Dunkin' Donuts Doesn't Get What "Free" Means

by Lauren Barbato

The old adage may go "freedom ain't free" — and for today, this should be applied to donuts. Donut aficionados looking forward to receiving their free Dunkin' Donuts for National Donut Day Friday may be surprised to find out that the complimentary pastry comes with a fee. That's right — the free donut promotion, led by global coffeehouse and baked goods chain Dunkin' Donuts, has some misleading fine print to it. As points out, customers can only receive their on-the-house treat after they shell out some hard-earned cash for a beverage.

Of course, donuts are limited, so the promotion is only "while supplies last," according to the Dunkin' Donuts website. So, basically, not free in the slightest.

After 77 years, National Donut Day has become a popular, long-held American tradition — one that typically culminates in a free donut. You might think that because Dunkin' Donuts customers are not directly paying for the donut, it can be considered free. After all, you're not shelling out an extra .95 cents for its beloved Boston Kreme donut. But that's not how Doug Saffir at sees it:

That is not free. That is you spending money in order to receive a donut, known commonly by its simpler description: “buying a donut.” ... No, the donut is free if you can walk in, ask for a donut, have a donut handed to you, and then walk out. But this is not what is happening.

According to Saffir, the Dunkin' Donuts promotion ends up being a "pretty good deal," but not a freebie. Dunkin' Donuts, though, is committed to using its idea of free in its promotional materials.

Although it may sound like Saffir is nitpicking, he's not the only Dunkin' Donuts customer upset with the company's promotion. Many donut-lovers/lovers of free things have taken to the company's Facebook page to air out their National Donut Day grievances:

How can can something be free if you have to buy something to get it?
Yes, it's actually the 'Hey, if you were gonna buy a drink and donut anyways, then this'll cost you less' deal.
"Free" and "purchase" don't work in the same sentence unless the word "no" precedes "purchase." Just sayin'.

Just how much would a free donut set you back? Dunkin Donuts' cheapest beverage is its no-frills coffee — $1.49 for a size small. If you want something a little colder on this warm day, there's always a small iced coffee ($1.99), a small iced tea ($1.99), a small iced latte ($2.99) or a small Coolatta ($2.99).

Tim Boyle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Dunkin' Donuts may be promoting a "lie," but it isn't the only franchise to do so. The minimart chain Cumberland Farms is also giving free donuts to customers who purchase a hot or iced coffee or a "Chill Zone" beverage (a.k.a. a slushie). Chill Zone drinks only cost .89 cents, while coffees run about $1, so it's a slightly better free-donut deal than Dunkin' Donuts.

However, as many Dunkin' Donuts Facebook commenters pointed out, there are places to go on National Donut Day that have true free donuts — notably Krispy Kreme, a main rival to Dunkin' Donuts. Krispy Kreme is handing out donuts on Friday to whoever stops in, no purchase of a coffee, Coolatta or Chill Zone necessary.

To be sure, Krispy Kreme only gives out one type of donut — its classic glazed — on National Donut Day, unlike Dunkin' Donuts, which lets you pick your own.

Despite this hullabaloo over free vs. kinda-sorta-not free donuts, let's not forget the humble origins of National Donut Day. The day is not an invention of donut companies looking to easily generate more revenue, but originated with the Salvation Army on the battlefields of World War I. As a way to bring some cheer and goodwill to the troops fighting in the trenches, Salvation Army members would deliver donuts to them — donuts were rationed at the time, so they were viewed as a luxury.

After the war, the Salvation Army officially started National Donut Day during the Great Depression as a way to raise funds for its services, which include helping to house and feed the poor. So, maybe something to think about when we're in line today waiting for our Boston Kreme donuts...

Image: Dunkin' Donuts