It doesn’t make sense.
In most countries, the masses do not have a lifelong love affair with one particular retailer.
There may be masses of likes and there may be segments of loves but the whole shebang is a rare and inscrutable thing.
But in one country, a country not regularly associated with mad passions, the populace from top to bottom and coast to coast is besotted, and has been for years, by one retailer.
I write, of course, of the Canadian mania for the Tim Hortons chain of coffee and doughnut shops. Tims (or, less formally, Timmies) resides in the castle keep of Canadian identity, right next to the hockey rink.
Tims serves about two billion cups of coffee a year. Given that Canada accounts for 94 per cent of the chain’s revenues, and that the Canadian population is some 35 million, that works out to an impressive 53.7 cups of Tims coffee a year for every Canadian man, woman and child. Even the babies.
Furthermore, in 2004 the standard Tims order, a “double double” (coffee with two creams and two sugars) was enshrined in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.
Yet when people have asked me – a Canadian down to my maple leaf tattoo – what spurs this passion, I have been dumbstruck.
So, on my latest visit to the old country, I went to a handful of Timmies in various locations and observed, in the hopes of cracking its code, of scruting the inscrutable. This is my scruting report:
BRAMPTON, ONTARIO: A FIRST LOOK
Time and place: 8.10am on a Sunday, in a prosperous and largely Punjabi western suburb of Toronto.
Order: One double double, one Maple Flatbread Breakfast Panini, C$4.32 (Dh15.32).
Order-taker: Suhel Brar.
Staff: I see seven. Five from the subcontinent, an Eastern European and a Filipina. I am going by appearance and name tags. All are women but Suhel Brar.
The customers: Two Indian men sit in the morning’s long shadows, which come through the outlet’s big windows, with a young boy who has just lost a tooth and is having an iced drink. The drive-thru is busier.
Quote: “Sachin is doing a lot of commercials,” from one of the Indian men.
Observations: The decor is earth tones, or perhaps coffee tones is a truer description – light and dark browns, from the panelling to the chairs and tables to the clock on the wall. The music is middle-of-the-road: Dixie Chicks, Tracy Chapman. At the cashdesk is a donation jar for the Tim Hortons Childrens Foundation; Canadian zakat.
On the wall is a poster for the Tim Hortons Free Swim programme. Unusually, there is no tribute to the chain’s founding father, the hockey player Tim Horton. But there is free Wi Fi.
Mobiles and fake plants hang from the ceiling. The mobiles promote contests: chilltowin.com and a $1,000 daily cash prize. Tims is always rolling out contests and new products; my Maple Flatbread Breakfast Panini, which sounds like a pileup of nouns rather than a proper name, is itself a newcomer. A sign touts Tim Hortons coffee pods for the Tassimo coffee maker, which is a big thing over here; it’s the Nespresso of Canada.
And the coffee is good. Tims never lets a pot of coffee sit for more than 20 minutes; the upshot is that so many people like the coffee, a pot never lingers anywhere near 20 minutes.
BOWMANVILLE, ONTARIO: THE MADHOUSE
Time and place: 1.23pm on a Friday, just off Highway 401.
Order: Double-double plus oatmeal-raisin cookie, $2.42
Order-taker: Nathan, a teenager
Staff: A whopping 12 people are bustling behind the counter, serving in-store and drive-thru customers. All are white and all but three (who are older) seem to be teenagers.
The customers: A buzzing hive of people. It looks like a rural-urban mix. There are several pickup trucks in the drive-thru, which seems to have six to nine vehicles queuing at all times. Three young women wearing straw cowboy hats stand in line; I cannot tell if they are being ironic.
Quote: I couldn’t make anything out over the barnyard tumult of so many conversations so close together, so I asked my daughter why, in her opinion, Tims is so popular. “Because he’s a hockey player, and it’s decent, and it’s warm colours. And they sponsor children’s soccer teams,” she said.
Observations: The parking lot is jammed. A poster at the entrance promotes Timbits football and shows “Brody/Age 6”. Timbits are deep-fried doughballs that some people call “doughnut holes”. Tims will often sponsor local youth football leagues and even entire divisions; for the young kids, this will be the Timbits league. When I worked with a local football club in Stouffville, Ontario, Tims was the easiest sponsor to work with. The company just cut you a cheque and asked to bring treats to the last match of the season.
