan, with Dunkin’ Donuts in distant second place. Mister Donut donuts make Krispy Kreme donuts seem vibrantly toothsome in comparison. In fact, stationery holds up pretty well against Mister Donut donuts. But Japanese tastes are often more subtle than American, so I just accepted the mysterious popularity of Mister Donut the same way I accepted mayonnaise and corn on Japanese pizza.
The second surprising discovery was I made in Japan was that Mister Donut, like Dunkin’ Donuts and me, was also originally from the Bay State. It was founded in Boston in 1955, only five years after Dunkin’ Donuts was founded in the city immediately to the southeast. Whoa! Of course, after tasting a Japanese Mister Donut, I understood why my parents might try to keep the company’s origins hidden from me. But even so: what a remarkable coincidence that the two largest donut chains in the world (at this time, each has more than 10,000 stores worldwide) were founded so close together in time and space! Even taking into account the Massachusetts population’s craving for deadly sweet treats, what are the chances of that?
Well, it turned out that it was not so much of a coincidence after all. Bill Rosenberg founded Dunkin’ Donuts with a partner, Harry Winouker, who had been Rosenberg’s mentor when they had both worked for the Jack and Jill Ice Cream Company. Winouker was an accountant who showed Rosenberg the nuts and bolts of business, and Rosenberg was the young Turk who saw the coming demand for high-quality coffee and snacks years before anyone else. They taught each other how to meet that demand. Winouker had even introduced Rosenberg to a sister-in-law whom Rosenberg eventually married, making Rosenberg and Winouker brothers-in-law. But in 1955, they disagreed on which way to take the rapidly-growing Dunkin’ Donuts, and so Winouker left and founded Mister Donut in the next city over. The two family members were now competitors. And as anyone with siblings — or even any only child who watched the brothers Harbaugh face off at the Super Bowl last Sunday — knows, no one is more competitive than family.
I have never been able to find out if Rosenberg and Winouker were friendly rivals or bitter rivals. Whatever the case, the history and interests they shared were what bound them together as allies, and what drove them each to excel as competitors. Rosenberg became the premier donut franchiser in the U.S., while Winouker’s company entered into a special licensing agreement with a Japanese company, leading to its eventual dominance in Asia. Ironically, when Dunkin’ Donuts and Mister Donut were both acquired in 1990 by Allied-Lyon, the two organizations again became part of the same family, and while I was in Japan marveling as the ubiquity of Mister Donut there, nearly all their U.S. stores were being converted to Dunkin’ Donuts. Dunkin’ Donuts is now once again an independent company, and the two are back to being rivals. Rosenberg and Winouker, both of whom died years after retiring in the 1970’s from active participation in the donut business, would probably have approved of both the reunion and the re-separation.
All of us know people with whom we share a background, a skill, a goal, a devotion. We can look to these people to inspire us to succeed in different ways, if we keep our eyes open. Sometimes they leave us pennies to find. Sometimes they work side by side with us. Sometimes they challenge us to outdo them.