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In Boston, Dunkin' and McDonald’s are winning the pandemic coffee wars

In the Boston metro area, Dunkin' continues to dominate the national coffee-chain market with a 45 percent share of all sales.
In the Boston metro area, Dunkin' continues to dominate the national coffee-chain market with a 45 percent share of all sales.Ryan Huddle

Despite the pandemic, which is still pummeling the economy after seven months in the United States, national coffee and breakfast chains such as Dunkin' have shown signs of being “pandemic-proof.”

New data show that consumers are still spending money at coffee chains, even as some daily habits have shifted: Many regular office commuters are still working from home, and schools have pivoted to more virtual learning.

Dunkin’s performance, in particular, has caught the attention of the Atlanta restaurant conglomerate Inspire Brands Inc., which has been in discussions to pay $8.8 billion to acquire Canton-based Dunkin' Brands, the parent company of Dunkin' and Baskin-Robbins. A deal, which could be announced as soon as this week, would add the coffee and ice cream shops to Inspire’s portfolio of more than 11,000 Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Sonic Drive-In, Rusty Taco, and Jimmy John’s restaurants.

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Here’s a closer look at how Dunkin’ has fared during the pandemic — in Boston and its suburbs — compared to national competitors, according to Second Measure, a firm that analyzes transaction data.

At the onset of the pandemic, in March, coffee shops took a big hit. Governor Charlie Baker banned in-person dining on March 17, limiting service to takeout and delivery. By then, many office workers were already working remotely, and college students were being sent home to limit the spread of the virus, adding to the number of people perhaps skipping their regular coffee runs.

In March, coffee brands in the metro area saw sales drop 27 percent, compared to the previous year. Sales at Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee had the biggest dip, with numbers down more than 40 percent. Dunkin’ and McDonald’s saw losses of about half that in March.

McDonald’s and Dunkin' have been leading the pack of national chains that are trying to crawl out from under sales deficits.

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McDonald’s is the only breakfast chain seeing an increase in sales over last year — in September, its local sales were up almost 20 percent, according to Second Measure. (The fast-food chain’s numbers include all sales, not just coffee and breakfast.)

Dunkin’ has seen a steady increase in sales over the past few months in the metro area, and it is almost back to its pre-COVID levels. In September, the company was down 6 percent from what it made a year ago, whereas local sales at Peet’s and Starbucks were still down by about 40 and 30 percent, respectively.

Dunkin’s comeback has been driven by its presence outside of the immediate city — according to Second Measure, Boston’s city-level sales were still down over 50 percent in September.

The data collected by Second Measure are on par with what Dunkin' Brands has been reporting throughout the pandemic. The company reported Thursday morning that sales in the US were up about 1 percent in the third quarter from the same period last year, gradually increasing month-to-month.

The pace of the local recovery is worst at Blue Bottle Coffee, where sales are still down 60 percent, according to Second Measure. Blue Bottle is based in California but has shops at 100 Federal St. downtown, in the Prudential Center, and on Newbury Street, as well as near Harvard Square and Kendall Square in Cambridge. All were prime locations before the pandemic, but now, not so much. Three of its five shops are open, for takeout only, according to its website.

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In the Boston metro area, Dunkin' continues to dominate the national coffee-chain market, with a 45 percent share of all sales. There are about 1,100 Dunkin' shops across the state.

McDonald’s and Starbucks trail, each with just over 25 percent of the market.

It’s worth noting that Starbucks used to compete more directly against Dunkin', but in April its local market share plunged to 6 percent. That made room for McDonald’s to move up to the number two spot, with a 34 percent share, while Dunkin’s lead skyrocketed to a high of about 58 percent.

Nationally — and including a few more coffee brands that do not operate locally — McDonald’s controls about 50 percent of the market, and the outlook is slightly better for coffee-focused chains. Last month, Dunkin’ and McDonald’s both saw increases in sales over 2019, and the losses at Peet’s and Starbucks were not as steep as they are in Massachusetts.





Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.