The new coffee climate

Then there's the myth of the hockey hero Tim Horton himself, which has been dismantled over time, most recently in last year's The Perfect Husband, an ironically titled documentary that tore Horton to shreds. He was presented as an alcoholic and a neglectful husband and father, motivated primarily by greed and ambition.

The Financial Post
January 12, 2002

The new coffee climate
The $125 Tim Hortons coffee maker is a sign of the times: 'he doesn't seem to care'
Anne Kingston

We're not two weeks into the new year and it appears the first anti-status status symbol of 2002 is upon us. That would be the Tim Hortons coffee maker. No sleek, stainless steel contraption, this. No siree, we're talking a big, clunky white plastic bruiser with the familiar Tim Hortons script plastered across the front.

Those of you familiar with the Tim Hortons experience might rightly protest that recreating it at home defeats the entire point. And that is to pick up your cup of joe and box of Timbits before hitting the highway or going off to do an honest day's work, say, building a highway or foiling a bank robbery or writing a newspaper column.

The Tim Hortons experience is a frugal, no-nonsense one. A basic cup of coffee runs from 98 cents to $1.40 versus the $1.59 to $1.99 you'd pay at Starbucks, and there are no frappa-mocha-macchiato concoctions to confuse you.

As these things go, the Tim Hortons experience is diametrically opposed to the Starbucks experience, which involves taking your venti no-fat no-foam cappuccino into the part of the store rigged up like a faux living room and sitting your gym-toned butt down in a big, plush armchair so you can check your e-mail on your Blackberry. Which is why it's a basic truth of life that a workman who shows up at your house sipping a $4 Starbucks Gingerbread Latte is a workman you might want to reconsider.

Predictably, an antipathy exists between Tim Hortons people and Starbucks people. The Toronto Star recently ran a blind taste test comparing the coffee made by the Tim Hortons home brewer with Tim Hortons takeout and Maxwell House home-brewed by another machine (the panel was split in its verdict). One of the participants, a Tim Hortons devotee, voiced his contempt for Starbucks conventions: "If you said 'I'd like a tall' at Tim Hortons, they'd punch you. And so they should." He probably doesn't mind following a corporate script when asking for a Big Mac at McDonald's or a Whopper at Burger King. But coffee is different. The coffee you drink has class, even political, implications.

Just last year, Tim Hortons was forced to abandon plans to open an outlet on a bohemian-chic stretch of Toronto's Queen Street West, below the Downward Dog Ashtanga Yoga Centre. Residents protested that the charmless, impersonal, fluorescent-lit store would be a blight on the landscape, too explicitly downmarket. This is a neighbourhood that takes its coffee symbolism seriously. The local Starbucks has had its windows smashed several times in a "I wasn't at Seattle, dammit" defiance, even though the equally corporate Second Cup and Coffee Time have remained unviolated.

The politics of coffee have become complex, indeed. Even so, the Tim Hortons home brewer is something of an enigma. For one thing, the idea of a branded home brewer would seem more logically aimed at the Starbucks customer, who tends to be a more self-referential consumer, meaning more inclined to want to reproduce consumer experiences at home via restaurant cookbooks and take-home pasta sauces with the names of famous chefs on the label.

Also, the Starbucks patron would probably be less likely than a Tim Hortons customer to balk at the machine's $125 price tag, which is steep given the thing serves only regular coffee. There are no bells and whistles — no timer, no alarm, no grinder, no thermal carafe, no milk frother.

But perhaps the company is wagering that people will pay a premium for the appliance's unpretentious purity. And the fact it promises to reproduce a cup of Tim Hortons store-bought coffee (if you use Tim Hortons beans), the result of a heater that keeps the water at a constant 200รป F.

This is coffee that for some mysterious reason has achieved mythic proportions. When Global news anchor Kevin Newman returned to Canada from New York last year, a cup of coffee from the doughnut chain was high on his must-do list. "I can't decide which to do first — have coffee at Tim Hortons, or lunch at Swiss Chalet," he said.

Once one recovers from that rather sad set of anticipations, one might come to the conclusion it was the fiction of what the coffee embodied rather than the actual brew that Newman missed. Certainly the coffee-doughnut chain, founded in 1964 by the hockey legend and a former cop named Ron Joyce, has managed to maintain its mythic dimension, even in the face of contrary evidence. The chain remains one of the country's premier Canadian icons despite the fact it's now American-owned. (In 1995, it was taken over by Wendy's International, which is based in Dublin, Ohio, though it's still operated by TDL Group Ltd. of Toronto.)

Then there's the myth of the hockey hero Tim Horton himself, which has been dismantled over time, most recently in last year's The Perfect Husband, an ironically titled documentary that tore Horton to shreds.

He was presented as an alcoholic and a neglectful husband and father, motivated primarily by greed and ambition. That a national chain exists in his name is a homage to a more innocent time, when athletes' bad behaviour wouldn't thwart an endorsement deal.

There's no question Tim Hortons is responsible for Canadians' dubious distinction of consuming more doughnuts per capita than any other country in the world. And this can be chalked up to the aggressive tactics employed by the chain, which now numbers 2,000 stores across the country and more than 125 in the United States.

It's known for opening identical drive-through outlets across the street from each other to catch traffic going in either direction. So successful has it been that the world's largest doughnut chain, Dunkin' Donuts Inc., which has been in the country since 1961, hasn't been able to secure more than 6% of the market.

Doughnuts have become so ingrained in the national psyche, or so it's believed, that PhD theses are written on the subject. Steve Penfold, a history student at Toronto's York University, is writing his doctoral thesis on "The Social Life of Doughnuts" in which he contends that doughnuts fit into Canadians' humorous self-portrayal as a blue-collar, beer-drinking and hockey-loving nation.

But that depiction of a nation, too, is something of a myth. For the appeal of Tim Hortons to the innate Canadian consciousness transcends collar colour. The Tim Hortons outlet in the Exchange Tower in Toronto's white-collar financial district, for example, is routinely busier than the nearby Starbucks. Clearly, you don't have to be Bob and Doug McKenzie to appreciate the brew.

Recent events do not bode well for the chain, however. Plain old coffee has been usurped by a taste for more Continental variations, espresso and the like. Then there's the recent arrival of U.S. cult doughnut maker Krispy Kreme (it must be a rule of running a doughnut shop that you refuse to adhere to basic rules of spelling and grammar). The opening of that chain's first outlet in Canada, in December, was front-page news. The media covered the scene, in which people lined up to buy dozens at a time, as if it were a royal investiture.

The coffee-doughnut old guard is clearly vulnerable. Recently, the decidedly unbucolic Country Style filed for bankruptcy protection. So it isn't surprising that, despite its entrenched position, Tim Hortons is taking a defensive posture with the heavy marketing of its coffee maker.

Not that it has to; the cultural climate is on its side. First, there's its long-standing affiliation with police forces, which is now totally in sync with the newfound public appreciation of the everyday heroism of public employees.

Then there's the fact the Tim Hortons coffee maker fits right in with the homebody trend recently celebrated in The New York Times. Apparently, the city's most fashionable hostesses are now entertaining at home rather than in restaurants. At one Park Avenue soiree, it was reported, the menu included pigs in a blanket and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. A home-brewed cup of Tim Hortons coffee would have been an appropriate finale, don't you think? The perfect metaphor for the currently confused moment.

moc.tsoplanoitan|notsgnika#moc.tsoplanoitan|notsgnika; Anne Kingston's column appears weekly.


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