The day begins before it’s a day, really.

The sun has not yet crept over the Omaha horizon, the mercury has not yet risen above freezing, and Bryce Bares ’00 has not yet had his first 24-ounce, unsweetened, iced cold brew.

That will come soon enough. But first, there is the drive-through.

Is there trash strewn about? (No.) Have any vehicles bashed into the clearance bars? (No.) Has the menu board frosted over? (Yes, again, sigh.) And perhaps most importantly, will there be fewer than 150 seconds between ordering the coffee and taking the first sip? (There should be, since it is Monday, the slowest day of the week, and sure enough, barely 100 seconds pass before the first jolt of caffeine courses through Bares’ body.)

He has no time to make the donuts, not anymore. But all of them—yeast-raised, cake-style, Munchkins and every other Dunkin’ in central and eastern  Nebraska, along with outposts in Topeka and parts of Kansas City—belong to him.

There was no playbook for any of this in the Amherst career center. The late Lewis Spratlan, Bares’ thesis adviser in the music department, might have known from Black Sheep coffee and Atkins Farms cider donuts, but it wasn’t part of the curriculum. You’re not supposed to eat or drink at all in Buckley Recital Hall, where Bares performed as a Zumbye and conducted various choral groups during the year he spent as a postgraduate fellow.

But still, somehow, Dunkin’ became his life’s work. And the throughline to it from a small liberal arts college is straighter than it might seem.

Nebraska was a homecoming for Bares, though it required some effort to get back and a fair bit to get out in the first place. While his older brother, Bill Bares ’94, laid the path to Amherst from their hometown of Bellevue, a suburb south of Omaha, Bryce didn’t  follow it at first. There was a dalliance with a full scholarship to the University of Nebraska—and an epiphany that a chemistry class with 400 people might not be the undergraduate experience he had been seeking.

Amherst took him in, and he thrived even as he lacked certainty about his long-term career path. There was a flirtation with the Air Force along the way and the desire to be a pilot. Bares also eyeballed the pre-med curriculum. “I felt outclassed a little bit,” he says. “There were kids from prep schools where it seemed like they had already had an undergraduate-level education.”

In the music department, however, he fit in. An all-state trumpet player at Bellevue East High School and a jazz aficionado, Bares devoured Amherst’s musical offerings. For his senior thesis, he wrote an orchestral work from scratch. For a while, he thought he might become a composer for television and film, but here too it was possible to be daunted by his peers and their skills.

“There was this guy who could sit down with an orchestral score and transpose it in real time and play it on the piano,” he says. “I realized that I was good but not that good.”

It felt like a large amount of money when I was an 18-year-old. And the money smelled like donuts.”

Bares did outperform in the department of romance language. One evening, he spotted a stranger in Valentine, asked someone for her name, looked up her phone number and left her a message asking her out. Their first date was at Amber Waves, the noodle joint of some 1990s renown. Seven years later, Sara Hurtado ’00 added Bares to her last name.

Law school at Boston College came next, and Bares eventually settled into a job at a corporate firm in  Columbus, Ohio. It was fine, but it became clear fairly quickly that it wasn’t exactly right. “What I found myself doing was wishing I was the client,” he says. “Most of them were business owners. People who could afford our rates were successful. And what was also really interesting was the number of businesses out there that were.”

Over the next few years, he set about trying to create a few of his own—both as side hustles and as full-time endeavors. First came software that would help online poker players make the next best move using odds based on their current hands. Then there was a legal-services website that helped clients with particular needs find a lawyer in that niche.

Neither startup took flight. The newly married couple had moved to Chicago for Hurtado Bares’  internal medicine residency, and Bares had landed a job at the city’s law department, working with real estate developers. There he worked in City Hall, which was connected by an underground tunnel to a large state office building. And in the basement food court was something of a marvel: a perpetually bustling subterranean oasis, decorated in orange, with the letter D everywhere you looked. And donuts, yeast-raised, the marble kind with the chocolate drizzle. 

They brought back memories.

Growing up, Bares went to church with his family each Sunday, and afterward they always stopped at the local donut shop. It served both cake and yeast-raised donuts, but young Bryce already favored the airier yeast variety, plain on the bottom, frosted with chocolate. 

