Updated: Sun, 02/10/2013 - 12:42

There’s always room for Dunkin’ Donuts

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Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News -Freshly prepared donuts at Dunkin' Donuts.  Savannah Morning News
Savannah Morning News
Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News -Freshly prepared donuts at Dunkin' Donuts.
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Tom Sottile was driving to Dunkin’ Donuts’ headquarters the moment he decided to become a company franchisee.

Stopped at a traffic light, he noticed Dunkin’ stores on three of the intersection’s four corners.

“And all three were busy,” he said. “I wanted in.”

Today, more than a decade later, Sottile is bringing America’s biggest doughnut chain to Savannah. He’s opened stores on two of Savannah’s commuter corridors in the last three years and a third in Hinesville.

He’s currently eyeing in-town locations. And while he doesn’t anticipate putting a Dunkin’ on every other corner — a la many New England towns — he does envision a day when Savannah, like other parts of America, runs on Dunkin’.

“There is a level of fanaticism surrounding Dunkin’ Donuts that is almost unparalleled in the food service industry,” Sottile said.

Sottile speaks from experience. He joined the Dunkin’ Donuts family in 2002 by buying the company’s lone franchise in Charleston, S.C. He opened eight more locations over the next six years and sold the stores and the rights to the territory in 2008 for a “significant” return.

He took those profits and bought the Savannah territory, one that had been on his “radar” since another franchisee abandoned it by closing a southside store in 2005.

Sottile’s initial focus was on commuter corridors. He opened his first local store on Highway 17 at the Georgia 204 interchange to capture the Richmond Hill-to-Savannah traffic in 2010. He added the Hinesville location near Fort Stewart’s main gate a year later.

A Port Wentworth store, located on Georgia 21 at Interstate 95, opened last week. Sales have been “20 to 30 percent” above forecasts with many cars bearing Effingham County plates passing through the drive-thru.

“This is commuter heaven,” Sottile said

 

‘Doughnut war’ coming?

Dunkin’s Savannah invasion will not pass quietly, Sottile acknowledges.

Savannah has long been a “Krispy Kreme town.” The North Carolina-based doughnut empire operates two stores in Savannah, and its glazed and chocolate-glazed treats are a breakfast staple.

Yet the perception that Dunkin’ is a “Yankee” business and Southerners’ fondness for Krispy Kreme’s glaze doesn’t concern Sottile. Dunkin’ will be the hot doughnut shop in town, even if there is no light proclaiming it as such in the store window.

“There are a lot of Northeast transplants here, which will drive interest,” Sottile said. “And once those unfamiliar with Dunkin’ try it, they’re hooked.”

Local foodie Jesse Blanco predicts an initial “doughnut war” that will ultimately end in a draw. Blanco grew up on Dunkin’ Donuts in south Florida and loves the variety of doughy rings the company offers, as well as the coffee.

But Krispy Kreme’s glazed treats “can’t be beat, especially when they are hot,” he said.

“Everybody has their loyalties, but there’s enough room in Savannah for both Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme,” Blanco said. “I doubt Dunkin’ will have much of an impact on Krispy Kreme’s market share.”

Krispy Kreme spokesman Brian Little agreed, saying the company’s Savannah regulars “are really engaged with the brand.”

 

Fast climb to success

Sottile says Savannah is the most promising “mid-sized market on the East Coast” for Dunkin’ Donuts.

Given his history, that’s more than hyperbole.

Sottile became a Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee after working 15 years for Pizza Hut. He started as a dishwasher and worked his way up to regional manager. He left the company soon after its purchase by Pepsico.

“Why keep doing this for other people when we can do it ourselves?” Sottile recalls telling his wife.

The Sottiles were living in Atlanta at the time but wanted to relocate to Charleston. Tom started looking at franchise restaurants in the Lowcountry, wanting one that allowed the franchisee to put “personal touches” into the business. That ruled out the giants, like McDonald’s.

He visited Charleston’s one Dunkin’ location and it “made total sense.” His fateful trip to Dunkin’s corporate headquarters in suburban Boston followed.

He still puts personal touches into his store. The Port Wentworth location has couches and cushioned armchairs, as well as tables. Sottile also insisted the store have two drive-thru windows to speed up that process. He is convinced the approach increases his returns.

As for how many Dunkin’ stores he envisions for Savannah, the town can accommodate “seven or eight” locations. He hopes to have the first of three in-town locations open by the end of this year and is working with local commercial real estate agent Jay Andrews. Foremost among the sub-markets he is considering are the islands, the southside and downtown.

“We won’t have multiple stores in every intersection,” he said. “But odds are someday soon you’ll drive by one on your way to work.”

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