Tim Hortons (no apostrophe, oddly) is a Canadian institution. Sort of a combination Krispy Kreme, Wendy's, and delicatessen. There is really no American restaurant equivalent, because the Tim Hortons experience goes far beyond just the food they serve (and, aside from the doughnuts and coffee, the food is mediocre). The best American analogue would be to describe Tim Hortons as Mom and Apple Pie. It's just very... Canadian.

This is ironic, since while the chain was founded by Tim Horton in 1964, and continued under his partner (Ron Joyce) and wife until 1995, it's currently owned by Wendy's, which operates out of Columbus, Ohio, USA. Still, Tim Hortons marketing still focuses on Canadiana, such as a kid spending his Christmas cash to buy a coffee for the guy who's shoveling the ice rink on the lake.

Tim Hortons' donuts overshadow (IMO) Krispy Kreme's easily. But the real strength of Tim Hortons is the coffee. Oh, the coffee. As a programmer, I've been drinking coffee heavily for years, and of all the coffees I've drunk, I dream only of Tim Hortons' (Jamaican Blue Mountain, feh!) Nicely strong, little bitterness, and made to-order.

Ordering a coffee at Tim Hortons has a bit of a ritual, much like In 'n' Out hamburgers have many special orders. There are four sizes: small, medium, large, and extra-large. "Black" is self-explanatory. "Regular" is with one cream and one sugar (beware: "one sugar" is a BIG sugar!) "Double Double" is a double cream, double sugar. "Double Single" or "Two and one" is a double cream, single sugar. "One and three" is my odd friend's favourite order, specifying triple sugar (your stirstick seems to have dissolved!) And so on. These are usually served in the distinctive brown Tim Hortons paper cups. However, holiday cups (snowflakes, hockey rinks, toques, and other such Canadian apple-pie-equivalents) or promotional cups (Roll Up the Rim to Win!) may be substituted.

Make no mistake, Tim Hortons is a Canadian institution. Go ahead, poke fun at all things "Canadian," so-called. Hockey, toques, snow. Eh. Tim Hortons is part of that. It's part of us. Here's why.

The Company

The first Tim Hortons restaurant opened in 1964, in Hamilton, Ontario, on Ottawa Street. It was founded by NHL hockey player Tim Horton. Three years later, local businessman Ron Joyce bought the franchise for Mr. Horton's donut shop, and because of demand quickly opened two more. Today, there are approximately 2600 restaurants in North America, of which about 250 are in the United States. The store I presently work at, opened May 2001, is store #2282.

In 1974, Tim Horton himself died in an automobile accident and Ron Joyce bought Tim's shares from Tim's widow, becoming the sole company owner. That same year, he established the Tim Horton's Children's Foundation, which is much like Ronald McDonald House, a non-profit, charitable organization designed to allow underprivileged children the chance to attempt summer camps. It has five such camps, including one in Kentucky.

As with most other companies, the chain has continued to grow and develop, and change. As the years wore on, they started brandishing new products, such as bagels, sandwiches, cookies, muffins and their renowned Timbits, or, donut holes (which, as they were released in 1975 or so, after Horton's death, offered up the joke about 'timbits', you know, because Horton died in a crash). It slowly developed from a "donut shop" into a full-fledged restaurant in which a person can eat a decent meal at a reasonable price. Though the donut shop stigma is still attached to the name, Tim Hortons fits into a comfortable niche, being somewhere between a fast food restaurant and an honest-to-God restaurant, providing a very unique product to the masses. Its signature product is of course its excellent coffee, which will be discussed later in this writeup.

Only about 5% of the company's stores are corporate, the rest being locally owned and operated franchises, running you about half a million dollars for a full, completely locked and loaded store, ready to go. 25% of this must come from one's own cash or liquid assets, rather than loans. This money provides for everything in the building and the signage outside it, seven weeks training at the main Tim Hortons headquarters in Oakville, Ontario, and a two week staff. After that, you best get your hire on. Also, note that the half million doesn't include the building, but the company will take care of that for you.

According to their website at http://www.timhortons.com, as of June 2004 there are 228 stores in the United States, in the following states: Michigan, Ohio, New York, West Virginia, Kentucky, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

In 1995, TDL Group Ltd., the corporate entity responsible for the Tim Hortons name, merged with Wendy's International Inc., which owns the Wendy's chain of fast food restaurants. Though some Canadians perceived this as yet another American buy-out of a piece of Canadiana, Tim Hortons has changed little in this time, aside from doing what it wanted to all along--it began to open stores in the United States. It afforded the company also the opportunity to build "split-stores", half Wendy's and half Tim Hortons. Tim Hortons operates as a separate entity though, so I guess it all sort of works out in the end.

