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Downtown Journal: Déjà Brew – Bring Back Dunkin’

Downtown Journal
An occasional column about city life

Back in the day, the necessary Waterfront morning hangout was the Dunkin’ Donuts on Commercial Street. The caffeinated mecca occupied the corner of Battery Wharf and Commercial – somewhere near where the entrance to the chic Divine Design is today. Starting at 5:30 every morning, cops, Coast Guard personnel, hospital staffers, construction workers, really anyone who rolled by packed the place.

I became part of the morning crowd after I got my dog Shorty and walked down Commercial Street to Puopolo Park every morning. On our way home, I’d hitch up Shorty, under the watchful eye of the friendly newspaper vendor who set up outside Dunkin’, and go in for my large light coffee to go. Sometimes I’d add a take-out donut or an egg sandwich – or both – to the order.

This cherished Dunkin’ tradition ended after Battery Wharf was sold to a developer at the turn of the century. While the construction of the hotel and condos happened slowly over the successive years, Dunkin’ Donuts shuttered immediately. Reportedly, the family running the franchise was tired (Dad and son made the donuts onsite; mother and daughter worked the counter). Also, the corporation didn’t want to extend the lease with the development pending.

It was a sad day. Even the news of a Starbucks opening in the nearby Pilot House did not assuage the loss. Mornings would never be the same. In the neighborhood, the Commercial Street DD was the heart of the community – so much bigger than a chain store.

I was not sympathetic to the hue and cry when Starbucks wanted to open on Cross Street, in a prime location known as the “gateway” to the North End. Many who still identify as North Enders protested mightily. They claimed a chain store would dilute and pollute the neighborhood. Mayor Marty Walsh agreed and nixed the plan. Never mind that Starbucks in the Pilot House on Commercial Street has become one of the most successful franchises in the city, bursting with tourists and locals. And Walsh’s halt of the Starbucks / Cross Street scheme did not help Peet’s Coffee, which had been located very close to the proposed site. Popular Peet’s abruptly shuttered its doors recently, with little explanation. I have my fingers crossed for The Thinking Cup, a wonderful bakery and caffeinated cave on upper Hanover.

Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I also harbor hope Dunkin’ will return to Commercial Street. After all, the Massachusetts-born chain is rebranding itself and wanting to expand coast to coast. Why not lock down our corner of the East Coast with a Dunkin’ snug by the Boston Harbor. Where could the store go? Hmmm. How about Battery Wharf?

Yes, how about Dunkin’ taking over the space currently occupied by Café Amalfi. Café, huh? Café Amalfi, which serves Illy (sic) Italian espressos and assorted drinks, continues to fly under the radar among North End coffee shops even though it occupies a prominent spot on Commercial Street.

Each time I walk by, there aren’t many customers. Another weakness is the Illy formula. These Italian beans produce a bitter brew. I ordered a caffe mocha after Amalfi first opened and the drink was so dense and bitter, I could barely see straight. I never went back. Also, the available foodstuffs fall into the spindly supermodel pastry category. Indeed, the whole place is spare in a stylish European kind of way. This impression does little to woo the American coffee hound who can happily stomach Starbucks’ Euro-pretension because it comes blended with pumpkin spice, trendy tech touches and frappuccinos laden with whipped cream. Also, the Hanover Street coffee shops – notably Caffe Victoria – serve enough Italian espresso to keep us awake for days. Café Amalfi is nice, but unnecessary.

A Dunkin’ at the entrance of Battery Wharf would be far enough away from Starbucks to carve out its own turf. It would not scare anyone away but lure more neighbors, notably those who live north of Hanover Street. The brand is familiar, friendly. And it’s one of Massachusetts’ coolest exports. The hotel at Battery Wharf, having gone through a couple of ownership upheavals in its short history, could benefit from the stable association.

I realize the overthrow of Amalfi and the coming of Dunkin’ back to the neighborhood is a bit of a stretch. Call me a crazy coffee dreamer. I would simply love to be part of a morning pack again.

Monica Collins is a writer who lives on the Waterfront with her husband, Ben Alper, and dog, Dexter.

7 Replies to “Downtown Journal: Déjà Brew – Bring Back Dunkin’

  1. Dunkin Brand franchises are some of the most expensive in the industry. Cost of the franchise, plus North End leases make it tough to make it financially feasible. The place on Commercial St didn’t have a drive through. I remember the double parking mess that it caused.

  2. I am glad to have Cafe Amalfi at Battery Wharf. I don’t understand the disparagement of an attractive, clean cafe in favor of a chain ???

  3. This article made my morning!!!!!!! Ah yes we say we want to keep the neighborhood ITALIAN but look around – we have 3 high end women’s clothing stores, 2 gyms (one new boxing gym) Cafe Amalfi for sure I vote YES for both Starbucks and Dunkin and I am Italian. Give us choices especially when we may actually meet together and converse – a lost art!

    1. Amen! Selectively allowing businesses in the neighborhood is a slippery slope. During the next economic downturn there will be many empty storefronts in the area, we will be wanting people who can afford to invest and support the community.

  4. Best thing that happened to air quality on the waterfront was when the Dunkie at Battery Wharf closed. Trucks would be parked on the street outside, their motors idling while the drivers idled inside over coffee. Idling time limits were ignored. I once phoned a truck company about it, and the dispatcher who answered said, “Shows you how smart our drivers are. Our phone number is right on the truck.” That company’s truck didn’t park there any more. There were plenty of others though.

  5. Illy “produces a bitter brew”? People in Italy must be notified immediately, as do many others worldwide. Matter of fact, they should immediately switch to Dunkin or Starbucks or some other drink that we here mistakenly call “coffee”.

    I very much share the sentiments on Dunkin as a great neighborhood place to gather, get your morning fix, etc. But “coffee”? Please. In North End there’s currently exactly one place producing coffee without quotation marks or explanations. It’s aforementioned Thinking Cup. Gorge Howell’s great little counter inside Boston Public Market also qualifies unconditionally , but that’s not quite North End 🙂 Close enough, though, to cross the Surface Road and try real coffee.

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