Jordan: I would like to start today’s episode by admitting that I do not, in fact, always have time for Tim Hortons. That makes me feel a little guilty because for literally as long as I can remember, Tim Hortons has been the most Canadian of coffee shops. It’s not a stretch to call it part of our national identity. But then came the chilli and the chicken strips and the artisan-style grilled cheese.
Commercial: Introducing Tim Hortons’ new Beyond Burger. Tim Hortons’ new mango creamy chills are just like Canadian summers. Introducing Tim Hortons’ new 100% plant based beyond meat sausage.
Jordan: And now, well, it’s called an Innovation Cafe. And it is like no Tim Hortons you’ve ever bean too. So that begs the question: What is the plan here? Tim Hortons had for years done such a good job positioning itself as the average Canadian coffee and doughnut shop that even people who never went there sometimes felt a little guilty for that decision. And I’m not a marketing expert, but it seems like that might be pretty valuable. So why has the company spent so much time recently focusing on offering things that aren’t its core products. What is the bigger picture here? And I’m not asking this question sarcastically, because remember, I was never exactly a loyal Timmies customers. But what has become of that Tim Hortons that was mythologized in so many commercials during so many hockey games? And where does that company want to go from here? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Corey Mintz is a food reporter. He writes for TVO, he writes for the Globe & Mail, and he wrote about Tim Hortons for Macleans. Hey, Corey.
Corey: Good afternoon.
Jordan: Can you begin maybe by describing for me the traditional kind of place that Tim Hortons is held in Canadian culture.
Corey: I can try, Jordan. But in doing so, I’m– you know, that demands that I leap into other people’s experiences. I mean, since writing that piece of certainly gotten an ear-full from people.
Jordan: I bet. Well, what do you see Tim Hortons’ place in Canadian food culture as traditionally.
Corey: It’s a business. I mean, I’ve heard people tell me about how it has a place in their lives, and more often they associate it with, you know, I think what the brand would like to be associated with, as would Starbucks or McDonald’s. Anyone that is kind of all over the place and wants to be that quote unquote third place. You know the place in between the office and home that you not only go to for goods and services but feel comfortable spending time in it. I think Tim Hortons is enormously successful being that place for Canada. They have, I think, 3500 locations in the country. They’re very entrenched in lifestyle, in terms of specifically sponsoring kids hockey leagues. And whenever I hear from people about their association, it often comes with a sort of– it was part of going to hockey either as a child or taking my kids to hockey. You know, partly because whether or not you are a Starbucks liberal or, you know, like we all make that ridiculous political class association with coffee choice. I went to a prenatal class recently, my wife and I, and after the break, everyone came back with coffee and you could see people sort of looking at each other’s coffee cups as if to say, that’s where you stand on the socio-political spectrum as opposed to, like I don’t know, maybe you and your wife walked one block that way.
Jordan: Yeah, well, where does Tim Hortons stand in that spectrum?
Corey: Supposedly they’re the working class coffee and doughnuts place. I don’t know that that’s true or not. I certainly know that their marketing works hard at maintaining that. You know, I watched a bunch of their ads in the last few years, and they do a good job of I think sort of insinuating themselves in the concept of family life. They’ve done some really good sort of tear jerker commercials that remind me of the long distance phone ads from the eighties, about Tim Hortons being this place and this product and this brand that’s about family memories, and fatherhood memories, and motherhood memories, and hockey memories. But they also at the same time, and this relates to their market themselves and their global ambitions. They market themselves as the Canadian brand, and a lot of people have this association with them as being representative of Canada. You know, sometimes it’s implied. Sometimes it’s inferred. Sometimes it’s direct. The box of doughnuts I bought the other day had a maple leaf stamped on it.
Jordan: There’s a maple leaf on all the coffee lids.
Corey: They’re overt about it. Like let’s agree to that. But they’re not a Canadian company. They were. But while I’ve heard from a lot of people that there is a sense of patriotism in the brand, there’s a sense of national pride in being one of their customers. You know, they’re franchise, a franchise operates by the franchise owner kicking 5% up to the corporation, and the corporation is an investment firm based out of Brazil.
Jordan: All that description of you know, its place in Canadian culture and hockey and for families to come together, sounds good, but now describe the Innovation Cafe.
