It's 10:30 a.m. and the Tim Hortons queue, with only a passing nod to the "Please line up here" sign, actually begins deep inside the neighbouring Wendy's.
Does that sentence seem familiar? If you've read a story about Fort McMurray’s oil boom in the last 15 years the answer is likely yes.
The local Tim Hortons, "just off Highway 63," is a time-honoured symbol of the city’s economic boom that’s almost shopworn enough to make the phrase "time-honoured" itself feel like blushing. Consider, for instance, a story from the Financial Times from 2005, which notes:
"Some nights, the 24-hour Tim Hortons coffee shop in the northern Alberta town of Fort McMurray has little choice but to close at 10 p.m."
The Wall Street Journal, the business paper of record, follows a year later with:
"The 7 a.m. commute to the dozen or so oil sands projects that start 35 km north of town is marked by a traffic jam on the bridge over the Athabasca and at the parking lots of the two Tim Hortons."
Look back to July 2000 and the Edmonton Journal writes:
"The downtown Tim Hortons along busy Hwy 63 has had to close its drive-thru window on several occasions because it can’t find staff to tend it."
Its sister paper, the Calgary Herald, adds this tidbit a few years later:
"New employees at the downtown Tim Hortons, meanwhile, get an iPod Shuffle after three months."
(Full disclosure: This was written by one of authors of this story.)
The doughnut chain, as an emblem, is also versatile. The Globe and Mail trots it out in 2005 to illustrate Fort McMurray’s tight labour market:
"At Tim Hortons, just off Highway 63, a billboard blares out a starting wage of as much as $13 an hour for management trainees."
Late last year, the paper taps it again to illustrate the slump:
"Even the lineups outside a Tim Hortons drive-thru are shorter."
As a metaphor, Tim Hortons isn’t reserved for the ink-stained scribes of newspapers. In 2013, it was good enough for a literary magazine like The Walrus:
"Even getting a double-double at Tim Hortons takes a half-hour, despite a two-lane drive-thru."
And for a rock publication like Rolling Stone:
"There’s always a lineup at the Tim Horton’s drive-thru, where it can take 30 minutes to get a God damn coffee."
In a vibrant city full of colourful locals, small businesses, and more industry than you can shake a very large stick at, how has Tim Hortons managed to become a flag-bearer, at least in the minds of journalists, for Fort McMurray’s economic well-being?
Has the requisite Tim Hortons mention become a lazy cliché or is it more legitimate, a type of reportorial shorthand that effectively gestures toward deeper truths?
The answer is likely somewhere in the middle. What’s more certain is that the doughnut chain's 3,500-plus stores saturate Canada coast to coast. This ubiquity, says Chris Waddell, a journalism professor at Carleton University, allows Tim Hortons to function as a type of economic touchstone.
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"If you’re talking about labour, if you’re talking about the availability of getting workers, if you’re talking about how much you have to pay workers, if you’re talking about the number of Tim Hortons you have in a community of a certain population, it may not be a bad metaphor to use," says Waddell. "People can relate to it in one way or another."
Mentioning the hourly pay at Tim Hortons, Waddell adds, hits home in a way that talking about wages for someone driving the world’s biggest trucks on an ice road in a mammoth strip mine in Northern Alberta just doesn’t.
No gold pavement
When covering the latest boomtown such as Fort McMurray or Williston, North Dakota, a reporter on assignment will arrive to find, sadly, that the streets aren’t paved with gold. The boom (or bust) may be on, but the trick is showing the audience, as opposed to just telling them about it.
On the edge of downtown right beside, um, busy Highway 63, the location of the Tim Hortons makes it unavoidable. The store is also seemingly always busy. Mid-morning on a recent Friday, for instance, the wait for a double-double was seven minutes and 20 seconds, while the drive-thru, filled with late-model pickup trucks, went 19 vehicles deep.
Seeing such bustle will naturally inspire an intrepid reporter to seek out the store manager, in hopes of accessing the treasure trove of war stories that time behind the counter must surely have provided.
The journalist will soon find, unfortunately, that gaining an audience with the pope might be easier than talking to the local Tim Hortons shift supervisor. True to form, the corporate office denied a request to interview the general manager for this story.
Other stories, fortunately, abound. Locals can be interviewed, there are squatters in the forest and workers rent garage space for exorbitant sums. Oilsands mines can be toured and environmentalists queried.
Before it was knocked down, a visit to the Oil Can Tavern on Franklin Avenue always held the promise of some late-night colour.
Regardless of time spent, shoe leather burned, or stories ably told, the impression of a bustling Tim Hortons, which must burrow deep into a reporter’s brain, still frequently finds its way into the final copy.
"Labour shortages and high costs are evident in Fort McMurray, a distant 18th-century trading post that has become a bustling town of 58,000 ... Today, housing is in short supply, and median prices for single-family homes are close to $240,000, among the country's highest. Fast-food outlets such as Tim Hortons have had trouble attracting and keeping workers." — USA Today, September 2004
But enough of the labour woes of local coffee shops. How is Fort McMurray doing today?
Well, the "Help Wanted" sign in the Tim Hortons window remains a fixture despite the drop in oil prices.
Does this say everything that needs to be said about the local economy?
Really, only the Tim Hortons manager could tell us for sure.