Meanwhile, back in Bowmanville, a video signboard behind the counter promotes New Gluten-Free Coconut Macaroons for $1.29 and new Glazed Timbits Orange Tangerine and Caramel. Another promo is for Duelling Donuts, a contest to concoct a new type of Tims doughnut. Judges include Jason Priestley, the Vancouver-born actor who played Brandon on Beverly Hills, 90210. Duelling Donuts was inspired by a February episode of the American television show How I Met Your Mother, on which a Canadian character is cruelly and regularly mocked. In the episode, Priestley, a guest star, professed to have invented a new doughnut: a chocolate Timbit jammed into a strawberry-vanilla doughnut. The marketers at Tim Hortons cleverly saw a chance to start a contest, in which Canadians shared their doughnut concoctions, and Priestley signed on as a judge.
PRESCOTT, ONTARIO: THE COMMUNITY CENTRE
Time and place: 5.56am on a Sunday, in a town along the St Lawrence Seaway.
Order: Double double, $1.29.
Order-taker: Brenda, mid-50s.
Staff: At this early hour, it is Brenda and two other women in her age bracket.
The customers: Four burly men in their 60s sit at a table, sharing one copy of the Ottawa Sun tabloid and divvying up the folios of the sports section among them. They have the golden-haired forearms of men who work outdoors. At another table, a young couple. The group of four men evolves in number as its partisans come and go: from four to three to two to one to two to three. This probably goes on for hours, if not all day, and nobody ever tells them to hurry up or buy another beverage. They wear baseball caps and, in one case, suspenders, and talk about property prices and golf and getting over to mow their 84-year-old mother’s lawn. I conduct a follow up investigation five hours later and the place is jammed, of course. The latte was nothing special. On the following Friday, a guy in line is wearing a red golf shirt reading “OP ENDURING FREEDOM/AFGHANISTAN”. On his left forearm is a tattoo that is either Muammar Gaddafi or Charlie Chaplin.
Quote: “How busy was yesterday? I didn’t even see one cop on the road down to Brockville, and back,” said one of the four burly men.
Observations: At this early hour, the chairs and the donut rack are mostly empty; in both cases, reinforcements will arrive shortly. In the parking lot are four pickup trucks and my girlish Fiat 550C. This is the first Tims where it all began to feel the same. And that’s not a bad thing. From the contests to the Timbits posters to the flatbread panini and the fake plants and the earth tones and the good coffee, it’s always the same. It never fails.
The big grocery store up the road has a “cooking school/meeting room/community events” room that is spick and span and sterile and empty. I ask a cashier what goes on in there. “Not much,” she says. Saying community does not create community. Tim, with its reliable and humble comforts, is the true community centre here.
RIGAUD, QUEBEC: THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT
Time and place: 1.46pm on a Monday, during a shopping strip that also includes a Restaurant Pataterie La Belle Province (Translation: “The Lovely Province Potato Restaurant”).
Order: A double-double with milk instead of cream ($1.27), and then a sour-cream glazed doughnut (95 cents) for the car (actually, for me).
Order-taker and staff: Alex, fluently bilingual and quite friendly; I count five staff behind the counter, a mix of young men and older women.
The customers: Cute woman with grizzled guy who has a construction-worker tan. A few solitary sippers. Overall it’s not that busy; even the drive-thru is quiet.
Quote: “Pars-pas toute suite là. Y va falloir que tu me donnes un lift,” said one of the Tims ladies to the construction-worker dude. (Translation: “Kind sir, prithee linger a moment so that I might perchance decamp with thee.”)
Observations: All the signs are in French, of course. The signboard touts the “Timbits glacés orange-tangerine ou caramel”. In a bow to regional sensitivities, the donut-contest signs make no mention of the anglophone Priestley. Other differences from the Ontario outlets: it seems a touch less tidy, the staff are louder (more jovial), and there aren’t any fake plants hanging from the ceiling.
Tims is on less fertile soil here. Quebec has a distinct and sophisticated coffee culture; by and large, the province’s people appreciated a good espresso before their counterparts in English-speaking Canada did, or do. Accordingly, Quebec has 23 per cent of Canada’s population but only 15.5 per cent of its Tim Hortons outlets.
Looking all this over, my conclusion is that the mad success of Tim Hortons in Canada can be reduced to three rules:
1. Make good coffee.
2. Keep things fresh.
3. Reflect the broad community.
The first is Tim Hortons’ cardinal rule. The second is reflected in its contests, cleanliness and new products. The third, in its prices, staffing and community-based sponsorships.
Now it makes sense.
Tim Hortons is across the UAE including Mushrif Mall in Abu Dhabi, Dubai Mall, Al Majaz Waterfront in Sharjah and Century Mall in Fujairah. For a full list including maps go to Find a Location at timhortons.com