Corey: The Innovation Cafe is a one-off prototype, more or less. A pop up. Call it whatever you want. It’s a location in the downtown Toronto financial district, which is obviously densely populated area filled with towers, filled with customers, filled with people with lunch breaks and, to a certain extent, disposable incomes that they spend on lunch. So obviously, like it’s in an area where you put anything, and people are gonna come. It is a prototype of a different style of Tim Hortons location that’s decorated differently with a different product line and a different level of service because some of the products require more labor to assemble. Specifically, I had a muffuletta sandwich, you know, and it required it to be, like pressed. They’ve got a line of of donuts that are fancier that are more expensive than the typical Tim Hortons donuts. They’ve got more variety of coffees and cold brew and something called nitrogen infused. And the store, it looks beautiful, as you would expect. We’re talking about, you know, a chain with a pretty big budget to do experimentation. And that’s what it is, you know it’s a place for them to try out products. Not to say, this is the new phase of our store, but one assumes to see what works here, both in terms of what do customers react to? What’s selling? What’s popular? What turns out to be feasible or unfeasible within a service setting? And, you know, while I was there, I could see the staff, and they were they were working their buns off. You know, I always I was feel like a real anxiety brought on when I see people overwhelmed.
Jordan: Service workers.
Corey: Yeah, I was a cook for many years, and I was terrible at it. And I know that feeling of like when a rush comes in and the chits are piling up and I personally was never good at–
Jordan: You’re scrambling just to stay afloat.
Corey: I didn’t have the physical skills. I didn’t have the mental skills. That like, really requires a lot, to say like there’s 20 things that need to be done right now, and your brain is only processing two of them. So that have this system, you know, I get to the front and there was a line because it’s popular, because they’re promoting it, because it’s on social media, because they sent out, you know, samples, to, you know, friendly media organizations. So there’s all these people lined up and I get to the front and it’s not clear, do you order just doughnuts here? Coffee here? Sandwiches? It turned out, you know, where you get to the front line, that was where you ordered just doughnuts. And then you move to the side. So the person just handling the doughnuts was just trained to handle the doughnuts. Not to explain that every customer and she was exasperated. And she had, you know, sugar on her collar and the shirt had become untucked. But you could see they had trucked in all these employees from other locations and obviously drilled them, but, like, they were just working harder than they expected to.
Jordan: Well, I’m gonna– that sounds so foreign from what I think Canadians in any province would associate with the Tim Hortons experience.
Corey: Sure. I mean, a chain restaurant, part of what they bring to the table is familiarity.
Jordan: Yeah, and a double-double is the same in BC and in Newfoundland.
Corey: Yeah, and they bring that familiarity, wherever you are the BLT at the Cheesecake Factory should look and taste the same. So brands like that don’t just experiment willy-nilly.
Jordan: So why are they doing?
Corey: They see change on the horizon. I mean, to back track to the ownership of the place, Tim Hortons is now a subsidiary of RBI, which is owned by 3G Capital. So 3G is an investment firm based out of Brazil. In 2010 they bought Burger King people at the time– I’m not gonna pretend to be an economist or to understand this entirely, but basically they bought Burger King, which is at the time of public company for what people said was too much. They took it private, then brought it back, reissued it publicly, and in the space of years managed to, like, generate $12 billion of worth for themselves. So they know what they’re doing in terms of like buying a company like this.
Jordan: That’s a whopper of a deal.
Corey: Well said. They use that capital to buy up Tim Hortons. And Popeye’s Fried Chicken so they obviously, like, aren’t just kind of rolling the dice. In the years since then, they’ve seen far more growth in Popeye’s and Burger King than in Tim Hortons. So it’s a bit stagnant. They have huge global expansion plans. They plan to open 1500 locations in China. Obviously, if this were remaining as a Canadian company they wouldn’t quite have the leverage to pull that kind of maneuver. And I think they’re looking around and seeing the marketplace has changed. One of the big things that changed in those last five years is the third party delivery apps.
Jordan: Yeah, explain to me how that impacts a company like Tim Hortons specifically?
Corey: Well, one of the values that any chain like Tim Hortons brings to the table, in addition to familiarity is ubiquity. You know, there’s one on every other street corner, and that has great value in terms of like, wherever you are, the quickest, cheapest– you don’t want to spend time even making the decision of where to eat or how to get there, you know, leaving the house– is that chain fast food because they’re everywhere. And in the last five years that that paradigm has been upturned because all of a sudden, through Uber Eats and Foodora and Caviar and all these companies, you can get pretty much the meal you want from that restaurant you really love directly to your home or to your office. And that cuts out a lot of the convenience factor of these brands. And I think when they look at that and they see that trend being predicted, and who knows, because we’re still talking about an unprofitable industry, the third party delivery apps. But as that’s predicted to grow and they see that cutting into their, sort of, the people who come to them, not because they love the flavour the best, or they love the experience the best, but because it’s so convenient, then they have to experiment, you know? And that means competing either in quality or in price. And they can’t really make it cheaper, you know? I think they make their product about as cheap as they can. So that means experimenting in the other sector, you know, which is either making it better or different. And you know, the major food trend, and I mean trend vs fad in the last five years, has been the pursuit of fads. Has been the pursuit of every small restaurant, every large restaurant introducing novelty carnival food, the kind that used to be exclusive to, you know, once a year carnivals, where they’d say, you know, a thing on a stick or a deep fried something that sounded like– that doesn’t sound good, but it sounds so weird, I have to try it. And in the social media age that has been amplified by people creating images of food which even if you stop and think through, will that taste good? Will it leave me with sticky hands? Will it be satisfying? Will it make me feel sick? It doesn’t matter because they’re creating something so visually appealing.
