Food & dining

Double Shot

Dunkin’ dark roast coffee could signal a shift for the brand

Maria Menounos did a ceremonial “first pour” of Dunkin’ Donuts dark roast coffee in Santa Monica, Calif.
Getty Images for Dunkin' Donuts
Maria Menounos did a ceremonial “first pour” of Dunkin’ Donuts dark roast coffee in Santa Monica, Calif.

Dunkin’ Donuts released its new dark roast hot coffee in September with all the splashiness of a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign. Stores were plastered with dark posters. Free coffee was handed out. Medford native Maria Menounos, who as a teenager worked at a Dunkin,’ did a ceremonial “first pour” in Santa Monica, Calif.

But that may have been just a warm-up act. Here’s the thing: Dunkin’ Donuts has plans to emphasize its coffee — and additional varieties of it — more so than in the past.

“Things are changing for coffee at Dunkin’,” Jim Cleaves, the Dunkin’ manager of coffee excellence, said in an interview.

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“We look at the dark roast as a gateway to the future of coffee at Dunkin’,” he added. “I can’t go into a lot of detail on that. But stay tuned.”

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Developing the dark roast was a long journey that began about five years ago. Dunkin’, which has lighter coffee, decided that it needed a darker roast if it was going to expand its coffee market. This is particularly important as Dunkin’ tries to gain a foothold in the West Coast, where dark roasts are typically more prevalent.

Cleaves developed dozens of options, eventually winnowing it down to six potential blends.

Throughout, he was trying to live up to the catchphrase they had established: Bold start, smooth finish.

What they did was to essentially roast the coffee two different ways, one as a moderately dark roast, and another that was much darker.

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“Then we combined them in the super secret combination,” Cleaves said.

In August, Dunkin’ began a limited-time offering of an eight-ounce package of single-origin Colombian coffee. It’s a much more specialized offering than Dunkin’ is typically known for and is aimed at branding Dunkin’ as more of a coffee hub.

“Think about Dunkin’ Donuts for a minute and what it is as a place to go get coffee,” Cleaves said. “What it has been until very recently is a place to go and get one kind of really great coffee: original blend. And at the same time let’s think about how the consumer environment has changed in the last 10 years, and even much more rapidly around the last five years.”

Customers want options, and options that will vary through the day and through the week.

“I’ve got a marketing thing that says a person 20 years ago said, ‘I want original blend with cream and sugar.’ That doesn’t exist so much anymore,” Cleaves said. “That person has that in the morning. And then in the afternoon they wanted something different.”

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“We are a coffee leader,” Cleaves added. “We need to strengthen that and maintain that.”

Dunkin’ typically uses coffee from Brazil, Guatemala, and Colombia, and the dark roast is no different.

After testing them out around the country, Dunkin’ settled on one blend, and then started training franchises in rolling out the new product.

As for me, I’ve been on a lighter roast kick lately. But the Dunkin’ dark roast did have an intriguing taste, and I can’t dispute that it lives up to the name of having a bold start and a smooth finish. And the Dunkin’ team did manage to make a dark roast that still fits nicely in the Dunkin’ family. It’s not as dark as the Starbucks coffee, for example.

Years ago, Cleaves was trying to figure out whether to take a job at Dunkin.’ He got some advice from a friend, who told him, “Think of the effect you personally can have on how millions of people drink coffee. A very direct effect.”

“Here I am now doing exactly that,” Cleaves said. “Yes, the process is long and torturous at times. But ... it can change who comes to Dunkin’, which means we change. I love the idea that I’m playing a role in that whole process.”

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.