August 2, 2021
Karishma Mehta was a 5-year-old in southeastern Tennessee when she joined her parents, Dunkin’ franchisees, on their daily crack-of-dawn commute. Before sunlight glazed the Appalachian peaks, they’d arrive at the doughnut shop. Her parents would bake and frost, bracing for the breakfast rush, while she slept on a mattress in the family van outside. “My mom would come do work in the car,” Mehta shared, recalling frenetic mornings in the mid-1990s. “That’s just how I spent some of my earlier years, seeing my parents try to do everything on their own.”
That suburban Chattanooga store, part of a vast Dunkin’ empire (the chain dropped “Donuts” from its name in 2018 to reflect an emphasis on other menu items), could be framed as a uniquely American achievement: coffee and confections served by hardscrabble Indian immigrants to predominantly white customers, from a company founded by a Jewish middle school dropout. Yet, such a triumphant portrayal doesn’t accurately reflect the Mehtas’ more volatile journey. Sure, America runs on Dunkin’, as the company’s iconic 2006 tagline proclaimed. But what — and more importantly, who — fuels Dunkin’?