Jordan: Did that start– and maybe I’m just wrong, but this is the one that’s imprinted on my consciousness– with the double down at KFC? Do you remember that?
Corey: The Double-Down was a breakthrough moment of that. I mean, it started with, you know, P.T. Barnum and Carnival Culture, 19th century and people, you know, carnies promising you something behind the curtain that was too good to be true. And it continues through to the age of the Unicorn Frappuccino on the Double Down. But the Double Down’s a great example of something that, if you spend three seconds thinking about, sounds disgusting. But on second one and two, a sandwich where the bread is fried chicken sounds awesome. And, you know, to borrow from– Jerry Seinfeld made this great speech when accepting a Clio Award for advertising– is that the beauty and the brilliance of advertising is promising you something too good to be true and that you know it’s too good to be true. But in the brief moment between seeing the product or the ad and getting it and being disappointed. You’re happy.
Jordan: Yes, and this is why I was fascinated by your piece in Maclean’s. Because to have come from talking about Tim Hortons’ place in the culture as the antithesis of everything we’ve just been describing, right? The behind the curtain, the too good to be true, the oh my God, look at this, it’s weird and amazing. That is, I feel, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, the absolute opposite of what Tim Hortons would like Canadians to think that they stand for, which is doughnuts and coffee at the side of the road while you’re taking your kid to hockey.
Corey: Is it any more antithetical to their identity than not being Canadian?
Jordan: Right. But they’d like us to not think of that too.
Corey: Right. Ideally, that’s the man behind the curtain that we pay no attention to. But how can you not?
Jordan: Now the Innovation Cafe is kind of one thing. But that’s not the only change that Tim Hortons has been making in the effort of moving beyond doughnuts and coffee, right? This is not something new.
Corey: No, no. I mean it’s, again, it’s a false past to be bemoaning the lack of serve, the greater that sentence to say, oh, they used to sell coffee and donuts. They haven’t done that since 1981. You know, when they introduced muffins and then, I don’t know, in 1981 people were people going, I can’t believe they’re serving muffins. They should just have coffee and donuts. In 1985 were they saying, I can’t believe there’s croissants? In 1995 were they complaining about bagels? And chilli?
Jordan: Chilli was the one for me that finally made me take notice of, like, what is going on with Tim Hortons’ menu?
Corey: Everyone has one item, whether it’s the bagel or the chilli, or the Beyond Burger, where they go, that was when they lost it for me. But like, they started in the early sixties. So for 20 years they sold coffee and doughnuts. And then for the last– you do the math. 40 years, it took me a minute to calculate 40 years. For the last 40 years, so two-thirds of their existence, they haven’t done that. So, like, we’re all kind of fake crying over spilled milk to say, I remember when they were just this. They haven’t been that for a long time and any brand that is growing is always looking to serve a wider audience. The question is, does serving a wider audience spite your original audience? You know, whether we like or dislike Malcolm Gladwell or believe he’s a huckster or not, I feel like nobody really disagrees with that initial statement from the Tipping Point, which is that, like a company in growing, shouldn’t forget the original audience and that core clientele and what made them popular in the first place. And I don’t know how people feel, but I certainly know that they still serve coffee. They still serve doughnuts. I know that people are passionate about the coffee, whether they love it or hate it. Whichever one it is, people love to tell you that. You know, I did a story last year for the Globe about coffee in the workplace and all the little spats that come out. And I had this one person who told me he had secretly replaced the coffee that his, like, his employees liked one thing, and he believed it was only in their heads. So he replaced the coffee and switched the labels. People have such strong feelings about it, and I always want, when it comes to Tim Hortons, let’s take a step back and say, I don’t want to touch the coffee debate. I just want to say that their doughnuts are terrible. They’re awful doughnuts. I served doughnuts at my wedding. I love doughnuts. They are the worst doughnuts. Well, all due respect to Dunkin Donuts. I think those are possibly worse. But they still serve those. Introducing new products doesn’t detract from those. What might detract from them, and that’s the other thing on the horizon, is changing the aesthetics of the store. So I think it was last year, they announced around the same time as they got into a bit of a snafu with labor practices in Ontario. Minimum wage went up here, and along with it, some store owners, franchise owners cut employees’ breaks and other other benefits, that did not go over well for them. Those a pretty bad news cycle for them. But at the same time there was, I think, the announcement of a plan to spend $700 million renovating stores. And you know everybody needs, you know, a fresh coat of paint every once in a while, but I think that’s a pretty integral part of the store, whether people like it or not, it’s familiar. When you walk into a place, even if you don’t think about it, you would notice it if the lighting has changed. If the colours of the booths changed, if the distance between the cashier and the place where you get your spoons and milk has changed, all those things, they breed a sense of comfort. And obviously like if you walked in and there was a person in a tuxedo saying, you know who bowed and scraped and said, welcome to Tim Horton’s a place for only the super wealthy, that would be a pretty good tip off that they no longer were a place for your working class Canadian values. But like I think you perceive it even on a much smaller scale if things changed, and I think part of what they’re rolling out with this is an experiment of like, do people like this, where do people like? So you get, you know, whether you’re Tim Hortons or Cineplex Odeon, you experiment in large cities and you see what works, and then you roll out to smaller markets in smaller scale. But I think they’re gonna be very cautious before they make over any, like, small town Canada stores. Or they implement a nationwide change to the aesthetics. Because that’s the one thing that would cause people to walk in and say this is no longer a place where I feel comfortable.
