Rolled Over

What is Tim Hortons but a very, very hot cup of coffee and kids going to camp? Smiling soldiers and snowplow drivers? Winter, spring, summer, and fall?

By Anders Knudsen
Published March 15, 2010

Roll up the Rim is ending. The festive red and yellow cups have been everywhere for the past few weeks; Tim Hortons letting us know it's okay to take the spring colours out of your wardrobe.

I've been traveling a lot lately and have made it to Tims in Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and across Ontario. Not surprisingly, the experience is the same everywhere, which is the point.

I haven't won once in maybe fifteen tries, which is frustrating, since with 31 million prizes they're clearly advertising a prize for each Canadian.

Ten cups of coffee and you get a free coffee at almost any coffee shop; yet there must be some appeal of digging my fingers into the coffee-stained waxy rim over carrying around a tattered coffee card.

I've seen people bring reusable mugs and walk away with a clean cup just to be able to play. The strangely mangled, spotless cup looks like a violation, somehow - of basic principles of conservation but also of the integrity of the poor cup.

Check in or arrive by plane at any airport in Canada and there it is. The airport promises both escape and welcome, which is an advertiser's dream.

Welcome to Canada, and also: go and be yourself somewhere else for a while.

At Terminal 1 at Pearson the line usually stretches to the end of the long escalator coming down from security, and moves nearly as quickly. Pilots, businesspeople, tourists, security officers, and baggage handlers stand patiently together.

You can buy your coffee and carry it towards the gates, passing a Starbucks on the way, judging its patrons for their ridiculously priced coffees.

In Saskatoon I watched a worker take a short break with her two adult children, bringing them sandwiches. Her manager kindly tells her she can take a few extra minutes.

I think, here's an ad Tim Hortons won't touch. This ad involves underpaid workers making whatever efforts they can to personalize their lives while every moment and aspect of their work is automated and regulated.

A Pakistani engineer working the cash thinks of a formula for the flow of water through a dam as Gordie Howe orders a double double. A robot moose ambles through.

Here in Hamilton, despite being home to the original Tim Hortons on Ottawa street, no museum graces the city. I came to Hamilton with an idea of a Tims on every corner, yet since the closing of the Dundurn and Aberdeen location I would have to get in my car if I wanted it that badly, which I don't.

Tim Hortons employs 50 people at a roasting plant in Ancaster, but we are not to Tims what Seattle is to Starbucks. This absence is no oversight I'm sure. Ron Joyce himself has given piles of money away, to commerce departments and the stadium at McMaster.

Self-aggrandizement aside, there's probably a reason it's not called the Tim Hortons stadium. That would draw too much attention. After all, what is Tim Hortons but a very, very hot cup of coffee and kids going to camp? Smiling soldiers and snowplow drivers? Winter, spring, summer, and fall?

Wedding yourself to a nationalistic iconography and inserting yourself into the seasonal and celebratory calendars sound like pleasant fantasies, but honestly? That works?

No doubt a hundred proposals for cartoon spokesbeavers have been rejected by management, while professors of marketing specializing in uniforms try to explain the success of beige and brown.

What is going on here is in part something that is not happening - same coffee, same slogans, same message - even as the store design and menus change frequently.

Someone has figured out that when you are selling a ridiculously average product, the trick is to not try to make it into too big of a deal. We're just Canadians. We started in Hamilton but don't bother with that. Aw heck, even the soldiers are blushing.

Here's a transcript of Tim Horton being interviewed by Ward Cornell on Hockey Night in Canada:

TH: "I suppose the only thing that could influence my retiring or giving up hockey is, things are quite hectic these days trying to combine business with hockey, and, if the business that I am involved in continues as it is, I may have to consider retirement before I would like to."

WC: "That's the Tim Horton doughnut emporium?"

TH: "Yes, Tim Horton Doughnuts, Ward, and it's very nice of you to let me get a word in about it, and if I may take the opportunity I'd like to."

WC: "No."

TH: (laughs) "Aw, heck, I'm gonna anyway, I'd like to say thank you to all you nice people in the Hamilton and Burlington districts."

WC: "Oh, come on now."

TH: "And Galt and Brantford and Kitchener-Waterloo, uh, for enjoying my doughnuts."

WC: "We'd like to thank you for playing for Hockey Night in Canada too"

The ties Canadians have to hockey and Tim Hortons are sad, in that devoted but underloved dog sort of way, when you consider that both, confident in their base, have devoted much of their energies recently to the U.S., where the reception has been lacklustre, which makes sense. Without the Canadiana, Tim Hortons is merely cheap but effective coffee, bland but filling food, and a weird boy scout aesthetic.

I imagine the real story of an immigrant family trying to come to terms with Canada would have to involve a tentative index finger testing the glistening surface of a dutchie, a hesitant sniff of the coffee, and a shared glance, what have we got ourselves into?

280 million coffee cups over the tenure of this context demonstrates the scale of the business and makes even the 31 million prizes seem paltry, and my losing streak not so special. But we are a small country and Hamilton is a neglected city, so I will hope for better. And obey the smiley face and try again.


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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted March 15, 2010 at 17:36:18


Sounds like someone with a really, really bad case of 'cabin fever'. (Even taking into consideration all the recent traveling.) Or maybe 'the springtime grumpies'.

I've read the piece twice now, and I'm still trying to figure out what its focus was. Let's see: there's the usual lambasting of minimum-wage jobs (which I always find fascinating, seeing as I've put in more time than most in such retail positions both here and in the UK), the usual hectoring of populism (there's no adamancy quite so fervent as anti-Tims...) and...and... Oh yeah; individualism, Canadianism, not-winning-contestsism... Did I miss anything? Did something fall behind the therapist's couch and I didn't quite catch it?

We Canadians sure are a curious bunch. Thanks for reminding me that we're capable of a good whinge as much as anyone else is.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted March 15, 2010 at 23:45:12

I enjoyed it.

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted March 16, 2010 at 07:46:40

Schmadrian, from what I've seen, you whip up an annoying whinge just as well as anyone on this blog. You spend far more time complaining about other people's posts than you do contributing anything of meaning, meanwhile bemoaning the level of discourse on RTH at every opportunity. Maybe you should start writing something decent yourself?

Comment edited by MattJelly on 2010-03-16 06:51:25

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By maddmatt (anonymous) | Posted March 16, 2010 at 08:29:44

I'm doing a 6 month stint at Kandahar Air feild right now. Our cups are brown and tan camo! We've even got a walk through window which is great and always has a huge line up. I must say that I prefer an Americano from the French Deli KAF!

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By Anders (registered) | Posted March 16, 2010 at 09:40:31

Thanks for posting Matt - lots of people around here would love to see walk-thrus!

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By maddmatt (anonymous) | Posted March 17, 2010 at 06:26:03

My pleasure Anders. Although Tims isn't my fave coffee, it's nice to have some sort of contact with "back home". Reading RTH helps too, although it's sad to see the usual crap going on re the stadium location; some things will never change, it seems. The walk through window is a great idea and is well utilized when it's open. Another thing I really like here is the 20kph speed limit(although getting hit by an armoured vehicle at any speed is going to hurt)! You'd be surprised how many people ride bikes here, even with M16's and C7's! It's probably the most efficient way to get around base.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted March 17, 2010 at 07:27:28

maddmatt-- God bless, and stay safe!

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