The chief competitor from a menu standpoint is Starbucks, which has 1,500 stores in China now, according to its Web site. Its 16-year-old China business rests largely on offering quiet, well-decorated places to hang out and discuss, for example, job offers or real estate deals. That's how Starbucks now stays ahead of offshore coffee shop rivals such as Lavazza LAVA.
Starbucks would need a new strategy if Dunkin' provides upbeat, comfortable chatting venues at lower coffee and pastry prices. Dunkin' is already expected to be going for a more upscale image this time after a less successful China joint venture in 2013.
"A coffee shop in China is not necessarily a pace to drink coffee, but a place to meet someone," says Matthieu David-Experton, founder of market research firm Daxue Consulting in Beijing and Shanghai. "If you provide donuts, if you provide sandwiches, it doesn't mean that much. It's about do you look good in that place? Do you get social status?" It's also about high-traffic locations, he adds.
Executing well in seating and siting would pit Dunkin' against the American burger and fried chicken chains as well because Chinese look to those for cleanliness, bright lighting and the freedom to occupy a table until closing time. That formula appeals to high school students with homework and mobile self-employed people with no real office.
But each fast food brand must eventually do more to lock in a dedicated Chinese following. There's no obvious formula.