Tim Hortons, Yay or Nay?

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Mark at Tim Hortons, May 2015

Mark at Tim Hortons, May 2015

The sun is setting and I’m taking a walk around the neighbourhood. I like this quiet time of the day when everybody is slowing down, finally relaxed.

Older kids are still playing in the park, a house is hosting a small party in the backyard and a dog is chasing a rabbit behind the mailbox.

As usual, I walk by the Tim Hortons standing at the corner of Central Park and Merivale Road. It’s busy. There are six cars waiting in line at the drive-through window and it seems pretty full inside as well.

I shake my head in disbelief. “Why?” I mutter.

“Why”, indeed.

I’m happy to see business is doing well, but it’s close to 9 p.m. Who needs caffeine-laden beverages at this time of the night? And it seems a bit late as well for sugar cravings. On such a warm summer night, ice cream would taste better than a doughy donut.

I shouldn’t be surprised, though. This Tim Hortons location is always busy. It’s open 24/7 and even late at night, you will see people going in and out and three or four cars placing order at the drive-through.

Yet, we aren’t downtown, this is suburbia. Merivale road is a busy thoroughfare but this stretch is fairly quiet. On one side is the Experimental Farm, on the other are several high-rise apartment buildings and residential streets, where I live. Tim Hortons is the only business around. Supermarkets, Starbucks and Second Cup as well as several restaurants are past Baseline, a ten-minute walk from here.

I guess I just have to acknowledge Canadians truly like Tim Hortons. Otherwise, they would hang out somewhere else, like in their own living room or backyards.

It’s… weird. Because if you think about it, Tim Hortons is just another franchised restaurant serving coffee and donuts. Yet, Canadians almost feel it’s a patriotic duty to get a double-double at Timmies rather than at McDonalds, Starbucks or—gasp!—brew coffee at home. The franchise even have a fansite, Inside Timmies.

So why is Tim Hortons so popular? This is my best attempt at business analysis.

Because it successfully marketed itself as a Canadian cultural icon

You’d never guess Tim Hortons merged with Burger King in 2014. I think most people here are in denial—no, Tim Hortons is not another fast food chain, it is the spirit, the heart and soul of Canada! Co-founded by Tim Horton, a Canadian Hockey player, the chain has been consistently feeding off its inherently Canadian origins. It loves to display pictures of the player and freely uses Canadian themes and symbols such as the maple leaf, hockey, summer camps, the great outdoors, etc.

Because it has hundreds of convenient locations

There are over 3,500 Tim Hortons locations in Canada, and a few hundreds in northeastern United States. When you land in Canada, you are greeted by a Tim Hortons. When you drive on the freeway and your bladder is about to explode, you can stop at Timmies for a bathroom break and a XL coffee (that will require you to stop again in a few kilometres). When you are rushing on your way to work, you can use the beverage express counter at any of the Tim Hortons in the business district.

Tim Hortons is everywhere—highways, hospitals, military bases, bus stops… the domestic market is saturated. Some days, I’m almost surprised there isn’t a Tim Hortons counter in the space between our fridge and the stove in the kitchen.

Because it’s cheap

Tim Hortons is cheaper than most other franchised coffee shops. Even though it raised its prices last year (and yes, this was much commented in the Canadian media), it’s very affordable. A donut or a cookie is $0.99, a muffin is $1.29, a croissant is $1.60. Or go crazy: a box of fourty Timbits is $6.79.

Most competitors are more expensive and try to wow coffee snobs. Not of that nonsense at Timmies, it positioned itself as the country’s everyman establishment, a place where everyone from hockey moms to construction workers is welcome. If you want customized premium coffee with Italian-sounding names, go elsewhere… and pay for it.

Because of clever promotions that became a tradition

Every year, thousands of Canadians break a nail trying to “roll up the rim” during a several week-long marketing campaign where customers can win one of the 31 million prizes distributed. Hint: you’re more likely to get a free coffee than a brand new SUV, but keep on trying!

Yet, I’m not stopping at Tim Hortons often. I know, this is very unpatriotic of me.

I find the coffee very watery and it served way too hot—it annoys me that I need to ask for a double cup just to be able to hold it. Tim Hortons does not offer a cozy atmosphere like Starbucks or Second Cup—no comfy chairs, no soft light, no soothing background music but utilitarian plastic chairs and tables and sticky copies of The Sun or Metro. It’s more “school cafeteria, no loitering please” than “bring some friends at Central Perk”. The baked goods, although marketed “always fresh”, are shipped frozen to locations then baked in a highly visible oven as if they were made from scratch in store. The freshness depends on how busy the store is—maybe a fresh batch of Timbits was just prepared, maybe you’ll be given the ones that have been sitting in the display window since 5 a.m.

Sorry Canada. I’d rather go to a neighborhood coffee shop or to Starbucks. I only stop by Tim Hortons when there is nothing else around, it’s definitely not my top choice.

Canadians, do you like Tim Hortons? Everyone else, is there a franchise in your country that has a similar “iconic” status?


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. I don’t like franchises, but I have to admit the Tim Horton’s café frappé often saved my life. The hot coffee, as well as the pastries are quite “meh”.
    Tim Hortons, or the success of a patriotic marketing campaign! McDonald’s was advertizing the same way in the 50’s.
    I believe in France, “Paul” is the same. So expensive, fake fanciness and mostly crappy bread.

