Bakery Takes Legal Action Against Dunkin’ Donuts’ Fake “Artisan” Bagels
You probably had the same reaction I did when you caught a glimpse of Dunkin’ Donuts’ hard-to-avoid new line of Artisan Bagels. This was probably the same reaction you had when you came across Domino’s Artisan Pizzas, or Starbucks’ Artisan Breakfast Sandwiches, or Tostitos Artisan Recipes Tortilla Chips, or Burger King’s artisan bun. You may have rolled your eyes, shaken your head, chuckled, and exclaimed some *choice* language, even. After all, we strongly suspect that there are no bakers hand-rolling bagels in Dunkin’ Donuts factories at wooden benches, or that Starbuck’s sandwich aren’t being assembled in small batches by skilled sandwich craftsmen minutes before you chance upon them in their hermetically sealed packages, or that there is nothing simple and natural about the Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Whey, Ascorbic Acid, L-cysteine, and Silicon Dioxide in the dough conditioner in Domino’s new Italian Sausage & Pepper Triooffering.
But, there are some people who aren’t satisfied with a chuckle, or a roll of the eyes, or even a burst of profanity. One such person is Marc Fintz. Fintz saw a TV commercial for Dunkin’s new bagel range at a diner one evening in early April on the way home from work while picking up dinner. He was struck by the recurrent and emphatic use of the word ”artisan” in association with the new baked good. What do you think “artisan” means, questions a hip, young 20-something sitting on what looks like a Brooklyn stoop. It’s latin for really, really, really, good is the tongue-in-cheek conclusion of the ad.
A few days later, Fintz filed a set of complaints with the Federal Trade Commission, New York State Attorney General, and the Better Business Bureau against Dunkin’ Donuts alleging that the descriptor “artisan” is false advertising.
An overreaction you might think. The act of an opportunist seeking free publicity. Or, simply, stupid.
Even if all of the above are true, Fintz, has genuine cause to be outraged. The Director of Business Development of Davidovich Bakery, a company in Queens, NY, which, like Dunkin,’ also makes “artisan” bagels, argues that his bagels couldn’t be more different from Dunkin’ Donuts’, namely in the sense that his are truly an artisan product.
“I have no ill will towards Dunkin’ Donuts, and I am making no determination as to whether their products are good or bad. We live in a subjective world, and there is a place for every type of product,” said Fintz, in a telephone interview. “But I understand the process and the methodology of producing genuinely artisanal bagels. We abide by old world, traditional practices that conform to this philosophy. Dunkin’ Donuts do not. They built an orchestrated campaign around the concept of artisanship – a concept that is entirely at odds with their production methods. If you are going to do this, you have to be prepared to be accountable.”
According to researcher Datamonitor, more than 800 new food products were bestowed the moniker “artisan” from 2006 to 2011, appealing to the public’s seemingly insatiable hunger for enhanced quality, tradition and craftsmanship. Some of these products have rightly earned the title, many though, haven’t. Unfortunately, the fact that there is no clearcut definition for what artisan means when applied to a commercial food has enabled the term to be used and abused by companies and brands that have little business being associated with it. If you go by the dictionary definition, the word, which dates back to the 16th Century, refers to a skilled craftsperson or laborer. With this in mind, there are clear implications as to what characteristics a product juxtaposed with “artisan” should exhibit. Meticulous skill, small batch production, crafting by human hands, and pure, natural ingredients are all implied. According to the website of The Bread Bakers Guild of America, a community of artisan bakers, its members “utilize knowledge of traditional methodologies, a mastery of hand skills, and an appreciation for the best quality raw materials and ingredients, to produce baked goods that meet the highest possible standards of taste, appearance, aroma and texture.” In the more colloquial realm, however, the term artisan, has come to mean.. very little.
In a Dunkin’ Donut’s press release, the company describes its artisan bagels as being softer and chewier and bolder in flavor than previous offerings. But softness, chewiness and taste intensity don’t necessarily come from artisanship. Unless they really do, but in this case they really don’t. Dunkin’ Donuts may have changed the recipe which led to an improved, better tasting product, but then they should have just called the new range, Better Bagels, or Really,Really, Really, Good Bagels. All Dunkin has done is taken the word, repackaged it, and invested it with a different meaning to suit its own purposes.
Here is what Michelle King’s, Director, Global Public Relations of Dunkin’ Brands Inc. had to say via email when we reached out to the company for an explanation of why their bagels are labelled as “artisan” (Incidentally, this is also Dunkin’s formal response to the filed legal complaints):
The word “artisan,” which has been used by numerous other retailers in the food and restaurant industry, is a common term used to describe quality food and authentic, traditional ingredients and taste. We therefore believe it is a fair and appropriate word to describe the line of bagels featuring our new bagel recipe. As the number one retailer of bagels in America, we also believe that the word “artisan” underscores our long heritage of bagel innovation and leadership.
