A Sweet 30th

Honey Dew Donut founder Richard Bowen began his empire witn a small shop in Mansfield. (Staff photo by Mike George)

Honey Dew Donuts turned 30 this year, but in some respects the number 29 is almost as significant.

That's how many customers founder Richard Bowen served on Honey Dew's first day of business in “ a little cubbyhole of a space” at 221 North Main St. in Mansfield. The date was June 6, 1973.“ I'd love to send them a thank-you note, 30 years later,” Bowen said.

Certainly, there have been some changes since the original 29 sat down to a donut and a steaming cup of coffee.

Since then, Honey Dew has become New England's largest locally owned coffee and doughnut shop chain, with 150 outlets among four states.

Drive-through windows and flavored coffees were unheard of when Bowen began charging 20 cents for a cup of Joe served at the counter in a china cup, instead of today's ubiquitous Styrofoam. Doughnuts were 10 cents each.

But while the trappings and menu have evolved, “ the important things never change,” Bowen said.

“ Customer satisfaction,” he said. “ You have to listen to what the customer is saying.”

That's a message understood all the way down to individual franchises.

“ I can go in, and I can know that guy sitting at the counter,” said Stephen Provazza, a Seekonk native who owns shops in his hometown and Rehoboth, as well as others in the region.

“ Sometimes, when I'm in the drive-through, I'm waiting on my friends.”

Bowen says he learned the personal touch at the first doughnut shop he worked.

He was 10 and a fryer at Ronny's Donut Shop in West Roxbury. He worked with his father, a baker.

“ The cops used to come in throughout the night,” Bowen said. “ I loved it. We talked about sports, the Red Sox — we had some pretty good teams in those days — politics, the weather.”

Bowen said he dreamt then of owning his own coffee and doughnut chain.

The name Honey Dew Donuts came to him as a high school junior while he was doodling on the book cover of his English textbook.

“ It was a sweet name, a refreshing name, a name that would bring a smile to people's faces,” Bowen said.

As an adult, Bowen brought the idea first to Mansfield.

He says he just liked the town.

“ That town personifies everything that I think Honey Dew is all about,” Bowen said. “ It's a small community. It's a great town made up of family-oriented people.”

Five years later, during a family trip to Arizona, Bowen discovered coffee and doughnut shops with drive-through windows.

“ I said, `Jeez, what a great concept!”'

He opened one in Plainville, although the town's building inspector doubted the drive-through would catch on.

“ He said, `Are you sure that's going to work?”' Bowen said.

Takeout orders were 30 percent of Honey Dew's business in 1973, Bowen said. Today, they're 70 percent.

Beverages are 60 percent of a typical shop's sales.

Honey Dew offers more flavored coffees than any other chain, Bowen says. The chain introduced them in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“ Nobody ever heard of pumpkin spice coffee 30 years ago,” Bowen says.

The flavor selection varies by season.

In the winter, “ we try to pick them up with a chocolate cherry or something,” Bowen said. “ We sold so many blueberry cinnamon this summer, it was wild.”

The Honey Dew Donuts House Blend coffee was introduced four years ago.

Bowen said he wanted Honey Dew's coffee to taste the same at every shop. So he worked with the chain's vendor in Lincoln, R.I., to develop a flavor.

“ We want customers to come into Honey Dew and get what they expect: consistency,” Bowen said.

Committees of franchisees mull new ideas before the chain introduces them, he says.

Pistachio muffins are among the chain's signature items. Honey Dew added muffins to its menu in 1976.

Bowen says he eats either a pistachio muffin, a cinnamon stick or a coconut jelly stick every day.

Coffee is his favorite drink.

And New England is his favorite part of the country. That's why he says he won't expand outside the region.

“ I like New England,” Bowen says. “ There's a tremendous amount of opportunity still in New England.”

Honey Dew recently joined McDonald's at rest stops along the Massachusetts Turnpike and Interstate 128, and will open on Route 3 soon, he says.

A store opened at the new Shaw's supermarket in Mansfield, he said.

“ We're selling so many pounds of coffee there '85,” he said.

Bowen expects the industry to continue evolving.

He is unsure what direction it will have gone in another 30 years, but one aspect won't change at Honey Dew.

“ I don't want to take the personal aspect out of it,” Bowen said.

“ People are coming in here for a good reason,” he said. “ They're coming in to be happy.”

MICHAEL GELBWASSER can be reached by calling 508-236-0336 or via e-mail at mgelbwasser@thesunchronicle.com.

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