Lessons Learned From Dunkin' Donuts

From 1996 to 2001 I worked at Dunkin’ Donuts in Quincy, Massachusetts.

I started working the 6am-12pm shift on weekends while I was in high school and picked up more hours over the summers and on breaks up until my senior year of college.

I’ve worked every shift, from opening the store at 4am to closing things down at 11pm and through all of that, I saw things that have, at least in part, influenced who I am to this very day.

Dunkin' DonutsI threw more trash in this dumpster than any other since

Below are the five most important things I learned working at Dunkin’ Donuts.

1. Avoid Filled Donuts At All Costs

When I first started (before they let me go near a drive-through headset) I used to make the donuts. Well, technically I would “finish” the donuts. We didn’t have an oven on premises; there was one “baking” store that supplied every 5-6 satellite stores with unfinished donuts.

The guy that made these deliveries was super nice and always showed up on time; I found out later on he had actually been caught skimming off the registers by the owners a couple years prior - they let him work off his debt without involving the law provided he did his job well - and he did.

I liked finishing the donuts because I could take a break from the rush for about an hour and focus solely on my frosting skills.

There was one warning I was given by a co-worker that I can confirm to be absolutely true: never, ever, eat a filled donut.

Nothing is inherently wrong with a filled donut, but the problem lies in the preparation.

The fillings are each contained in large, funnel-like plastic cartridges that fit into a machine. To make a tray of jelly donuts, you pull down the jelly container off the shelf, sit it in the machine, and then start stabbing the donut shells with the spigots while clicking the “fill” lever that injects the jelly filling.

The cartridges are pretty well sealed, but the spigots are not. The spigots, while supposed to be washed after each use, contain as much filling as they are long, which would waste a ton of filling if the proper guidelines were followed.

Instead, the cartridges were generally kept on the shelf with spigots attached, which resulted in a least some exposed filling oozing out of the spigot between uses.

We only finished the donuts once a day and with that much sugary filling sitting out in the open air before being shot into the next donut on the next day, one can only imagine the breeding ground for bacteria it was.

I had a professor in college that missed class one day and then, on his return, told us he was out due to food poisoning that had lasted a few days. The culprit was a jelly donut he had waited a day to eat; while that may not be advised, overall, it shouldn’t have such a bad result. I didn’t say a word, but I felt like I knew exactly what had happened. The point being, avoid the filled donuts at all costs.

Aside #1: The customer can still hear you..

The store’s manager would come out of the office and help work the line at the counter if we were short-staffed and a rush was hitting.

The area between the cash register and the donut case is only a couple feet wide, but for some reason, as soon as he took someone’s order with a big smile and polite demeanor, he thought (or more likely didn’t care) that the customer could no longer hear what came out of his mouth just by turning his back to them.

On many occasions, this exact scenario would go down:

The funny thing is, I don’t think I ever saw him get caught - maybe he knew exactly what volume to use to make this work, but it didn’t look very scientific at the time.

2. The Unwritten Rules Of Free Coffee

I was told, and can confirm, that Dunkin’ Donut franchises at the time had one of the most liberal employee food & drink policies in the fast-food business.

While on-shift, any employee could drink any coffee product (aside from a Coolatta®) they wanted or eat anything from the donut case.

In addition, there were a few local politicians that would come in from time-to-time - we were instructed by management to not ever charge them in some weird ploy to garner their political power.

With these two paradigms in place, and, as the years ticked on and I became more comfortable in my standing, I started to apply some of my own logic based on this foundation that I had been instructed to follow.

First of all, any co-worker that came in off-shift, at any point, would never be charged by me. If I was the one that was off-shift, to not disturb my fellow brother or sister in their duties, I would walk behind the counter in street clothes, make a coffee to my exacting standard (built up over years of trial and error), and walk back out with nothing more than a nod.

As I became a bit more bold, there were a couple regulars that were always cool to whoever was taking their order; we had a lot of regulars that came in at roughly the same time every day, but these were like super-regulars - you were always happy to see them. I decided that they should not be charged either.

One guy in particular, the coolest guy I’ve ever known (to this day), would pull up in a white (and then later a light-blue) Jaguar that we immediately recognized. All he would need to do is say “hello” into the box and his coffee would be waiting for him on the counter by the time he drove up. He would offer to pay, every single time - and each time I would tell him “not a chance” at which point he would slip a buck in the tip cup, thank us, and drive off.

To take things a bit further, I started training people to the fact that he was not someone who was ever charged for coffee. It got to the point where even the current manager’s son was playing along without having a clue who the guy was.

I didn’t realize at the time, but this was similar to tactic I would employ to great success later on in life. It’s not often that I find a bar that I like, but when I do, I always make sure to over-tip; by over-tip, I mean excessively tip. I’ve drank more than I could have ever paid for this way. On top of that, the feeling you get when you open the door to your favorite bar, the bartender glances over at you and has your drink on the bar before you can even sit down is just awesome.

I feel that anybody that’s ever worked for tips should always try to take care of those that currently work for tips (in most cases).

3. Addiction Is A Powerful And Terrifying Thing

Quincy and some of the surrounding areas of Boston have always had a tough time with addiction. Over the years there, I encountered more heroin addicts and casual crack-smokers than I would have hoped there were overall. One particular encounter showed me point-blank the raw destructive nature of these drugs.