As a teenager, he worked as a bank teller, and the woman who owned the local Winchell’s franchise would often pull up to the drive-through window to deposit her cash. “It felt like a large amount of money when I was an 18-year-old,” he says. “And the money smelled like donuts.”

A man in a donot shop holding up a donut and smiling

Every Dunkin’ shop in central and eastern Nebraska belongs to Bares.

Bares became a regular at that Dunkin’ in Chicago. It was often a mob scene. He noticed that another one, just a few minutes away at street level, had lines too. What was going on here? Bares thought to take a look at the Dunkin’ website, and Chicago was saturated with shops. But Nebraska did not have a single one. 

Nobody just gets to up and open a Dunkin’ franchise. Instead, you apply, as if you are trying to get into college. Nebraska expansion was on the company’s agenda when Bares inquired, and some executives asked him for a business plan. It became clear that there was at least one other interested party, so he had to somehow persuade corporate brass that a  newcomer with a law degree deserved to open the new territory. 

Years later, he met the person he beat out: an experienced Burger King franchisee. It turned out Dunkin’ hadn’t wanted to play second fiddle to Whoppers on this man’s list of priorities, Bares recalls. The company had sensed that Bares would be all in, going all out. 

And he would. But first he had to talk to his wife, an HIV specialist who was born in Mexico and grew up in Bronx, N.Y., and Norwalk, Conn. Was Omaha a place she’d want to live and be able to work? The couple had two small boys, and she figured they would be fine. Bares told great stories about growing up in the area. “He had the ideal childhood,” Hurtado Bares says. 

But what about her? Every transition she’d made in adulthood had been with a cohort—college, medical school, residency, fellowship. So many adults in Nebraska were born and raised there. Their social networks were established. 

And then there was the matter of her specialty. “Working in the field of HIV, it’s very dependent on federal grants,” she said. “What barriers would I face there, as a provider in a conservative state?” Hurtado Bares had often felt like it wasn’t possible—or prudent—to try to be friends with people whose values didn’t align with hers. She’d lived and worked in places with large enough populations that she could choose people who were more or less like herself.

What she found, however, was that her work and life in Omaha came with very little conflict. “I’m regularly at dinners with people from all walks of life and all political affiliations,” she says. “I feel like there is less judgment here in what you believe and what you do for a living and who you are.” 

While Bares himself was an insider, his company was an interloper. But it wasn’t entirely unknown, either. Franchisees had opened dozens of Dunkin’  territories before, and anyone who worries about starting a new one can look up any company’s franchise failure rate on a federal website. When Bares checked, Dunkin’ had one of the lowest. 

To get in on the action, Bares needed $100,000 in liquid assets and about $500,000 in net worth. He eked out the latter on his own and got some help from his father with the former via an equity investment. That limited his debt to the amount he eventually took on to buy property, where he put many of the nine units that Dunkin’ required that he build within five years. (In order to get exclusive rights to a territory, franchisees often have to open a minimum number of stores in a specific period of time.)

There were definitely surprises. In New england, coffee is 75 percent of sales. Not so in Nebraska.

Franchisees pay ongoing fees, too. Bares hands over almost 6 percent of his sales to the company as a kind of ongoing royalty, plus another 5 percent to support the company’s marketing efforts. He does not begrudge the company its cut of his labors. And how could he, really, given the frenzy that ensued when he opened up his first store?

Gone are the days when franchisees fried their  donuts in round vats of hot oil, but they still need to be fresh each day. Since Dunkin’ does most of its business before noon, the donuts—which, in Bares’ case, get shipped to him pre-fried and then get finished off in a convection oven onsite—require the services of an overnight baker. 

On day one—May 15, 2013—this was Bares himself, having received instruction from a legendary Dunkin’ trainer named Roxanne at headquarters in Canton, Mass. “I was there from 2 a.m.,” he says. “We were opening our doors at 5. I looked outside as I’m getting ready to bake, and I’m noticing more and more cars stacking up, at 2 and then 3 a.m.”

Store one in Nebraska did $96,000 in sales in week one. Only the Las Vegas strip opening had outperformed Bares’ Papillion, Neb., outpost, he says. “I’m not kidding: That store probably did not turn its ovens off again for three months,” he says. His parents had to step in to frost donuts. He broke out in a rash trying to manage the overwhelming demand. 

