East Meets West: Different cultures build Dunkin’ Donuts success

DDIFO Magazine Independent Joe Issue 2 August 2009, by Judy Rakowsky

You cannot buy a coolatta or a box of Munchkins on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores where Manual S. Andrade came from or in Gujarat, in south India where Amrit Patel was born. Neither could you find a Dunkin’ store in Karachi, Pakistan during Siraj Virani’s early years there.

But the roots of more than 50 percent of all Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owners in the United States run deep in those homelands and lend Old World sensibilities of hard work, integrity and loyalty to the successful entrepreneurs they have grown to be.

In Chicago, about 90 percent of the Dunkin’ franchises are owned by South Asians, comprised of two distinct groups, Gujarati Indians and members of the Ismaili community, an ethnically and culturally diverse community of Shia Muslims who live in more than 25 countries.

In the east, members of the Portuguese community own at least 60 percent of the Dunkin’ Donuts stores in New England and New York. “We’ve all been taught by our families to never forget where you came from and at the same time to know where you are and where you want to go,” said Vishal Shah, whose late father, Prabhulal Shah, was a good friend of Amrit Patel’s and bought the family’s first Chicago-area franchise in 1977.

Globally from East to West, hardships ranging from war to barren economic landscapes often motivated future franchise owners to leave home to seek safety and better opportunities for themselves and their families. And the Dunkin’ Donuts franchise rewarded hard work and teamwork even as it offered extended families and immigrant networks a foothold in a new land and a launch pad for their American dreams.

Each immigrant group points to a few pioneers who risked everything they had as well as their family’s future when they bought that first franchise.
Shah called it the Pied Piper model: “One or two respected members of the community finds a franchise, likes it and notices it is profitable and thinks it would make a good business.”

In the Gujarati community around Chicago, Amrit Patel was leading the way. “People knew Amrit back in the day, and it kind of just grew,” said Shah. “It was a good way to create wealth while maintaining a family structure.” Siraj Virani wasn’t the first member of his Ismaili community to buy a franchise, but he has become one of the best known. His journey started in 1971, during the Indo-Pakistani war, when he traveled by boat, camel and on foot from what is now Bangladesh to join his mother and siblings in Pakistan. Then, armed with a scholarship, he made his way as a 19-year-old to America. In 1985, he succeeded in buying his first Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in the Chicago area.

Virani’s determination paid off. He now has 13 stores and supplies baked goods for another 18 stores around Chicago, and recently he was honored with the American Dream award by the National Restaurant Association.

When Manuel S. Andrade bought that first franchise in 1969 in Providence, he started a cavalcade from the village of Vila Franco de Campo on the Azorean island of Sao Miguel, an agricultural atoll where many farmers grow pineapple. In 1971, John Batista left the village, and came to New England by way of Montreal, where he married his wife, from the same village. Batista’s older brother Joe was just starting in the business in Rhode Island with his brother -in-law Andrade. John Batista later bought his own shop in Worcester, MA.

“It was not the business that drew us here,” said John Batista. “There was a dictatorship there and the opportunities were not there. So for economic reasons at the time people immigrated.”

Now hundreds of New England and upstate New York store owners are Andrades, Batistas or Salemas – or have relatives from some of all three families. But they all track back to Vila Franco de Campo, which one franchise-owner called “a cross between Hawaii and a little Italian village.” Several hundred if not a thousand Dunkin’ Donuts shops are owned by people who trace their origins to that village. When they go back on vacation in the summer, franchise owners bump into each other all the time. The striking similarity among the franchise owners, whether Catholic, Hindu or Muslim, hailing from Western Europe or South Asia is an appreciation that borders on reverence for the Old World and those who carved the path.

John Batista, 62, may have been the first in his family to become American, but he carries with him the example of his late father, a farmer raising pineapple. “Work was not a stranger to us,” he said. So when Batista had a store of his own he knew what to do: work. “We didn’t have machines. Everything was done by hand. That’s what we did,” he said. “We turned out OK.”

Miquelina Senra Andrade, “the oldest franchise owner wife,” remembers those days in the 1960s in Providence when her husband was the day baker and his cousin Manny Pacheco Andrade was the night baker.

“Manny’s family and my family all come from Sao Miguel. Everybody came here looking for the American dream,” she said. “Mr. Rosenberg (the late founder of Dunkin’ Donuts) believed in helping people and he believed in helping his franchise owners. He passed his dream on to a lot of immigrants. A lot of them didn’t have a lot of education, but he gave them the opportunity to own their own businesses.”

The family relationships running through the franchise owners are a dizzying quilt of in-laws, siblings and cousins. Now the franchises are being passed down to the next generation and younger relatives are buying their own stores and establishing networks of stores.

