Dunkin', McD's or Starbucks? The surprising winner of the coffee wars

When Dunkin’ Donuts began selling lattés and other premium coffee drinks around a decade ago, it was viewed as a direct attack on Starbucks, the nation’s leading specialty coffee chain.

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Then five years ago, another front broke out in the java wars when McDonald’s formally launched its McCafé line of premium coffee drinks. At the time, Mickey D’s entry into this brewing battle was called “a game changer” — and not in a good way for Starbucks.

The pincer moves were seen as a real threat to the Seattle-based java juggernaut, especially given the economics of the time. In 2009, the economy was still mired in a recession stemming from the global financial crisis. And with unemployment hovering near 10%, conventional wisdom said that cost-conscious consumers were likely to make a shift away from Starbuck’s pricey menu toward more cost-conscious offerings found at McDonalds or Dunkin’.

Research, in fact, showed that while coffee purchases were relatively recession proof — if you have to have your morning fix, you have to have your fix — the amount of money consumers were willing to spend per visit was likely to fall in economically troubled times. Hence, McDonald’s and Dunkin’, which both cater to working- and middle-class households, saw an opening.

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