With the opening of the first Tim Hortons coffee shop in Dubai, Canadians and others familiar with the brand line up for some favourite flavours.
Canadians get a taste of home in the UAE
It is not yet 8am but this corner of an otherwise quiet block on Sheikh Zayed Road is packed to the rafters.
At a Starbucks coffee shop next door, a lone customer stares vacantly out of the window while staff disconsolately wipe down tables. Less than 20 metres away, there is something of a breakfast party going on in Tim Hortons.
The entrance is marked by a cheery red sign in English and Arabic reading "Tim Hortons cafe bake shop". Matthew Clarke opens the door with a flourish right on cue, dressed in a hockey shirt and shorts, and announces: "Come on in, the coffee's fresh."
The 50-year-old Emirates pilot from Canada is not even on the payroll; as a customer on his first visit, he is simply overexcited about having a little taste of home in the land where he now lives.
Tim Hortons is to Canadians what the falcon is to the UAE; an intrinsic part of the culture and an inescapable symbol of Canadian life.
Founded by the Canadian hockey player Tim Horton in 1964 and with more than 3,600 outlets worldwide, it is impossible to go many blocks in Canada without stumbling upon one. There is even an outlet dishing up tasty doughnuts and freshly ground coffee to soldiers at a military base near Kandahar in Afghanistan.
Sunday's opening in Dubai was the first of 120 outlets planned for the Middle East, with a coffee shop set to open in Abu Dhabi's Mushrif Mall later this year. And judging from the crowd of about 50 diners and the constant stream of customers threatening to spill out the front door, the franchise is already poised to be a runaway success.
James O'Hearn, who rushed to be the first customer through the doors at 6.55am on Sunday, gushes: "The coffee tasted the same, the sour cream doughnut just as soft, and the herb and garlic cream cheese on my bagel was just like I remembered it. But as much as I am happy, I wonder whether this will be one more thing that makes me so comfortable I end up not going back at all?"
Clarke, who works for a corporate team-building firm and was on his first visit with his wife Nancy, 49, does not waste time scrutinising the menu and goes straight for his usual: two cinnamon raisin bagels with cream cheese, a steeped tea for him and a medium regular coffee for her.
"Tim Hortons is a way of life in Canada," he says. "There is one on every corner at home but the queues go around the block there. It is that good."
Every morning at their home in Ontario they had the same ritual: he would drive to the nearest Tim Hortons at 6.30am, pick up hot drinks and bagels for breakfast for themselves and often their neighbours and bring them home.
Mrs Clarke takes her first sip of coffee, closes her eyes and breaks into a broad smile: "It tastes exactly the same."
The love affair with this brand runs deep in Canada: A series of television advertisements in Canada shows homesick natives hankering for a Tim Hortons. The Canadian author Pierre Berton called it "the essential Canadian story... a story of success and tragedy, of big dreams and small towns, of old-fashioned values and tough-fisted business, of hard work and of hockey".
Fans wax lyrical about the cheap coffee and fresh produce - even in Dubai, prices begin at just Dh7 for a coffee with staff ordered to make fresh pots every 20 minutes. No doughnut stays on the shelf longer than 12 hours, either.
There are slight differences between the UAE offering and its Canadian counterparts (no drive-through, for one) but the staff have been trained to understand Tim Hortons lingo, including orders for double-double (two creams and two sugars). And all the favourites are there, such as timbits, which are doughnut holes smothered in sugary coating and sold for Dh1 each.
Anthony Lewis, the area manager, looks exhausted. With the outlet open from 6am until 2am, he has been working 16-hour days and says the crowds are constant. After 3pm, it is standing room only.
David Buck, 34, a Canadian pilot and hockey player with the UAE-based Flying Beavers, says: "I used to go daily at home for the good quality coffee at a decent price. It was a ritual before work. It is fantastic to have this here. I have called all my friends to tell them."
Emirati Amna Mohamed, 30, went to university in Halifax and is thrilled to be able to order her favourite French vanilla latte once again: "I never imagined it would open here. I am taking a box of Timbits for my friends so they will be hooked too."
Dubai-based Pakistani bankers Sajjad Jafri, 27, and Muneeb Shuaib, 30, both studied in Canada, where their entire social life was organised around Tim Hortons.
"I used to go five times a day," admits Shuaib.
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