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Coffee giants battling it out

From Quincy to Lowell, there’s a battle brewing for supremacy between Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks

The number of Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks locations in communities north of Boston.

If you think there are a lot of Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks stores in Greater Boston, just wait. The competition between the two chains is about to get a lot more caffeinated.

The coffee titans, firmly entrenched in communities in and around Boston and fighting out it cup by cup, are vowing to expand stores and offerings in the area, although they are cagey about where, when, and how.

It promises to crank up an already epic battle for the hearts, minds, and taste buds of local java drinkers in a clash between two companies famous for their coffee — but dissimilar in everything else.


Just ask many fans on either side, who are passionate about their brand and intensely dislike the other. Everything is seen as different — the taste of the coffee, the ambience of the stores, even the business cultures.

“They have very distinct images,” said Nancy F. Koehn, a professor at Harvard Business School, who has written extensively in books and articles about the leadership and success of Starbucks.

Starbucks “is rooted in the Italian coffee bar experience. Dunkin’s is more centered on a cup of joe.” And the companies don’t like each other much, either, she noted. Dunkin’ even sells a T-shirt on its website, “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks.”

To get a sense of the competition, the Globe obtained lists of every Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks store in the United States and their locations.

Dunkin’ Brands Group, the Canton-based parent of Dunkin’ Donuts, clearly has the edge in Massachusetts over Seattle-based Starbucks, at least in the number of stores — about 1,100 to 200. That may sound like a lot, but the coffee market is not close to the saturation point, “not even in Massachusetts,” said Koehn.

For instance, Natick has a Starbucks sandwiched between two Dunkin’ shops on a short stretch of Route 9.


Newton has 11 and Framingham has 10 Dunkin’ Donuts, while Marlborough, Waltham, and Lexington have nine, eight, and seven, respectively.

Newton has six Starbucks while there are seven of the stores in neighboring Brookline, which holds the distinction of being the only Greater Boston community in which Dunkin’ Donuts is in the minority, with just five outlets.

North of Boston, Lowell, Salem, and Somerville have the most Dunkin’s, with 16 in Lowell, 14 in Salem, and 13 in Somerville. Woburn, Revere, and Lynn have 12 each.

Somerville and Woburn have three Starbucks each, while eight communities, including Lowell, have two.

Statewide, Boston has the most Dunkin’s, with 131, and Starbucks, 55.

The competition sometimes means that the coffee companies locate stores within proverbial shouting distance of each other. For instance, Somerville has two Starbucks and two Dunkin’s on a short stretch of Somerville Avenue.

At a Starbucks in Saugus on Route 1 on a recent day, a large crowd drifted in, looking for morning java.

“Everything about the store is wonderful,” said Ross Cicero of Revere, a voice actor who visits every day. He loves the atmosphere:

“The design of the stores is elegant and sophisticated, and the service is wonderful. The bottom line is, I love the coffee.”

“It’s the only reliable place to get a rich dark roast,” said Louise Oremland of Peabody, who is retired. “How else can I go to Starbucks three or four times a week?” she joked.


She’s not a fan of Dunkin.’ “Too weak” was her verdict.

It’s a different story at the Dunkin’ at the nearby Square One Mall.

James and Kathleen Barker, a retired couple from Winthrop, stopped for their daily Dunkin’ while taking a break from walking the mall, which they do every day.

“I like the flavor of Dunkin’s,” said James. And they are such regulars that the employees know what they want. “They see us walking up and they get us our coffee.”

Two friends walking away from the counter with their Dunkin’s had strong opinions.

“Starbucks is too bitter,” said Linda Conant of Peabody.

And Katie Muise of Rowley said Starbucks “is too expensive. And Dunkin’s is convenient. I usually go through the drive-through.”

The never-ending traffic along Route 9 in Natick apparently makes it a healthy market for both brands, based on the close proximity of the three shops.

What do customers on that stretch of Route 9 have to say?

“Dunkin’ Donuts, always,” said Robert Szabo, of Quincy, who works for Raytheon in Marlborough as a technician. He and a small group from work get a coffee every afternoon. He was also getting one during the ride home, a large French vanilla iced, with a turbo boost.

Starbucks? “It’s just not the same.”

Sandy Sciarpelletti of Hol­liston was parked at the same Dunkin’ Donuts with her 9-year-old daughter, Amber, stopping to get a coffee for herself and a treat for Amber.


But she prefers Starbucks. “At Starbucks, there’s never really a bad cup. It’s very consistent.” Sciarpelletti goes to Dunkin’, however, because it gives her daughter some independence to go in alone, while she can watch from the car.

At the Starbucks a short distance away, business consultant Manva Bhardwaj of Malden said he prefers Starbucks to Dunkin’.