The new bagels may well exhibit a more authentic, traditional taste profile and texture, but unless these end results have been buttressed with a process of small batch production, traditional methods and crafted by skilled bakers, “artisan” is an unfair and inappropriate descriptor. The ironic reference to artisan’s “latin” roots in the Dunkin TV commercial is in fact just a way for the company to absolve itself of having to conform to age old ideals under the cloak of seeming to be progressive by bringing a snooty, and anachronistic concept into the modern era. But it’s precisely the snootiness, for want of a better word, that makes “artisan” products special. (Note the striking similarity to Domino’s Artisan Pizza ad campaign, where a cheeky note on every box reads, “We’re not artisan…We don’t wear black berets, cook with wood-fired ovens or apprentice with the masters in Italy.”)
“Large corporations have no scruples about stealing the nomenclature and bending the language. For Dunkin’ Donuts to say that they make artisan bagels is laughable. It’s outrageous because my understanding is that those things are made in a large factory where are no hands involved, ” said Abram Faber, proprietor of Clear Flour Bread, Brookline, MA, and a former Vice Chair of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, where he held this role for 11 years.
Davidovich’s bagels, in contrast, are hand rolled as opposed to machine shaped as in more commercial operations (the company claims that it is the only wholesale business in the world that still does this), they are kettle boiled in the traditional manner as opposed to steamed enmasse, they are double seeded by hand on both sides, they are baked on authentic wooden planks, they are then turned by hand halfway through the cooking process. “ It is a very labor intensive business, there are people involved at every part of the process- skilled, trained bakers,” said Fintz. Still, it’s not as if Davidovich is a small time, mom n’ pop outfit, supplying bagels to neighbors and passers-by. It’s a vibrant wholesale business producing upwards of 20,000 bagels a day from its 10,000 sq ft. facility. Davidovich has an aggressive growth strategy for the near future. It aims to increase production to a maximum of 40,000 bagels but not through increased mechanization – by accruing more hands, and more old school equipment. It is actively seeking to open a flagship store in Manhattan‘s midtown or the Upper West Side this summer, and plans for 10 retail locations over the next 1 1/2 years. Customers include Whole Foods who charge consumers around ninety-five cents a bagel.
Incidentally, six of Dunkin’s new bagels will set you back $3.99. According to market research conducted by The NPD Group / CREST® rankings for the period 12 months ending January 2012, Dunkin’ is the number one retailer of bagels in the US. Chances are, it’s making a lot more than 20,000 bagels a day, a lot more. But does this matter? Does it really matter that Dunkin Donuts’ bagels are undeniably mass produced? Does it matter that its bagel, like its donuts, are almost entirely machine made (if I’m wrong, Dunkin’ – please let me know!)? Does it matter that the bagel ingredients listed on Dunkin’s website include High Fructose Corn Syrup,Calcium Lactate, Potassium Sorbate, Disodium Inosinate, Disodium Guanylate,and Yellow 5 Lake (coloring). For Davidovich, the “artisan” label is a mark of distinction. It conveys to the consumer a host of characteristics about the product that they are buying, namely revolving around how it’s made but also about what’s in it (Davidovich only uses unbleached naturally pure flour, and no preservatives or dough conditioners), and it justifies why its wares are more expensive then mass-produced, supermarket iterations.
Even though “artisan” has devolved into an amorphous term, it’s clear that it still has a value for the consumer. If it didn’t, companies like Dunkin’ and Dominos, wouldn’t be spending millions on ad campaigns based on the notion, even if they do poke fun at it, while they exploit it. And that’s why it’s worth the fight.
“In this marketplace you’re either driven by price, or the fact that you have a unique, high-end gourmet product. We’re the latter,” explained Fintz. ”Our livelihood depends upon this term, and so when a bigger company falsely appropriates it and tells the public they are selling the same product as us at half the price, they destroy our ability to compete fairly in the marketplace.”
And the team at Davidovich are so determined to preserve its livelihood that the bakery reserved the right to file a federal lawsuit if Dunkin’ persists in calling its bagels or any other of their other menu items “artisan”. “We’re prepared to be the bastions of truth, and topple the giant,” said Fintz. But it’s not just about being a thorn in Dunkin’ Donuts’ side, Fintz has even bigger plans and is canvassing a government articulated standard for the term “artisan,” much like the USDA’S national organic certification program.
While many in the media have accused Fintz of shamelessly courting publicity with these complaints, a plethora of fellow artisan bakers or other artisan producers have articulated their support, sending letters and calling the bakery.
“I respect that that they are putting their money where their mouth is and saying yes, let’s defend this thing that we stand for,” said Faber. If everyone uses words to mean whatever they want them to, well, then what’s the point of having words?”
When it comes to taste, how does genuine craftsmanship fare against Dunkin’s “really, really, really good bagels” ? Check out my next post for a taste comparison of Davidovich’s artisan bagels vs. Dunkin’ Donuts Artisan Bagels.