    • Oh yes, Paul! It’s funny, in the early 2000s, as far as I know, it was only in Paris. There was one in Montparnasse that saved my life many time when I had to take late/early trains from Paris to Nantes. And somehow, at one point after 2002, Paul invaded Nantes. Literally. I used to like Paul but now I find the quality of the viennoiseries isn’t great and it’s expensive too. I’d rather go to La mie câline if I have the choice.

  2. I don’t drink coffee anymore – but I do love Tims still. I love the doughnuts and I love the tea and it is much cheaper than alternatives. I don’t know many people who don’t love Tims – and there is one on every street corner!

  3. Je ne suis guère patriote non plus, j’évite pas mal Tim Hortons. Cependant, deux choses m’y séduisent : les prix, imbattables! Et le Tim matin ou Dieu sait comment il s’appelle, que j’ai dû manger malgré moi et qui s’est révélé vraiment bon. Accompagné d’un muffin et d’un jus de fruits (non vraiment le café Tim Hortons je ne peux pas), j’ai trouvé ça bon… et bon marché!

    • Je comprends! Je dois avouer que quand Mark chouine pour une dose de sucre, un ou deux Timbits ça fait bien l’affaire… plus qu’un gâteau cher de chez Second Cup (et pas meilleur en plus).

  4. No, not a fan of Tim’s. And no, the dark roast is no better. Sadly, that’s the closest coffee shop to my work. For a wonderful six months, a Starbucks was open in a Target on St-Laurent boulevard…only 2 minutes walk away. Feels like a dream now. Oh Target why did you have to leave us so soon? I make my coffee at work…we have a nice coffeemaker.

    As for where I live, there are coffee shops aplenty and I love it! An Equator Coffee recently opened on Churchill. Nice.

    • Oh, I have to check that place on Churchill! I come in the area often enough. Yes, there isn’t much around Saint Laurent… I can’t remember any coffee shop but Starbucks at Chapters and inside the mall. I wouldn’t have developed a Starbucks addiction if there wasn’t one so close to home, to be honest.

  5. Martin Penwald on

    I don’t drink coffee, so I can’t say, but the donuts are good (and compared to the U.S Dunkin’Donuts, they are perfect).
    And there are a lot of Tim Hortons that stay open all night, which is convenient for a truck driver, because there is not as much truck stops or rest areas in Canada than in U.S, so if I can spend the night next to one, I’ll probably do it (I’m thinking here more particiularly of the Tim’s in Weyburn, SK, the one in Lethbridge, AB, and, the one in Swift Current, SK, but the latter not in winter).
    However, I am wondering why these stay open all night. With a staff of at least 2 people, I have trouble to see how they can manage to make enough money during when there are less than 10 customers an hour.

    • Tim is convenient on the road, that’s for sure. The bathrooms are usually clean and they open 24/7. I’d rather stop at Tim than at a gas station (unless I need gas, in which case Tim doesn’t help, obviously). Never been to Dunkin’Donuts, but wanna hear something funny? In Thailand, there was a constant lineup of 30 people, all fighting for donuts. I’ve seen people flying to Singapore from Thailand with huge boxes of donuts on their lap. Apparently, it’s still a rare treat over there!

      I don’t understand why the Tim close to my place is open 24/7… it’s a residential area in suburbia but not close enough to the freeway to be a pit stop. Weird.

  6. Tim Hortons actually is also present in Buffalo; it even had a branch in the university, and therefore I was familiar enough with its offerings. I never was a fan of its coffee, but the donuts on the other hand was a good sugar rush whenever I needed a break from experiments or from writing.

    • I stopped by Tim Hortons across the border once, in Ogdensburg I think. I found it… slightly different. Not better, mind you. Just different.

  7. I have never been to Canada, hopefully soon, in my preparation research Tim Hortons has popped up so many times, and truly an a cultural icon. I know double & double, even though I prefer my coffee black and without sugar, but in my to do list, I have stated a number of times that after I land, the first stop I will make will be at Timmies 🙂 And I was really disappointed when I read about the merger (more like a take over, right?), I felt a part of my dream was taken away, the whole plan lost a bit of a charm. I am still going to do it, not so much into the baked goodies, I always look for a local bakery, so hopefully there will be one where I put up 🙂

    In India, Starbucks is the latest entrant in this business. Cafe Coffee Day & Barista are the ones who started it here, I believe over two decades now, you can find them almost everywhere in big cities. These are expensive places though, I mean two coffees along with something to eat will set you back for a weeks groceries. But yes they are always running full capacity, if I am out shopping on a hot day, it’s really nice to cool down at one of these joints. Starbucks is new, and I must say they have made a splendid entry into the market. They offer a better experience, charge pretty penny, run full capacity. During our dating days, my wife & I used to hang out a lot at these coffee shops, now it is quite rare.

    I think I am going to like Tim Hortons 🙂

    • I’m fairly sure that no matter where you first land (Toronto or Montreal?), you will stop by Tim Hortons, there are several outlets in these airports and they are popular! Tim Hortons is certainly part of the Canadian landscape. I just don’t understand how it got so big… well, I do I guess, it’s just a bit overrated I think.

  8. Starbucks forever !!! I only eat at Timmies when i am in a pinch.
    In Ivory Coast, there is no specific establishment that do coffee like Timmies or Second Cup. It is more like different places around different neighborhood that serves Nescafe coffee (favorite there!).

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