East Coast runs on Dunkin’ but everyone else prefers Starbucks

Graphic illustrates the popularity of Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts by region.  CREDIT: The Washington Post)

Coffee, the straightforward combination of ground coffee beans and piping hot water, increasingly can be a complicated thing. Niche coffee shops today — the sort that have spread through extra cool parts of San Francisco and Brooklyn — have popularized unusual approaches to the craft, from the selecting of the beans to the roasting, packaging, seeping, brewing and serving of a cup.

Coffee, in other words, can be fancy.

But while all the attention may be on the frontiers of coffee — like Blue Bottle Coffee Co., which raised $26 million in funding to expand its single-drip brews last year — we need a reality check. Fancy, artisan coffee is the sort of “national trend” that’s actually only happening in the likes of Brooklyn.

What America really drinks, when it drinks coffee, is basic. And it’s made by two mammoth coffee chains. On the whole, our coffee preferences split the U.S. in half: Starbucks Country and Dunkin’ Donuts Land.

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Dunkin’ Donuts shops vastly outnumber Starbucks in the Northeast. This is of little surprise, since the chain was founded there. They also, however, have a significant footprint in the Carolinas, Florida and Chicago. This doesn’t, to be clear, mean that there aren’t any Starbucks in these areas, just that they’re outnumbered by Dunkin’.

But Starbucks is the dominant coffee retailer literally everywhere else, from Hawaii all the way east to Washington. Overall, there are about 12,000 Starbucks locations and 7,500 Dunkin’ Donuts locations in the U.S. In fact, 80 percent of Americans live within 20 miles of a Starbucks. What’s surprising here isn’t necessarily Starbucks’ ubiquity — that’s been a subject of discussion for years now — but rather Dunkin’s total dominance in certain markets.

Dunkin’, though it dominates the Northeast, is quickly expanding out of its roots. The chain is increasing its presence down the Eastern seaboard to Florida. Given the chain’s aggressive expansion, we might expect to see them start to move westward.

Starbucks is spreading too. Everywhere, yes, but also westward from its most densely populated areas. The result is that the two will likely spread in opposite directions, each toward the other’s homeland, in effect furthering their combined domination of the American coffee landscape.

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What this means is the future likely only holds an even more top-heavy coffee world.

If the U.S. is somehow moving towards a more haughty approach to coffee, it’s doing it a lot more slowly than people often make it seem. There are, after all, nearly 20,000 Starbucks’ and Dunkin’ Donuts throughout the United States at the moment, and only 18 Blue Bottle coffee shops (perhaps the best known of the finicky, coffee-making elite).