In 1964 in the relatively small Canadian city of Hamilton, Ontario, an institution was born when a small donut shop opened its doors. From that small but winning combination of coffee and donuts rose a vital part of countless small towns, a source of happiness for disadvantaged children, the synonym for championship curling, a partner of the Royal Canadian Mint, and the quartermaster to the Canadian Armed Forces.
'R-r-r-r-roll up the rim' and learn about Tim
Tim Hortons1, also known affectionately as Tim's or Timmy's, is a chain of coffee and donut shops2 especially prominent throughout Canada but also found in the United States (notably in Upstate New York)3. The chain was founded by Tim Horton, a Canadian hockey player who played in the National Hockey League from 1952 to his death in 1974. He started the donut shop in partnership with Ron Joyce, a retired police officer, who is alive and well and a Member of the Order of Canada. The original Hamilton store made a policy of providing police officers free coffee at least into the 1980s, at first because a founder was a retired officer, but later as a way of providing security at night. Tim's grew rapidly, quickly outstripping other Canadian donut shops such as Country Style donuts, founded a year earlier in Toronto, and never allowing new startups such as Robin's Donuts, of Thunder Bay, to catch up. In 1995, Tim Hortons merged with the American fast-food giant, Wendy's. Tim Hortons continues to operate as a separate, and rapidly expanding, commercial entity. It should be mentioned that, unlike most other fast food joints, Tim Hortons does not serve hamburgers, fries, poutine4, or other mainstays of run-of-the-mill fast food joints. Soups, chilli, sandwiches, donuts and desserts are the menu items. There are always three or four soups ranging from the hearty (cream of broccoli and cheese, for example) to the warming (chicken noodle, or minestrone).
'One Hundred Timbits for a dollar!'
A veritable institution, Tim Hortons establishments play a number of valuable roles in Canadian culture, including amusingly confusing tourists with signs reading 'One Hundred Timbits for a dollar!'5. Unfortunately, these coffee shops haven't made quite as large an impact, if they've made any impact at all, in other countries. So important is Tim Hortons to the social fabric of Canada that it has been the principal subject of a prize winning PhD thesis by Canadian historian Steve Penfold entitled The Social Life of Donuts: Commodity and Community in Postwar Canada.
On the culinary level, Tim Hortons provides everyone with an expected level of quality. Unlike McDonald's, for example6, where one can expect a consistent level of mediocrity7, at Tim Hortons you can get excellent coffee (according to most tastes), and very good donuts at better than reasonable prices. Over the years the menu has expanded to include hearty soups and stews (often served in a bread bowl), as well as a range of tasty sandwiches. There has been some suggestion that quality has been compromised slightly by the recent decision to consolidate baking at distribution centres rather than having each shop bake its own products. If there has been an actual decline in quality it has not been reflected in any decline in popularity.
'You've Always Got Time For Tim Hortons'
The franchises exist at a ratio to Canadian citizens of approximately 1:15,000. Thus a town of population 60,000 typically has four Tim Hortons, and any town larger than 15,000 will likely have at least one. The exception to this rule is Hamilton, home of the first Tim's, which reportedly has the world's highest density of donut shops per capita at approximately one shop per 300 residents8. Tim Hortons shops in almost every small town across the country are welcome sights to long-distance bus travellers who stop in the middle of nowhere at ungodly hours of the morning. It can be happily noted that the number of Tim Hortons in Canada far exceeds the number of Starbucks coffee bars.
In smaller urban centres, Tim Hortons often become the equivalent of underage bars. Since the Canadian drinking age is 18 or 19 (depending on jurisdiction), most high school students are unable to enter bars9, so instead of getting drunk at illicit and sometimes fatal bush-parties, some students hang out at Tim Hortons and become extremely hyperactive from caffeine overdoses. Most stores advertise a minimum purchase requirement for anyone to remain in the store, but plenty of students assume that this is a 'group' purchase amount, so that if 20 of them share a large coffee, they're okay. Sometimes one Tim's is the rendezvous point at the beginning of the evening out and another Tim's is the happy rest for the nightcap.
In centres of all types, from major cities to tiny prairie hamlets, Tim's shops serve the real and vital function of a meeting place for residents to discuss everything from local gossip to international news. A number of political campaigns have been launched over morning coffee in Tim Hortons shops. This social function is what Penfold discussed in his monumental thesis: Tim Hortons is to many communities the true Town Hall where the local political course is determined.
Another vital social function is served by at least one outlet: the majority of the nursing staff at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta is fueled by Tim Hortons coffee from the shop across the street. At each of the staggered break times the nursing stations ring out with calls of 'I'm going to Timmy's. Anybody need anything?' Within ten minutes, a line of nurses winds its way back into the hospital, staggering under multiple timbit boxes and drink trays filled with 'double doubles' - Canadian English for a coffee with two creams and two sugars according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.
The Real Social Life of Donuts
In 1974, the year of Tim Horton's death, Ron Joyce instituted a non-profit network of camps for economically disadvantaged children (Tim Hortons Children's Foundation) 'to honour Tim Horton's love for children and his desire to help those less fortunate.' The first camp was built at Maligash, Nova Scotia, near Mr. Joyce's hometown Tatamgouche. Camp Day 2003 raised $5.5 million CDN for the Tim Hortons Children's Foundation. The Children's Foundation is just one of a number of community programmes the company sponsors. Tim Hortons is also involved in another major Canadian Institution as sponsor of the Tim Hortons Briar, the national championship in men's curling.
Pallets of Tim Hortons coffee has been shipped to Canadian Troops serving on ships in the Persian Gulf and on peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan. So important is the link between Tim's and Canadian veterans that when it launched the world's first circulating coloured coin, a quarter dollar embossed with a bright red poppy of remembrance, the Royal Canadian Mint chose to distribute it exclusively through Tim Hortons shops across the country.