This sort of experience is—or can be—the beauty of franchising. You plug into a system, and if it’s time-tested, there’s no reason it shouldn’t work if you follow instructions and pick good locations. 

There were definitely surprises, though. In New England, coffee is about 75 percent of Dunkin’s sales. It was under 25 percent in Bares’ first year in business. Coffee is the more profitable product, but not so much more that the lower sales wrecked his business plan. 

COVID definitely wrecked his business plan, at least in the early days. He was first in line at his local bank for the federal PPP loans. And then, incredibly, business took off in May 2020, at the drive-through in particular. “People wanted to get out of the house,” Bares says.

A man looking through a colorful, brightly lit case of donuts

One potential downside of franchising is the way it can smother creativity. There are consultants from Dunkin’ headquarters who drive around examining stores. If Bares sells a donut fried in the finest lard from the hogs butchered  locally at the Wholestone Farms plant, it doesn’t matter if he passes $100,000 in sales in a single week. It’s not on the corporate menu, so it can’t be on any menu. Mess around enough with things like that, and you’re in violation of your franchisee agreement.

But Bares is a jazz guy—the literal genre of improvisation—and he composed music for his senior thesis. How does a creative not bore himself to tears following every note of Dunkin’s Ninth Symphony, worrying that if he does so much as swap out an instrument he could lose his livelihood altogether?

“It can drive me crazy,” Bares says. Take those  frozen digital menu boards at the drive-through. Bares pays $25,000 to buy them, and in return he gets the privilege of worrying about their innards during the winter months. People pull up and speak too softly into the speaker, ordering two of this and one of that while filling multiple boxes of donuts. The cars stack up at rush hour. And there’s nothing customers can do about it but wait—or leave.

Bares knows exactly what he would do about it if he could. “How would a store function if the drive-through menu board was eliminated?” he wonders. “The expectation would be that you order through the app, which is already 30 percent of our business. And anyone who is getting in the lane knows that their order is already ready. I would love to try.”

The fact that he cannot do this is frustrating, but it isn’t the hardest part of the job. What’s proven most challenging is also most rewarding—and it’s a skill that you can’t learn in the classroom at Amherst or most small liberal arts colleges: It’s managing.

At first, Bares wasn’t even sure what to wear. He was trying to project the right image, but business casual and collared shirts didn’t set the proper tone. “Only later did someone tell me that it was intimidating to my crew,” he says. “That’s why I wear jeans. It was those little things that affected whether they will approach you with real feedback.”

He has slowly found his way with workers though— with the University of Nebraska undergraduates who serve customers at a campus location, the employees out on parole, the star manager who is a former foster child and another who was living in her van not long ago. Last year, he managed 1,100 of them across 30 locations. He recently hired a full-time human resources director. “Creativity” and “creation”—as in job creation—come from the same root.

As Bares himself admits, with no small amount of annoyance, the fast-food industry does a terrible job of telling this story. It’s possible to go from hourly worker to having a high-five- or low-six-figure income in the span of a decade with zero college education. Bares hasn’t merely seen it; he’s quite literally made it happen for people.

“In Silicon Valley, they give six-figure salaries to a lot of people who have started ahead of the starting line,” he says. “I feel like, in my business, you’re benefiting the portion of society that really needs to benefit the most.” 

There are multiple ways to do this, on many levels. Bares didn’t mention his attention to gender, but his wife did: “He sat down with his director of operations and said, ‘We need to look at gender equity and our salaries.’ This guy looked at him blankly, but he kept going. ‘We may have unconscious bias.’”

Bares the donut maker now makes more money than Bares the lawyer did, and he could take home a lot more if he really wanted to. “Early on, the appeal of financial freedom was very strong—to make enough money not to have to worry about money,” he says.

He hit that mark pretty quickly. The family doesn’t covet fancy things. Bares did finally get his pilot license, but he has no plane. “Everything else goes back into growing the company, creating opportunities for the people who work here,” he says. “That’s the fun part for me.”

Ron Lieber ’93 is the Your Money columnist for The New York Times and has always been on Team Cake Donuts.

Photographs by Bill Sitzmann