Tim Hortons outlet in Dubai mobbed by Canadian expats
It is not yet 8am but this corner on 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 queue, 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 over-excited 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 on 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 later this year. And judging from the crowd of about 50 diners and the constant stream of customers threatening to spill out of 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?"
Mr Clarke, on his first visit with his wife Nancy, 49, who works for a corporate team-building firm, 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."
In chorus, the pair chime out the company slogan: "You've always got time for Tim Hortons."
Judging from the clientele, they are not the only ones. Despite the brand being reproduced on a mass scale, it seems to inspire more loyalty than competitors such as Starbucks, which has attracted criticism for aggressively driving independent coffee shops out of business.
A series of TV ads in Canada show homesick natives hankering for a Tim Hortons and the Canadian author Pierre Berton once wrote it was "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 a lowly Dh7 for a coffee with staff ordered to make fresh pots every 20 minutes while no doughnut stays on the shelf longer than 12 hours.
There are slight differences between the UAE offering and its Canadian part; there is no drive-through, nor "everything" bagels.
But the staff have been trained to understand typical orders like a double-double (two creams and two sugars to the uninitiated) and all the favourites are there, like timbits, the middle part of the doughnut smothered in sugary coating and sold for Dh1.
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, is one of the early arrivals. He 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."
Salah al Mousa, 51, is on a business trip from Saudi Arabia and recognises the name from his travels. He whispers that he has only come in for a breakfast sandwich and plans to go to Starbucks for his coffee.
But among others, particularly those with a Canadian connection, the coffee shop has already inspired a cult following. 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 Mr Shuaib. "All my memories of Toronto are based around Tim Hortons. It's a very convenient place to meet friends."
He would start with breakfast, visit several times during his working day and meet friends or family there in the evenings. "I drink a lot of coffee," he adds. "I started my day with Tim Hortons and ended it there too."
Mr Jafri says he is thrilled to be able to order halal food instead of sticking to coffee and doughnuts: "It is a national symbol."
Not everyone is a fan. Rudyard Griffiths wrote in the Toronto Star in 2006: "Surely Canada can come up with a better moniker than the Timbit Nation."
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Updated: September 20, 2011 04:00 AM