How Hamilton's Tim Hortons became a Canadian icon

Author Douglas Hunter explore how Hamilton's Tim Hortons has become something many of us simply can't live without. He speaks with Wei Chen of CBC Radio's Ontario Morning.

'Double Double: How Tim Hortons Became a Canadian Way of Life, One Cup at a Time.'

Douglas Hunter's new book takes a look at how Tim Hortons became king of Canadian coffee culture. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

Sure as there's a hole in every donut Canadians have come to take a liking to Hamilton's Tim Hortons. There is no denying the coffee and donut restaurant created by the late NHLer Tim Horton and opened, in Hamilton on Ottawa Street North in 1964, has become a commercial and cultural phenomenon in Canada.

Doug Hunter's new book takes a look at how the chain has achieved its vaunted status. It's called Double Double: How Tim Hortons Became a Canadian Way of Life, One Cup at a Time. He spoke with CBC Radio's Wei Chen on her show Ontario Morning. You can listen to that interview by clicking on the play button on this page. Below is an edited and abbreviated transcript of the interview.

Wei Chen, Ontario Morning: You've already written a book about Tim Horton. Why did you want to revisit this subject?

Douglas Hunter: I wrote his biography. He did everything after hockey from used cars to a burger chain that was a flop. Finally he ended up in donuts because a friend wanted to use his name for the first restaurant that actually was in Toronto not in Hamilton. In 1994, when I wrote that, there were about 900 outlets in Canada. It was a regional phenomenon, big in Atlantic Canada, popular in south central Ontario and certain areas of B.C.. In the 18 years since there are now over 4,000 restaurants internationally and over 3,000 in Canada. Over the years it became this cultural touchstone that segued into our political lives. I wanted to go back and look at those cultural-political issues as much as those business issues.

WC: When did it become this cultural phenomenon?

DH: After they merged with Wendy's in '95 they got a little more money to go on an expansion spree. I credit/blame the Royal Canadian Air Farce. On their television show in the 1990's they created the donut gang. It was these idiot savant Canadians that sit in a donut shop and thrash out the issues of the day — I haven't heard anyone contradict me on this — it somehow instilled the idea that Canadians somehow gather in donut stores and we think about the big issues that are facing us while we chew on a cruller and drinking a cup of coffee. They never said it was Tim Hortons. At the time they started this a lot of viewers would have said 'that's my Country Style'. There's lots of options they could have pointed to. In the intervening years Tim's just took over the country. By the time that ended in 2008, you talk about a donut store in Canada and you were talking about Tim Hortons. Politicians seized on that values connection — the idea that values are not associated with hard core issues but with where you eat and where you associate.

We saw, especially in the Conservative party— the company itself didn't do this — the politicians did this saying that when we're electioneering out we're going to stop at Tim's and meet the Tim Hortons voter because the Tim Hortons voter is the middle Canadian values voter. The Conservatives really ran hard with that. They were saying we're the Tim Hortons party and the Liberals, of Ignatieff, they're the Starbucks party. A Canadian politician of any party still can not visit Starbucks. They just can't do it. The brand association is just toxic. Statistically, I don't think anyone has ever shown a difference between a Starbucks customer and a Tim Hortons customer or a Second Cup customer for that matter.

WC: What's the appeal?

DH: Quality, speed of service, value pricing and ubiquity. They're everywhere. Even more than McDonalds. On the national level we think we're Tim Hortons. The coffee wars have gotten really vicious. Everyone has upped their game. Honestly I can't tell a Tim Horton's coffee from a McDonalds coffee. It's not the product. Their job is to keep being pretty good. Don't give people a reason to change.

WC: Are we so lacking in a national identity that we need coffee to define us?

DH: At the Conservative party level that's what had been happening at the federal and provincial level. Tim Hudak practically ran as the Tim Hortons candidate. He wasn't just at the drive through he was carrying Tim Hortons coffee to photo ops at other events. He was really trying to make that values connection. Tim's is still fairly closely associated with the military. They scored a lot of good will with the Kandahar base outlet.