Always Fresh

The company prides itself on its "Always Fresh" business practices. These include:

  • All coffee pots are to be cleaned thrice a day; no coffee should be older than twenty minutes from the time the brewer is finished dripping. Additionally the grounds should be thrown out immediately after the brewing cycle is finished. This keeps the flavour at its peak, by allowing no extra water from the grounds to embitter the coffee. The coffee mustn't sit too long upon the heating element as well, as the water boiling off will cause bitterness too.
  • In keeping with food safety guidelines food products are meticulously checked. Cheese products and other sandwich products are checked for temperatures every two hours. Soups are the same: checked every two hours.
  • Donuts have a shelf-life of eight hours, and can be made to order using the new Always Fresh Baking ovens and products. Shelf-life for bagels and other breads is also eight hours. Shelf-life for cookies, danishes and croissants is twelve hours. The shelf-life for bakery products, ie cakes and pies et al., can vary from twelve hours to three days, so it is important that only enough for a given day is baked in a store.
  • One of the first things you learn as a baker is to "bake less, more often" and while this is a corporate truism stepping well beyond the cliché border, I do it all the time. The reason is simple: customers get a fresher product every time. I won't lie and say that it's a high priority in my life, but I've been to restaurants where such policies are not implemented in full, and get this: their product sucks.

MMM... Coffee...

Tim Hortons coffee is by far the signature item the company sells. There is of course an entire lexicon of cream and sugar mixtures which has proven so pervasive in Canadian culture that it's made its way onto commercials. 2003's advertising campaign included one commercial in which an elderly gentleman is shovelling his walk. Dad and son drive to the nearest Tim Hortons, of course, and buy the elderly gentleman a "large double double" which is a large coffee with two creams and two sugars. (I've heard that in comparison to the United States, this is a lot of cream and a lot of sugar.)

Given the above-mentioned coffee guidelines, the coffee is always fresh, which partly explains the excellent quality. No big thermoses are used to hold the coffee, like in Starbucks. It's straight to the customer or straight into the drain. There are training videos given to new employees which explain not only this, but more specifically the quality control processes used, the precision with which arabica and robusta beans are mixed, and the decaffeination process.

In my personal estimation, Tim Hortons produces the best coffee ever. There's no stupid flavoured crap--though we do have flavoured cappucinos and a very decent hot chocolate. It's strong, but not frighteningly so, and it's not at the expense of flavour, either. Due to the heat at which it is brewed, it's not overly oily, either. It doesn't taste as if there's a lot of oils left over. It's dark, but not black. When taken black, it has an almost sweet smell, mildly reminiscent of roasted chestnuts and walnuts. When taken with cream, the coffee smell is mild.

Working There

It's not a bad place to work, either. The wages are average, but not great, and although it is at the owner's discretion when one gets wages, I am paid very well for what I do. Storefront work is fast paced at a busy store, but a wise store owner populates his store well and work is distributed efficiently. Customers are just as customerish as anywhere else, and are prone to all the moods under the sun, and it takes a hardy individual to deal with the cranky ones.

Drive-Thru work is bound to be faster than storefront work, if the store is busy enough to merit a drive-thru. There should be three people at drive-thru at all times, one on coffee, one on window and one on orders. Easy peasy.

Kitchen work is decent. Since most product now comes frozen in most stores, it's relatively simple to fire up small batches of product for customers. In fact, it's easy to keep all ovens in constant use, which is high on TDL's list of Things To Do. None of the kitchen work is very labour-intensive, nor is there any real heavy lifting involved, although on busy days, it's quite possible you'll be running around like the proverbial headless chicken all day long.

I would guess the average female-to-male employee ratio is about five to one at most stores, if not more females, so as a male it's a little bit of a different dynamic. Believe me. Some days, after working a weekend with all the part-timers, who are all sixteen year old girls, you want to shoot yourself in the head.

All In All:

For some reason, Timmy's, as we call it, is loved and known by, like, our whole country. It's become as much a part of our culture as toques and hockey. I can't explain it, and neither can anyone else. Now, putting aside the fact that Wendy's owns it, and Wendy's is in Columbus, Ohio, let's look at the stats, shall we? There's at least 2300 stores operating in Canada, alone. Canada has 30 million people. It's rumoured that, per capita, Tim Hortons makes more money than McDonalds of Canada does. That's not too bad. In my city of Edmonton, which has 800,000 people approximately, there's something like 60 stores. You can't go very far without seeing one. Driving down the main thoroughfares in my city at least, you see a Tim Hortons far more frequently than you do any other "fast food" chain.

Lastly, an interesting story. The husband to and father of two of my fellow co-workers stated it perfectly. He said, say you're trying to get a girl to go on a date with you. But it's very early in the stages of the so-called dating-game. What do you guys do? Go out for a romantic dinner at the classiest restaurant in town? No. You don't even know if you're interested in seeing this girl a second time. Do you go to dinner and a movie? Maybe, but that could also be a little out of the price range, and indeed, you mightn't have a vehicle to do all the travelling in. So what's left? A nice walk in the park? Well, now you're just cheap.

So, take her to Tim Hortons. It's a lot better than McDonald's and it's open all night. And it's safe, it never changes for the worst; something you can always count on.

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