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Dunkin' tries to cook up a new niche

When Michael O'Donovan, a European-trained chef, recently tried a test version of a Dunkin' Donuts steak sandwich, he immediately detected problems.

''I just didn't think the flavors were popping," he said.

So the chef purchased higher-quality meat, switched the seasoning mixture, and swapped the sauce's acidic vinegar for something more aged. The resulting sandwich, slated to hit stores for the first time in January, has ''the perfect amount of roast flavor in the steak," he said. ''It's not too much of a pot-roasty note."

Dunkin' Donuts hired O'Donovan six months ago to handle some of the chain's most nuanced culinary decisions, marking the first time the Canton company has added a professional chef to its staff. He is putting his professional palate to work on everything from tweaking the berry flavor in the wildberry Coolatta, still in testing, to changing the way eggs are cooked for a breakfast sandwich.

The move comes as Dunkin' plans to open about 11,000 stores over the next decade, more than tripling its size. To fuel the growth, the chain's executives are betting they can carve out a new culinary niche by matching the quality of upscale coffeehouses like Starbucks, without the baristas, long waits, or high prices.

The chef has his work cut out for him, however. Some of Dunkin's most loyal customers rarely order the chain's food, saying they find it mediocre and often greasy. About 70 percent of Dunkin's sales currently come from coffee, while only 15 percent comes from doughnuts.

But the chain thinks it can do it, attracting customers with BMW tastes on a Chevrolet budget.

''We're bringing that same quality to you in a hurry," said Jon Luther, chief executive of Canton-based Dunkin' Brands, which includes Dunkin' Donuts, Baskin-Robbins, and the sandwich chain Togo's. ''You don't need a dictionary to order our products."

Dunkin' Brands, the US arm of Britain's Allied Domecq PLC, is looking to hire three other chefs, largely from high-end restaurants and culinary schools. The chefs' role is to design and refine new items for the chain's menu, not to cook them for stores daily.

Dunkin' executives are concocting dozens of new menu items, including afternoon desserts, lunch items, and new coffee drinks. The goal: Create a more ''craveable" menu that will bring in customers all day.

One thing the new chefs won't tinker with is the chain's traditional doughnut recipe. But in one indication of how far Dunkin' already has come from its working-class roots, it has introduced soy milk for lattes in some stores, and it has plans to bring it to others soon.

At the heart of the change is growing competition in the restaurant industry, as customers flock to lunch chains such as Au Bon Pain and Panera Bread, which offer higher-quality sandwiches and baked goods at higher prices than fast-food chains. Fast-food customers once were willing to trade quality for speed, but that is no longer the case, Luther said.

To become a chef at Dunkin' Brands is no easy feat. The chain has received about 60 resumes for its position of executive chef, who works under O'Donovan and oversees new products at Dunkin', Baskin, and Togo's. The finalists will have to come to the Canton headquarters in January for a cook-off, in which they will receive a basket of meat, vegetables, and starches and will be asked to create a meal.

Together, Dunkin's four new chefs will mark a significant change for a chain that has historically relied on a menu designed by food scientists, who emphasize the technical obstacles of getting food into the stores. Under that system, it farmed out the real chefs' work designing menu items to outside companies, which could sell versions of the same items to Dunkin's competitors. The chain also had more practical reasons for change: The menu never tasted quite as good as Dunkin' executives wanted. Without their own chefs, they realized, they could not create the kind of signature products that would work.

It's not enough for the Dunkin' chefs to design tasty new menu items. The chain will also have to figure out how to mass-produce them and get them into stores. By the time a new food hits the streets, Dunkin' has poured so much money into its advertising, manufacturing, and development that it wants to make sure it will be a hit.

Already, Dunkin' has put its new chef to work on traditional Dunkin' products, such as a creamy tan coffee drink still in development in the chain's test kitchen. It looks and tastes suspiciously like a Starbucks Frappuccino, though O'Donovan describes it only as a healthy ''coffee smoothie."

Dunkin' has been working on the drink for about five months, but it will be several more months before it gets to store shelves -- if it makes it there at all. Though Dunkin's tasters have screened the coffee drink more than 20 times, it is likely to be vetted more than 100 more times before it is released.

The biggest problem: O'Donovan worries it is too sweet. ''After you drink one of these things, you're going to be like a race car," he said.

Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com. 

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