“Dad had all the sweat; I have the tears,” said Michael Batista, the 32-year-old owner of 20 stores in central Connecticut. “He had to put a lot more muscle into it. These days it’s a different beast,” he said. But he said that he and his two sisters and 13 cousins – all in the business – welcomed the opportunity to follow the footsteps of their parents. “I know my father literally uprooted himself from a little island to come to this county to do this for me,” Batista said. “We just have jelly in our blood. This is what we do,” “I stood on a milk crate at age 7 and filled Munchkins .”

The change over time of selling more coffee than donuts also hits home in a second-generation household. “Growing up if I wanted this toy it would be, `Do you know how many donuts I have to sell for you to have that toy?’“ asked Michael Batista. Now he answers an appeal from his 3-year-old son Noah: “Do you know how many cups of coffee I have to sell for you to have these toys?”

Not only is the brand in Batista’s blood, it’s in his wife’s as well. When he was attending a family wedding in Sao Miguel as a 13-year-old Batista met Nancy Andrade, the woman he wound up marrying after they reconnected in the late 1990s at the retirement party of Fred the Baker of “Time to Make the Donuts” fame.

Family relationships are key in the South Asian communities as well, but kin is not necessarily limited to blood and in-law relations. For instance, Vishal Shah said his father and Amrit Patel went to college together and helped each other in the early days of franchise ownership. Patel’s family now has 30 stores around Chicago. And after college Shah, who immigrated at age 4, went into the business that his mother was running after his father passed away in 1988. “In Indian culture, if it’s a friend of your father you still call him uncle,” Shah said. “You are family through respect because your parents are friends; everybody’s family.”

That makes a big difference on a daily basis in business. “We all help each other,” said Shah, whose family has six stores. “Whenever someone needs something no one ever said I don’t have the time. If your mixer goes down, it’s a matter of a couple of phone calls and you know you’re taken care of.” Likewise, he said, if half his crew gets sick, those same few calls will get him back in business. “They’ll do what they can.” Virani said the Dunkin’ Donuts franchises lend themselves to family-oriented ownership. “This is a business that needed a lot of family members.”

The tight-knit Ismaili community is geared toward shared problems and responsibilities, not letting one fail if the community can find a way to solve a problem.
“In my culture, we believe in unity,” said Virani. “Our ambitions are all the same and we make sure the return is also successful.” The South Asian and Portuguese communities place high values on education and improving knowledge and expertise with each generation. Virani, who has a Master’s in business administration, started out studying accounting while he was waiting tables before he had a franchise. Now his daughter’s accounting and his son-in-law’s computer degrees bring valuable knowledge into their day-to-day management.

But generally, as Shah put it, “The first generation was more of a worker bee running their stores in mom and pop fashion while the second generation is more computer-literate and savvy and created a corporate culture, tiers of management, and a more businesslike approach.” Like many Indian franchise owners, Shah’s father did not seek a career in the profession for which he was educated. “An industrial engineer by trade, he found the lure of being your own boss more compelling,” Shah said.

The rare show stopper for even the busiest South Asian and Portuguese franchise owners is the family wedding.

Spanning cultures and geography the common thread of the weddings are their importance and sheer proportions. For instance, the wedding this summer for Virani’s daughter was a 600-guest affair at the Schaumburg Convention Center outside Chicago. “The whole world came,” Virani said. “They all gave advice. This is our way.”
Just as modern business and the 24/7 world sometimes challenges franchise owners to find ways to honor their culture of origin, so too does such an important life cycle event.

In the case of the Virani wedding it was a challenge to figure out how to keep the tradition of the groom arriving to the wedding ceremony on a horse.
“You cannot bring a horse in a convention center,” Virani said. In keeping with the tradition with an American twist, 15 of his friends carried him on a chaise. “He stood like a king.”

It is not easy to keep business from intruding. When Michael Batista married Nancy Andrade in 2000 there were 400 guests, but so many of them were franchise owners that the November Northeast DCP meeting had to be rescheduled. And last summer, nearly an entire plane of guests for a big family wedding in Vila Franco de Campo was filled with a veritable Who’s Who of Dunkin’ Donuts East Coast franchise owners. But the shared experience is not just the weddings themselves. From the south Indians to the Ismailis to the Portuguese at these nuptial parties it is easy to find people in huddles talking business. From the Schaumburg Center to the sands of Sao Miguel, there are heads bent in intense conversation as serious business is debated above finely decorated tables.

“At all family functions, we talk shop,” said Batista. “That’s what we do at Easter at my house, Thanksgiving at my in-laws, every holiday; every time we get together it’s like an internal district meeting.” While the graying generation passes down advice based on experience, the younger set tries to keep from checking their cell phones and Blackberries incessantly.

Whether the third generation follows this wave remains to be seen. Shah said he doesn’t know if his 7-year-old daughter will follow him. “My blood has jelly in it,” said Shah. “It’s camaraderie and it’s a way of course to make a living and create wealth for future generations.” “But as the Gujarati and Ismaili cultures go we will support them to be more successful then we were.”