The rise of Tim Hortons

Prime Minister Stephen Harper sips from a Tim Hortons' coffee mug in 2009. (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

First aired on Ontario Morning (22/10/12)

For many Canadians, Tim Hortons isn't just a place to quickly grab a double-double and a doughnut on their way to work -- it's a national symbol. But how did this chain, started by former NHL All-Star defenceman Tim Horton in the 1960s, actually go from a few stores to this country's largest fast food empire?

Author Doug Hunter, who has penned a biography about Tim Horton the player, turns his attention to Tim Hortons the franchise in his new book Double Double: How Tim Hortons Became a Canadian Way of Life One Cup at a Time. When he wrote Horton's biography in 1994, there were 900 Tim Hortons outlets in Canada. Since then, the company has expanded to more than 3,000 restaurants in Canada and 4,000 internationally.

Hunter credits the company's 1995 merger with Wendy's for its rapid growth. "They got a little more money to start expanding. They did go on a bit of an expansion spree," he said.

But in addition to the new stores, Tim Hortons started becoming a cultural touchstone in Canada. Hunter believes much of it has to do with the Royal Canadian Air Farce comedy troupe.

airfarce-donut-255.jpg"In the 1990s, they created the doughnut gang, and it was these idiot-savant Canadians that gather in a doughnut shop and thrash out the issues of the day. Sort of mushy, middle-values, middle-class, working-class Canadians, and it really -- I haven't had anyone else really contradict me on this -- it really brilliantly instilled the idea that somehow Canadians gather in doughnut stores, and we think about the big issues that are facing us, while we're chewing on a cruller and drinking a cup of coffee."

The comedians never explicitly stated they were at a Tim Hortons. But politicians, especially the Conservative Party, according to Hunter, seized on the idea that Tim Hortons was representative of the average Canadian. They were increasingly holding photo-ops inside Tim Hortons stores, photographed delivering Tim Hortons goodies around the community and shaking hands with citizens in line for their morning brew. When's the last time a Canadian politician was photographed doing a meet-and-greet in a Starbucks?

Speaking of competing coffee chains, Tim Hortons has faced mounting challenges from companies like Starbucks and Second Cup, while fast food chains like McDonald's and Subway have worked to improve and promote their own coffee products. But, for the most part, Tim's has kept its market dominance in Canada by doing things right in a commercial context, Hunter said.

double-double-doug-hunter.jpg"They have executed very well on the big obvious things -- like quality, speed of service, value pricing and ubiquity. They're everywhere. If you're're far more likely to run into a Tim Hortons than anything including a McDonald's, so you've always got the choice there, and that's been important for them."

Hunter believes that despite the increased competition, sales of double-doubles here will remain hot if Tim Hortons can maintain its product and service standards.

"The coffee wars have gotten really vicious and fierce and everybody's upped their game and honestly I can't tell a Tim Hortons coffee really from a McDonald's coffee now ... [But] right now, [Tim's coffee] is still good enough that the habit is worth keeping."

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