Starbucks Versus Dunkin Donuts

Back in May of 2017, when the Starbucks coffee chain announced plans to open its very first (and only) store in New Jersey’s capital city, you’d have been forgiven if you got the impression that this move would single-handedly bootstrap downtown Trenton into a new Renaissance. Everyone associated with the project claimed a piece of the good news, and basked in the reflected glory of all the Venti Mochas that would start flowing from the place that November.

Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson set the tone: “Starbucks will be a welcome addition as we continue revitalizing our downtown business corridor. Through this store’s unique model of investing in local contractors, suppliers and youth, Starbucks is stepping up and investing in our community in a way that will open up exciting opportunities for all. We hope more businesses will appreciate Trenton’s resurgence as we work together to drive economic development locally.”

The City’s Congressional representative Bonnie Watson Coleman claimed her piece of this landmark accomplishment: “About a year ago, I was on a Congressional Delegation in Seattle where I had the opportunity to visit  Starbucks’ headquarters. While I was there, I mentioned to every person I interacted with, including Howard Schultz, (then CEO of Starbucks) how New Jersey’s capital city didn’t have a Starbucks. Earlier this month, Trenton did not just welcome a run-of-the-mill Starbucks, but a specialized facility that is going to invest in our community and help build the future. Young men and women will be able to work there and be provided with management training to go off into other areas of our state and country and run their own stores.”

Don’t get me wrong. Starbucks is a fine addition to our downtown. It’s a clean, modern and pleasant store, offering a good product line, doing brisk business 13 hours a day, 7 days a week. Glad to have it.

But here’s the thing, to me. Starbucks presence , for all of the grandiose rhetoric of the people quoted above – “investing in our community in a way that will open up exciting opportunities for all” Really, Mayor Jackson?? – is only one store. The company waited until 2017 to announce it was moving to Trenton to “help build the future,” and make some money doing it.

Let’s compare Starbucks with its more plebian and working class competitor, Dunkin Donuts.

No one has claimed that the double DD will “build the future,” or “open up exciting opportunities for all.” The coffee is only ok and the food menu could never be described as part of a healthy or even trendy lifestyle, in the way that the colossus from Seattle is seen.

But, I want to argue, Dunkin Donuts represents a more important presence to Trenton’s economy. For one thing, it’s been a much bigger presence for much longer, and likely employs far more residents of the city and contributes more in property taxes to the town. Our elected officials and city machers should be shouting praise for the chain from the rooftops as much as they shower Starbucks with overblown compliments.

Why am I so up on Dunkin? Because within the city limits of Trenton there are no fewer than nine –count them, nine – stores logoed with the orange and purple. Many are open 24 hours. There’s one Drive-through store, in the West Ward. You can grab a coffee and donut in the Train Station on your way out of town. Their sizes are Small, Medium, Large and Extra Large. And they all offer (with varying degrees of reliability) free WiFi.

Dig it!

Yeah, for sure Dunkin Donuts isn’t nearly as sexy as Starbucks. There’s no comparison between the corporate auras of the two caffeine providers. But, as far as Trenton is  concerned, to me DD is by far the better, and for much, much longer, corporate neighbor in the city, contributing much more to Trenton’s economy than Starbucks ever will, even though it will hardly ever get any official love from any officials, at any level of government. Our elected and appointed leaders have long preferred the big, bold transformative projects that never seem to transform anything. Hotels, stadiums, nursing schools and now Starbucks. The bigger, the better.

What’s my point to all this? We are in the middle of another city election. It’s known as “Silly Season,” for all the inflated promises and rhetoric that come from many candidates, as they try to stake out positions and personas that distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.

Allow me to compare and contrast the “Starbucks” candidates to the “Dunkin Donuts” candidates.

On the one hand, this season’s wild and overblown promises are coming from current At-Large Councilman Duncan (no relation) Harrison. When he announced his candidacy for Mayor, he did so with the grandest of rhetoric: “I am running for Mayor because it is time for a new Trenton revolution…A revolution that will take place in our homes, in our families, and in conversations with our neighbors. That will take place on our streets, in our parks, and at our schools. A Trenton revolution that will bring a bright new future to our city, because it will start and it will thrive in each and every one of us.”

A revolution? In Trenton? Seriously? I get that Mr. Harrison, who by many measurements is among the least qualified of the mayoral candidates, needs to amp up his campaign rhetoric. His own website summarizes his pitch this way: “It is time for a leader with a vision for a bright, new Trenton and the leadership skills to make that vision a reality.”

