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Tim Hortons, Yay or Nay?

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?

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