If you grew up in New England (as I did), I’m willing to bet I know which coffee-shop chain you prefer. In fact, it’s not even close.
Starbucks might be ubiquitous across the United States, but Dunkin’ Donuts, which got its start in 1950 at a store at 543 Southern Artery in Quincy, Massachusetts (which has some pretty good reviews on Yelp, by the way), is the regional winner.
After acquisitions and expansions that turned it into a true icon in parts of the country, the publicly traded, 65-year-old company (now officially called Dunkin’ Brands Group) has 11,000 units and a market capitalization north of $5 billion. All of which makes the fact that its founder never finished junior high school all the more amazing.
Here are six fascinating things about Dunkin’ Donuts and its founder, William Rosenberg, that you probably didn’t know.
1. He was an 8th grade dropout.
Rosenberg was a child of the Depression. When his father’s grocery store went out of business, he left school to work–shining shoes, shoveling snow, and ultimately becoming a full-time messenger for Western Union, making $22 per week.
Some of his first entrepreneurial exploits involved buying blocks of ice and carrying them to a local racetrack, where he’d sell chips for 10 cents on hot days. Afterward, he rose from delivery boy to national sales manager at a company that sold ice cream from refrigerated trucks.
2. He built his own catering-truck business from the ground up.
You know those mobile food trucks that are all the rage? Right after World War II, Rosenberg took $1,500 in profits he’d made from buying war bonds, borrowed an additional $3,500 from his family, and launched a company that delivered food to workers at construction sites and factories around Boston.
Because of postwar scarcity, he couldn’t buy enough trucks, so he “created his own catering vehicles,” according to an article that ran in the Los Angeles Times after his death in 2002, “with sides that rose to reveal sandwiches and snacks stocked on stainless steel shelves, a prototype for today’s mobile catering vans.”
3. His restaurant wasn’t called Dunkin’ Donuts at first.
The shop was launched as “Open Kettle,” but two years into its history, when it was selling more coffee and donuts than anything else, Rosenberg “put his executives in a room with a tape recorder and told them to brainstorm,” according to the Times article. “He later credited his architect with the trademark ‘Dunkin’ Donuts.’”
4. He was disarmingly self-deprecating.
Rosenberg often said he was “too dumb to make things complicated,” but added that he knew how to hire good people and was willing to take their considered advice. As an example, the Times said that when he wrote his autobiography in 2001, he wanted to call it Worth the Trip after Dunkin’ Donuts’ 1970s slogan. However, the publisher wanted to use a more modern slogan as the basis for the title, Time to Make the Donuts.
“Call it whatever you want,” Rosenberg reportedly replied, “if it will sell more copies.”
5. He also revolutionized franchising.
Dunkin’ Donuts expanded pretty quickly with six stores in five years, and Rosenberg started to offer franchises in other cities, following the example of restaurateur Howard Johnson. This was a couple of years before giants like KFC and McDonald’s got into the franchise game, when “franchising was so disreputable…that it was borderline illegal in some states, and no company mentioning ‘franchise’ could be advertised in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
About five years later, Rosenberg started the International Franchise Association, which has now grown to include more than 800 franchisors and over 30,000 franchisees.
6. He followed his Dunkin’ Donuts success with something completely different.
In 1971, Rosenberg was diagnosed with cancer, and he decided to step back from the company in favor of his son. He moved to New Hampshire, where he bought a farm and began to raise standard-breed horses (the horses used in harness racing). Despite having no background in horses or farming, he was so successful that he ultimately became the largest breeder in New England.
Ultimately, he donated his farm to the University of New Hampshire, and became involved in philanthropy, primarily benefiting hospitals.