Dunkin Donuts is knocking on Starbucks' door

Guests at the Great Wolf Lodge in Concord, North Carolina will soon be running, like America supposedly does, on Dunkin. The doughnuts-and-coffee chain is launching the first of "a variety of store models to suit any lodging property, including full retail shops, kiosks and self-serve hot coffee stations perfect for gift shops and general stores." Dunkin Donuts' press release can't help but point out that the company's coffee is preferred in a blind taste test over Starbucks', and this move is clearly meant as the next salvo in the battle between the two great java retailers.

It's only about a year since the longtime darling of East Coasters announced it would face off with Starbucks with "at least 62" locations in the Las Vegas area. (Interesting: the company pulled out of Washington and Oregon about five years ago; one store was near my house and its exit coincided with an influx of coffee shops in the neighborhood, two Starbucks among them.) It is, notably, a few months after Starbucks launched a salvo with its bargain-conscious "breakfast pairings" clearly meant to compete directly against McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts, whose cheap coffee and food has been eroding Starbucks' cash-strapped customers for some time. When those were announced, a spokesperson from Dunkin Donuts insisted that its food and beverage choices were "the faster and more affordable alternative."

But were they as available? With 8,800 outlets to Starbucks' over 10,000, the race seems neck-and-neck. Perhaps it is this: the ideal customer for both Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts is not, after all, the connoisseur of fine coffee and baked goods, but the busy person hoping for a consistent, familiar product. And nowhere is the search for the familiar, the known, more important than while traveling. If Starbucks has prime real estate in hotels -- the chain's partnership with Marriott is, according to Bill Marriott, not just a business move, but a love affair -- then Dunkin Donuts has an enormous struggle to capture a huge segment of its consumer base.

With only one cafe announced, Dunkin will have a long way to go before it can claim victory over the home-away-from-home clientele. And, if Starbucks management have any fight in 'em, they'll be defending their turf with everything they've got.

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