“The coffee is strong and I like the ambience,” he said. “I travel and need a place to work and drink coffee.”

“I like Starbucks way better,” said Lauren Ahola, a registered dietitian from Jamaica Plain. “You know what you will get — it is always good.”

South of Boston, Brockton, Quincy, and Plymouth have 19, 18, and 14 Dunkin’s, respectively. Five communities have two Starbucks — Braintree, Hanover, Hingham, Quincy, and Plymouth.

The competition sometimes means that the coffee companies locate stores within proverbial shouting distance of each other. For instance, Norwood has a Starbucks sandwiched between two Dunkin’s on a short stretch of Route 1.

At that Starbucks, Paul Keady said he splits his day between the two brands — Dunkin’ in the morning, Starbucks in the early afternoon, after his workout.

The Norwood realtor says the regular Starbucks coffee is too strong, so he gets a half decaf, half blonde, so “it’s a little milder.”

Chris Fernandes, general manager of United Citrus Products in Norwood, likes not only the Starbucks flavor but that it “caters to people who need a mobile spot.”

He’ll take a seat there when he needs to work outside the office.


Inside the food court at the South Shore Plaza, business was booming at the two.

“I like the taste of Dunkin’s better,” said Mark Curran, 49, a carpenter from Hull, holding a small coffee. “And I know we’re not supposed to like Styrofoam, but it keeps my coffee hotter longer.”

“I like Dunkin’ people better” than Starbucks workers, said Brittany Martinelli, 21, of Quincy, who said she “comes from a customer-service background myself.” She works for a local hotel in Braintree, which she said emphasizes the personal touch, “and I get that every time at Dunkin’.”

The competition between the coffee giants is as hot as their coffee.

Dunkin’ plans to grow aggressively, said John Costello, the firm’s president for global marketing and innovations. The company, with nearly $9 billion in sales, plans to open between 330 and 360 new stores in the United States next year, he said. It has more than 10,000 stores in 32 countries, and sells 30 cups of coffee every second.

Think that’s a lot? The company believes it can double the number of restaurants in the United States, to 15,000.

“I think the key to our success is great coffee and food at a great value, and service in a fast, friendly, convenient environment,” said Costello.

A key weapon: its franchise owners, who own the vast bulk of the chain’s stores. On average, a Dunkin’ franchisee owns six shops.

The local entrepreneurs who own these businesses understand their markets. “Our franchise system is a real strength,” he said.

Starbucks is hardly standing pat on a formula that since 1971 has turned it into a $13 billion company. In Boston and a few other markets, the company is pushing “clover brewing,’’ which brews individual cups of coffee as customers wait. It’s designed to bring out more intense flavors, said Alisa Martinez, a senior manager for Starbucks.

“It’s coffee in high definition,” she said. The system, which costs more per cup, is only available in some urban and university markets.

Dunkin’ and Starbucks have each benefited from the growing coffee market, especially for upscale drinks worldwide, that did not exist a few decades ago, said Harvard’s Koehn. People’s tastes have expanded from bland supermarket and diner offerings to lattes and cappuccinos.

“Since when were there 9,000 permutations on a cup of coffee?” said the business school professor, referring to the infinite number of choices on the Starbucks menu, when variations for “skinny” and decaf are factored in.

That has helped coffee brewers and roasters around the world, she said. Both companies have done their share to create new customers.

“It’s very segmented, very customized, and it’s added a big margin for coffee makers and retailers” around the globe, she said, as people have grown accustomed to paying more for specialized coffees.

As the two big rivals have grown, independent coffee shops have thrived on the growth in popularity of coffee.

Jamie Vanschyndel is the founder of Barismo Roastery in Arlington, a five-year-old wholesale roaster, which serves independent shops, mostly in Cambridge.

Unlike the giants, it’s hardly a billion-dollar operation — but it’s not business on a shoestring, either. Annual sales are “more than a million,” he said. He works directly with growers in Central America.

For him, it’s all about “freshly roasted, freshly ground, and freshly brewed.” When a local company brews his beans, they might have been roasted in the past week. Some people want them roasted that day. That’s not like the “big boys,” who roast their beans months and months earlier, he said.

Koehn said the growth of the coffee business is also a reflection of people who are sleeping less and working more.

Coffee “helps us get a lot of work done,” she noted, adding how important caffeine has become in giving so many that extra boost to get through the day.

“The faster we move and the more hectic our lives get, the bigger role there is for coffee.”

Matt Carroll can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globemattc.

Correction: John Costello’s job title was incorrectly described in a previous version of this article, as was the number of Dunkin’ Donuts outlets the company plans to open in the US next year.