Dunkin’ Donuts serves beef curry doughnuts in China, a saffron and pistachio flavor in India, and Dulce de Leche cream filling in Chile.
The next addition to the Canton company’s international menu could be a doughnut-crumpet hybrid.
Nearly two decades after pulling out of the United Kingdom, Dunkin’ is returning to London with the hope that an expanded menu, changingEnglish habits, and a rebounding British economy will spell success. The company said Thursday it signed agreements with two franchisee groups to develop 50 stores in North and East London over the next five years.
Dunkin’ added that it is in advanced negotiations to develop another 100 stores in other parts of the United Kingdom in the same period.
“The UK has been on our list for some time,” said Nigel Travis, chief executive of Dunkin’ Brands Group. “The economy is picking up, the unemployment rate is going down, and there’s a buoyancy that hasn’t existed in several years.”
Dunkin’ previously had 30 stores in the country but pulled out in the mid-1990s. Part of the problem was a menu limited to doughnuts and coffee, which, in turn, had limited appeal in a nation of tea drinkers, analysts said.
In addition, unlike Americans, who view doughnuts almost as a breakfast staple, the British regarded them more as a treat to be eaten only occasionally, said Dennis Lombardi, a food service industry consultant at WD Partners in Ohio.
Today, however, the Dunkin’ menu includes foods as diverse as chicken salad wraps and oatmeal, as well as beverages like vanilla chai tea, which company executives believe will appeal to the British palate.
“In those days we were very focused on doughnuts,” Travis said. “Today we have terrific sandwiches, more beverage offerings, and we’ve become a lot smarter in how we develop our franchisee relationships.”
Dunkin’ could also benefit from cultural shifts that have changed London over the past two decades. Once strict tea drinkers, the British have warmed up to coffee, said Chris Christopher, director of global consumer economics with IHS Global Insight, an economic forecasting firm in Lexington.
In addition, the London of today has a large foreign-born population, including expatriates from France, Italy, and other countries with coffee-drinking traditions.
“Now you see more younger generations drinking coffee and with the international flair in London, it’s much more common,” he said. “Now they have a very strong coffee-drinking population, where 50 years ago it might have been unheard of.”
Dunkin’s British expansion isn’t the first time the company has closed stores in a region and then returned. The chain once operated 17 stores in California, but today has only one, on a military base. Dunkin’ recently announced plans to return to Southern California with 150 stores by 2020.
“A lot of companies go somewhere, retreat, and then go back in knowing what they’re getting themselves into with a little more experience,” Christopher said.
For Dunkin’, a lot of that experience will come from its chief executive, who was born in London and holds dual US-British citizenship. Before going to work for Dunkin’, Travis said, he launched Burger King and Blockbuster and reconfigured Papa Johns in his home country.
He said he can see Dunkin’s UK competitors, Starbucks and Caffè Nero, from the window of his London flat, and he’s eager to bring his company to town.
“When it’s your home country you feel a certain sense of connection,” Travis said. “I’m going to watch it very closely.”