I worked with a girl for a couple months who someone told me was 26 years old, but her appearance was closer to my grandmother’s at the time - I still remember being shocked to learn her actual age.

She came into work one Saturday morning a little off; she was working the drive-through, but at random, would reach into the bag of the next customer’s order and take a quick bite before handing it out the window. This in itself was not cool, but not something anyone would mention until the pieces came together later.

When it was her turn to go on break, she did, and then disappeared. Everyone thought it was weird that she had taken off on her break, but again, not something completely out of the ordinary.

I was working a double that day, from 6am-6pm, to cover for a friend and around 3pm that day during a lull, I took out the trash. That’s when I saw her walking towards me in a completely new uniform.

She saw me and said, “What the hell are you doing here?”

I told her I was working a double, but she persisted, “No seriously, stop fucking with me - what the hell are you doing here?”

With a few more words, I had put together that she thought this afternoon was actually tomorrow morning at 6am.

I brought her inside as she was visibly distraught and still not convinced of what time it really was and I sat her down at a table and gave her some water.

She eventually said she felt better and took off to go home. Soon after, some creepy dude in a rusty pickup truck started circling the store. He came inside and asked for her, but we told him she had already left.

About an hour later, both of them were back at the store with the police about a minute behind them. She was arrested in front of the counter for allegedly stealing the tip jar at a nearby store.

Her, we thought boyfriend at this point, saw this all going down and took off before the cops saw him too.

I don’t know what happened to either of them after that; I hope they got clean, but who really knows.

Aside #2: Heroin isn’t the only thing that’s bad for you..

I used to work the drive-through all the time - the two people on it would be the busiest in the store for their entire shift, but it made the time go by fast and the tips were nice.

There was a older couple in a beat-up minivan that I recognized as regulars; they typically ordered two coffees and a dozen donuts, but I didn’t realize until that day that it was all for them to immediately share.

As I rang them up, I saw one of them in the passenger seat lift up their shirt, pull up a flab of belly fat, and inject themselves with a syringe of insulin.

My counterpart passed them their food order as I got their change - in the time it took me to reach out and hand it to them, they had already killed two donuts out of the box.

I couldn’t bring myself to eat another donut again for years after this incident, which for some reason seemed even worse to me than knowing how they were made.

That’s the first time I felt like a drug dealer selling coffee and donuts and I was not happy to be further poisoning the world; but what are you gonna do, it’s legal lethality.

4. Don’t Be An Asshole, Even If You Own The Place

The couple that owned our store along with about 5 others in the general area would come in from time to time to check up on things.

The wife always showed up directly from riding her horse, which seemed like something she was doing all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her wear something other than riding pants, which prompted the manager to joke about her beating him with a riding crop if he messed something up (I can’t help but think there was some truth to that statement though).

The husband would come in far less frequently, but when he did, it would be a show. We had a short row of 2-person tables in the store; looking out from the counter, he would sit at the one farthest to the right, directly underneath the “No Smoking” sign. The manager would bring him out a coffee, the books, and the owner would light up a cigar.

He would sit there for at least an hour going through the cash reports, during which, we would get a number of complaints about the smoke. The guy owned the place though, so what are you gonna do? I don’t even think he liked smoking that much, but he loved messing with people in the store that he owned.

That said, I found out a few years a ago he was charged in a conspiracy to defraud the IRS, so maybe there was more to that than I knew at the time.

5. Messing With Cops You Kinda Know Is Still Probably Not Smart

Sure, the stereotype is somewhat true, but any cop, especially the local Quincy cops that came into the store always fell into my category of “never charge, ever!”

The local cops all knew us; my best friend (to this day) worked at Dunkin’ at night and as a mechanic during the day - usually outfitting cop cars.

Because of this, he was practically untouchable by the police; his detective buddy once told him, “If you ever get into trouble - as long as you’re not selling drugs to kids or beating up your wife, give me a call and I’ll take care of it.”

Piling into two cars, our group of friends and co-workers all went to a staff meeting one late afternoon at the store. On the way back, for whatever reason, both of the drivers decided to race on our way back down the main road.

Within a couple minutes, both cars were pulled over to the side of the road with an angry cop walking up behind us. He went up to my friend in the car in front of us first, started cracking up laughing, and then started walking back to the car I was in.

He started to say, “You assholes are so lucky that I know your friend” and then he recognized us all in the second car and belted out, “..oh what the fuck - get the fuck out of here!”

One day later on, my friend and I went to the liquor store and, as we pulled into the parking lot, he recognized the number on the police cruiser that was parked in front.

He pulled in right next to the car, so close that I was shocked we didn’t scratch it.

Quincy police used to drive the cash deposits from the liquor store to the bank to avoid, what I can only imagine were a number of unpleasant incidents.

My friend then went into the store and went about his business with me still in the passenger’s seat, unable to leave.

The cop then came out and immediately started screaming at me - he had less than an inch of space to get into the car and was very upset.

By the time my friend came out, the cop, with one hand on his gun now, had gone through one of the most impressive lists of expletives I have ever heard.

As soon as he realized my friend was responsible for this, he went from bright-red anger to hysterically laughing.

While these pranks and/or rushes with death were fun at the time, the most important part to me was getting to talk to and get to know the local police.

My thinking up to that point was that cops were to be feared and avoided, but being able to get to know some of them well, and even having a laugh with them (as risky as that sometimes was), was an important step forward for me in trying to understand people in general.