Before I ever arrived in Canada I had heard the legends of Tim Hortons – a coffee and doughnut shop that is more like the collective Canadian living room than a restaurant.
From what I knew, it sounded about as Canadian as could be. Founded in the 1960′s by Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Tim Horton, the chain has since grown into the largest fast food restaurant in Canada with over 3,000 restaurants.They now serve up doughnuts, coffee, sandwiches, soups, and their popular Timbits – similar to doughnut holes – to hungry Canadians across the nation. They are even expanding to several international locations around the globe.
But to Canadians, Tim Hortons is so much more than just another Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks. It has entered the collective conscience of Canadians and is an important part of Canadian culture – perhaps as much as hockey or the maple leaf.
During my trip to Canada, I had the chance to visit a Tim Hortons on a couple occasions – both times for breakfast. At first glance, the store didn’t look that different from a Dunkin Donuts. But as I spent more time there, I began to notice the subtle yet significant differences.
It was clear that there were a lot of regulars in the store and the employees knew many of the customers very well. Also, the customers seemed to know one another well – or at the very least were being incredibly friendly to one another. Conversations were taking place in line, between tables, and even at the door as people finished their thoughts before bracing against the cold and going back out to their respective cars. It seemed as if Tim Hortons was its own ‘micro-community’ in the form of a doughnut shop.
But what about the food? After all, that’s why I originally came to Tim Hortons. To be honest, the doughnuts seemed pretty standard to me. Over the course of my visits, I tried the Canadian maple, blueberry, and honey dip doughnuts. The doughnuts were good, but when is fried dough with a significant amount of sugar a bad thing? There was nothing that really made the doughnuts stand out from what I would get at any other half-decent doughnut shop. The doughnuts were high quality and fresh, but they just didn’t offer anything spectacular. So why do the Canadians come here in droves?
Maybe it’s not really about the doughnuts…
My guess (and Canadians, please correct if I’m wrong) is that Tim Hortons is more like your favorite meal your mom cooked for you when you were a kid. Maybe she still cooks it for you, once a year, on your birthday….even though you’re pushing 30. And maybe you have great nostalgic memories of it. But maybe your tastes have evolved since then and what tasted good as a child isn’t necessarily what you would prefer today. But that’s not why you eat it.
Maybe the meal is more about the memories and the good feelings it conjures. And maybe that’s what Tim Hortons is – a feeling. A feeling of pride as you celebrate your little league hockey win with a helping of Timbits. A feeling of community as you share a box of doughnuts with your neighbors at a PTA meeting. A feeling of camaraderie as you pick up the coffee for your buddies at work every Wednesday. It’s a part of the Canadian community and the Canadian shared heritage.
But as an American, I can never fully understand the Canadian feeling towards Tim Hortons. Rather, I can only appreciate it from an outsider’s perspective. The closest relationship that comes to mind for me is the American relationship towards Coca-Cola. No other brand is as recognized, and for many, Coca-Cola can generate feelings of good times and happiness (or at least that’s what their advertising campaigns tell us). And like it or not, Coca-Cola has had a major influence on American culture, and can be viewed as a source of American pride. It is somewhat comforting knowing that no matter where I am in the world, I’ll be able to get a Coca-Cola.
To me Tim Hortons comes off as more authentic than Coca-Cola – no slick multi-million dollar advertising campaigns or shrines built in their honor. And more importantly, it provides a meeting space (the living room of Canada I referenced earlier) that Coca-Cola cannot offer. Canadians from Halifax to Vancouver come to Tim’s every morning to meet friends or make new ones in a friendly, non-judgmental setting that attracts rich and poor alike.
Perhaps we could use a place like that in the United States.