Jordan: Is it possible even for them to walk that middle ground between retaining the custom of, you know, small town, perhaps blue collar Canadian workers on their way to hockey, and still continue to upgrade their menu to offer waffle sandwiches and muffuletta sandwiches. Muffuletta? Did I say that right?
Corey: Muffuletta. Italian muffuletta is actually what it says on the menu. And it says, I think it might be in quotations? I can’t remember. Either way, it says Italian muffuletta, which is strange
Jordan: I can’t even pronounce it. Which tells you that it shouldn’t be maybe on a Tim Hortons menu.
Corey: Maybe, maybe not. I mean, they they have little mini quiches which are called omelette bites.
Jordan: Egg bites. Omelette bites or egg bites. My daughter loves them, for the record.
Corey: Whatever it is, we can’t say quiche, right? Quiches are for liberals.
Jordan: So that’s what I’m saying, is it possible for them to walk that middle?
Corey: Absolutely. I mean, I think the example of that, and these are people who obviously have a lot of resources and patients when it comes to experimentation, but I think the example of that is the McCafe. I think they’ve had a lot of success. I think they’ve experimented with a different format that lets you know this is still the brand you like, but it’s different, but it doesn’t detract from the other thing, and you can still go to McDonalds and have the McDonalds experience. This place just does this thing, and I don’t think anyone walks into a McCafe and goes, how dare you, sir?
Jordan: Well, I think part of it is their ability to play to our sense of patriotism. And Tim Hortons is the one place, maybe, where we still all want the same things, whether we’re a downtown Toronto elite or an oil worker from the prairies.
Corey: That sounds very appealing.
Jordan: I just wrote a commercial.
Corey: In a wonderful future, we all work for Tim Hortons, we’re all very well paid, we have benefits. Full dental would be fantastic. But the idea that we should feel a sense of patriotic swell when we go to Tim Hortons is misplaced and false. And if they’re pushing that narrative, Ma;zel Tov, if they’re able to get away with it. But it is just untrue.
Jordan: What’s the food like at the Innovation Cafe? Are the doughnuts any better?
Corey: I won’t comment on the sandwich because I think that was more of a service-oriented issue. And they’re a new place. You can’t really judge them based on–
Jordan: But if we can’t judge to importance on doughnuts–
Corey: But the donuts are a product that obviously the staff there was just serving them. They were tested and retested I’m sure thousands of times in a lab. And, no, they were lousy. They were, for the most part, the same Tim Hortons doughnuts that were shellacked over with, you know, the last decade’s worth of desert trends. You know, one had fruit loops on them, one had bacon on them, and, you know, they’re– and I’m serious about donuts. I wanted have donuts at my wedding. I did have donuts at my wedding. I was very happy about that. And to me, there are– if you’re trying to go fancy and doughnuts, you do it in two ways. You either come up with a flavour that you actually get into that donut and infuse it in the batter and make something delicious, or you go to lazy route and you use icing to bedazzle the top of the doughnut with bells and whistles. And that’s what they’ve done. And even my wife, who would eat sugar by the bowlful if she could, she took one bite of that and she was like, no. It’s not for me.
Jordan: Well that’s sad, but thank you for coming in.
Corey: My pleasure.
Jordan: Corey Mintz is as entertaining a food writer as you’re likely to find. That was The Big Story, and if you want more we’re at thebigstorypodcast.ca. We’re also on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. And we are also inside your phone or whatever you use to listen to podcasts, in your favourite app, on Apple, Google, Stitcher or Spotify. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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