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.”