Behind the Dunkin' Donuts Curtain With Their Head R&D Chef
Chef Heidi Curry
Remember the croissant doughnut? Or chocolate chip coffee cake? How about those heart-shaped, sprinkle-covered heart-attack doughnuts stuffed with brownie batter for Valentine's Day? Or even dark-roasted hot coffee?
If you're a fan of Dunkin' Donuts, you may recognize these creations as just a few of the newer items to be found on the 60-year-old company's ever-expanding menu, which is pretty much the same at all its 11,000 domestic and international outposts.
The Massachusetts-based company is in the throes of an infiltration back into the L.A. market, with four stores opened in the county since August last year (where we sometimes can’t help ourselves to a dark roast and a frosted doughnut). And though East Coast transplants are loving the nostalgia offered by the store's classic lineup of muffins, croissants and breakfast sandwiches, the move has got us wondering how the pink-and-orange brand stays on top of these new food and drink items, which are constantly being added to menus as seasonality and trends change.
As we discovered, it all comes down to a team of 22 people around the world — most of whom work in a secret test kitchen in Canton, Mass. —who ideate, test, taste and bring these new products to life. We sat down with chef Heidi Curry, senior manager of the bakery R&D team (who also helped develop the Coolatta beverage line), and asked her what it's like to be part of a team that develops nearly 30 market-ready products a year.
SQUID INK: I wasn’t aware that Dunkin’ Donuts had a head chef. What does that even entail?
HEIDI CURRY: It’s funny, those are one of the questions we get often. People don’t know there’s a whole culinary team behind Dunkin’ and that’s exactly what we call it. For Dunkin’ Donuts and Dunkin’ Brands, which includes Baskin Robbins, we have a team of 22 which is comprised of chefs, food scientists, R&D specialists, pastry chefs and a coffee excellence manager. This whole team is lead by our executive chef and head of R&D, Jeff Miller. The great thing about our team is we have this wonderful dynamic where we have these different varied backgrounds where we can work together on different projects to create different items.
Where does all this R&D take place?
If you can envision a giant room with some twists and turns for equipment. It’s our fun R&D lab. The really cool thing about it, in order to get in, you essentially need to have the right access, so not everybody can get into the lab. It’s south of Boston in the corporate office with its own secret entryway. Of course it’s a secret lab because we have a lot of proprietary things we’re working on. You either have access or you don’t. We are a global brand so we have a wonderful international team as well that’s developing and helping our franchisees internationally.
Are the menus different in different countries?
When you look at the international market, we still have our core products — our classics, our coffee, our doughnuts — then depending on the market, they would expand onto that. In India or Vietnam, there are some items they will create for the local palate. Asia has mochi-cream donut. In Thailand, we have a charcoal donut. In India, they create a variety of products using a mango specific to the local palate. Thailand has poppin’ boba platform. They focus on tea because that’s the market there. Each one of these markets has their own team as well. We work hand in hand with the local markets. There’s a great partnerships we have with our teams and international franchisees.
Did you approach the West Coast launch differently than other domestic launches?
The entire domestic market, we like to bring all our core items — bring that heritage so everyone has the same great classic Dunkin’ experience. But for specifically this market, when we opened up in Santa Monica, we launched the dark roast first here a few weeks before launching nationally. It was a great opportunity for us, a new store opening in this market.
Do you see the heavy presence of specialty coffee and gourmet doughnuts in L.A. as a threat to the Dunkin' Brand?
One of the things we do is we’re always looking at what the next new trends are. What is the customer experience? We want to put ourselves in their shoes. They might be experiencing different stores and different brands, so what are they being exposed to? But our focus is to always deliver Dunkin' products that people are expecting, so even when we create new products, it’s with a Dunkin’ twist. If it’s the croissant doughnut we launched in 2014, it’s a product that you may have seen elsewhere but you’re not going to get it like this anywhere else because it’s based off our classic doughnut and our wonderful croissant. Pairing the two together then making it the way our doughnuts are made makes it unique for us. So we’re always looking out there in the market — that’s part of our brainstorming, but taking those ideas and putting a Dunkin’ twist on it.
How does a new product get from brain to market?
With that whole team I was talking about, we work really closely together to brainstorm new ideas. So if someone sees a product or we’re going out into the store and experiencing a new product, which we do globally, seeing what’s going on in all varieties of markets, we’ll work together to develop an idea. Then we come together to start brainstorming a recipe. Our recipe is what we call a Gold Standard recipe — that’s the classic recipe if you’re thinking of what our scratch recipe is. We go through a variety of samples and ingredients to figure out what’s the perfect ingredient for that recipe. For example, we’re talking about the white chocolate raspeerry latte we have in the market for Valentine’s Day. We were looking for that perfect raspberry flavor to complement the latte, so we’ll try several different ingredients to get that right flavor, then we’ll take that product and test it out in stores. We have a rigorous testing program that we call “Innovation to Market” testing, so it goes from our ideation in the bench then we manufacture it, take it into operational tests, then market tests, then it goes into all the stores.
How many products are in development at any given time?
You can be working on a lot of projects at any given time. When you think of all the development teams that we have under Dunkin', we can be working on upwards of 40-plus at any given time and over the course of a year, we can be working on 100 or more products. But what gets created and then brought out to the market is on average 20 to 30, across beverages, bakery and savory team. There’s the three development teams.
So there's 70 lost items per year that never see the light of day?
Right, and it might be something we’ve created that we just don’t want to bring out to the market yet. We’re always brainstorming and looking for what that next great flavor is, so we might be looking two or three years ahead of what we want to bring to the consumer. It’s a good way to bring a library of products and then the products that we have ready now for our consumers. Staying ahead of those trends is something we’re trying to do as well.
What did you do before getting into food?
With my biology degree, I was working in pharmaceuticals, but I was always interested in cooking and food. My mother is a wonderful cook and so is my father. My grandpa even owned a doughnut shop. It’s always been part of my culture so it makes sense to me. I chose to go to culinary school and it was the best decision I ever made.
You've also worked at regular restaurants. What is it like to be in an innovation lab?
Either way, you’re creating an experience for your guest, which is exactly what we’re doing at Dunkin'. While typically in a restaurant you’re creating a menu, which sometimes changes monthly or even weekly, you can get feedback from your guests that evening. For us, it’s a little bit of a longer process. We have to create the product, implement it then bring it back. Our feedback isn’t as quick. But either way, it’s about being true to yourself and your brand.
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