What is his vision? What are his leadership skills? His is definitely the Starbucks candidacy. Promise the world, say “vision” and “bold” a lot, and soft-pedal his lack of experience. “Big” and “Bold” have been for too long code words for projects destined to bankrupt us. No, thanks. Not this year.

Mr. Harrision means well, but I don’t see quite the leader he does. I was in attendance at City Council on February 1, when Mr. Harrison took the lead on what has promised as a major hearing on the Trenton Water Works on February 1. I’ve written about this session, and won’t re-visit it here. I will only say that the list of 12 questions that Councilman Harrison asked the Administration were mostly softball, avoiding most of the serious issues well known by then to the public. He also allowed the Administration to offer a presentation – still on the City website – which failed to include basic information such as organizational charts and financial statements for the Water Works. It was good enough for the Councilman, it seemed, as well as the rest of his colleagues. This event had been intended by Harrison as a major showcase for his “leadership” and “vision.” I frankly did not see much of either at that Council session.

His transformational and revolutionary rhetoric extends to his fundraising appeals. In one note, his vision sees “a city that will once again be the center of innovation and industry.” He doesn’t provide any details on how a Harrison Administration will transform Trenton into the next Cupertino. But he does proudly point to one achievement from his single City Council term that he claims qualifies him for the Mayor’s Chair: “Most importantly, as a member of the budget committee, I helped turn Trenton’s deficit into a surplus for the first time in years and put in place safeguards to keep our budget balanced.” [Emphasis in the original – KM]

Mr. Harrison is oblivious here to the irony of proudly pointing to the City of Trenton’s budget surplus as a positive, considering the way we’ve earned it. Trenton’s paper “surplus” over each of the last few fiscal years is an accomplishment made mostly if not entirely possible by starving the Trenton Water Works of needed employees, capital infrastructure spending, and competitive salaries for those few employees left on the payroll. The City’s recent surpluses come from the Water Works, a fact that the rest of Mercer County and the State now strongly resents and seeks to repair. It’s really not something that Mr. Harrison should really be proud of, you know? But that’s about the best shot he’s able to take, at least right now.

Now let’s briefly contrast Mr. Harrison’s pitch to those I see as the “Dunkin Donuts” candidates for Mayor.

Last week, The Trentonian posted a series of 3-minute videos shot with each of the mayoral candidates. Darren Green and Paul Perez both independently spoke of what I find to be the most important – and most realistic – task the next Trenton Mayor will face.

PAUL PEREZ (from 1:12): In order to bring private investment back into the city, you must demonstrate we are fiscally responsible… If we can’t get ourselves together when it comes to governing, we’re not going to lure anyone into the City. We have to be responsible in demonstrating to them that we can count our money, we can provide services, we can clean our city, we can keep it safe. And we can start to close the achievement gap in this city. If we don’t do that, private industry is not going to be a friend to Trenton.

DARREN GREEN (from 1:55): The first thing we need to do is clean up internally. Begin to bring competent, qualified and committed persons who are invested in the excellence of Trenton itself, where each department is running like an efficient and effective machine. Once people externally see that internally we’ve got our act together,  they’ll begin to be drawn here.

Those are not sexy statements. They aren’t “bold” or “decisive.” The only “vision” they’re based on is a common dream of basic municipal competence.

How badly have we waited to hear that kind of approach over the last 8 years, and longer?

I might be reading way too much into those single, short sound bites. But Mr. Perez and Mr. Green both implicitly, to me, admit that the ability of city government to act as rainmakers or matchmakers in bringing in big, splashy, sexy marquee projects intended as economic game-changers, is really very, very limited. Especially for a city in the condition that Trenton is. The private sector has the resources to invest, but will not go to a town that is the shit show we’ve become.

The best we can hope for – and based on the last decade, it’s no small task by itself! – is to become, at its most basic level, competent. Well-managed. Well-motivated. Well led. That approach, successfully implemented, might draw not only new private investment as Mr. Perez and Mr. Green believe, but new residents. If we can run it well, They Will Come.

I hope to hear more from these two, and all the other candidates for Council as well as for Mayor, along these lines. I don’t want to hear any more promises of “revolution” and “bright new futures.” What I want, what I think Trenton needs right now, is boring, dependable, basic competence. I want to see more of that from our more serious candidates this Spring.

Starbucks is nice, and I’m glad we have one, finally.

But, make no mistake, Dunkin Donuts has been much more of a presence in Trenton. It contributes more to our local economy in town and employees more people than the new guy in town. Heck, it’s been more LOYAL to Trenton for years.

Trenton runs on Dunkin. I hope our candidates – and voters – pay attention.

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