Scone of Contention

American food chains are out to popularize a classic English treat, but it might not be a biscuit the queen would recognize.

February 26, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Some call it a "scone."

Fresh from a Dunkin' Donuts oven, it silently defies centuries of British tradition, as if to continue the efforts of those patriots who had more than a bellyful of King George III. In this light, how American this biscuit might seem.

It certainly doesn't appear to have much to do with England, where the scone perhaps peaked in refinement, or Scotland, where the scone is said to have first appeared ages before Dunkin' Donuts emerged in Quincy, Mass., near several revolutionary flash points. One needn't be a Tory to weep at this turn of events.

Alas, the fast-food juggernaut has seized upon another menu item, beginning a process of either transformation or corruption, depending on where you stand. As the croissant, as the bagel, the enchilada and the Caesar salad, among many others, so the scone goes into the corporate maw.

Signs posted at Dunkin' Donuts shops in and around Baltimore announce that the chain known for its coffee and heavy police presence has introduced a new product. At $1.29, this "scone" is offered in three varieties: blueberry, maple walnut and raspberry-white chocolate.

The folks in marketing and research and development have been busy.

"We're always looking at what's out there in the marketplace," says Donna Leibold, Dunkin' Donuts' director of product development.

Their research found discontented scone-eaters. Among groups of Dunkin' and non-Dunkin customers, a research firm hired by Dunkin' Donuts discovered a pattern of consumer complaints: "They were not pleased with what was out there" in the way of scones, says Leibold. Commonly available scones were widely considered "dry and not very sweet. ... We saw a great potential."

Thus a doughnut company that started with one shop called the Open Kettle in 1948 discovered a product with considerably older roots.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known scones reference appears in a book of verse by Gavin Douglas of Scotland in 1513: "The flour scones war sett in, by and by." The word may derive from the Dutch schoonbrot or fine bread.

The scone evolved over centuries as something akin to a biscuit, part of British afternoon tea rituals and often accompanied by jam or clotted cream. It might be baked with raisins or currants or cheese, but it would always be rich in butter, ideally moister than a biscuit and denser than cake, its texture somewhere between the two.

Not quite an English muffin or a corn or blueberry muffin, not quite a doughnut or a roll, the scone has never quite cracked the American food mainstream. Even the pronunciation is still problematic, as the Oxford English Dictionary says scone rhymes with con, not cone, as common American usage has it.

Perhaps the company cannot do anything about how Americans pronounce the word, but Dunkin' Donuts would have them saying it more frequently. As it helped popularize the croissant in the early 1980s and the bagel in the 1990s, the chain of some 3,700 franchise stores in 38 states would remove whatever rarified connotation might yet gather around this biscuit. Imagine big-city cops stopping in for scones. Next thing you know, they'll be sipping Earl Grey and forgoing sidearms.

They won't provide numbers, but the folks at Dunkin' Donuts say that so far - four months after being introduced to the mid-Atlantic region - the new scones are doing well.

From time to time fast-food chains will introduce something new to perk things up, create a little buzz, perhaps "giving customers the perception that we're fresh, we're up with the times," says Joel Cohen, owner of the Cohen Restaurant Marketing Group in Raleigh, N.C.

Such innovation, says Washington state restaurant consultant Bill Marvin, "is almost required" to stay ahead of competition: "As soon as they start copying you, you need to be onto the next thing."

In this jungle, who can afford to hold anything sacred? At some point, for instance, there came the day in the history of boulangerie when Burger King introduced the croissant sandwich, an apparent response to McDonald's Egg McMuffin. That Dunkin' Donuts makes bagels at all is enough to invite heckling from Manhattan's Upper West Side; that the company claims to sell more bagels than any other retail outfit in the country suggests the potential clout of one company's mass interpretation of a particular food.

Dunkin' Donuts' scone is one of a few versions commonly available, but to know any one of them may or may not be to know an authentic scone. Because the question demands an experienced perspective, it seemed sensible to call on Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, who knows a few things about scones.

Shapiro used to run the Old Waverly History Exchange & Tea Room, where she served her own scratch tea breads and scones. You can ask for her recipe, but you'll get a polite decline. Proprietary information, you see.

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