Tim’s Half-baked idea

This forced it to behave in an unacceptably cagey, almost sinister manner as it slashed doughnut production costs on the sly. As in politics, so in food. It's not the culinary crime that'll kill ya, it's the cover-up.

National Post
October 24, 2003

Tim’s Half-baked idea
Colby Cosh

About a year ago, on my personal Web site, I started a small controversy by speculating on which Canadian names will be remembered worldwide 250 years from now, in an unforeseeable and inconceivably foreign future. Far enough in the future, that is, that humans may no longer speak English or live in families: The Future. My correspondents and I conjured up the ghosts you might expect — Glenn Gould, Marshall McLuhan, James Naismith, Lucy Maud Montgomery. I remember one guy had an interesting suggestion: Tim Horton.

Tim Horton?

Perhaps the name wouldn't be generally known, the fellow admitted. But is it so hard to imagine archaeologists finding the signs by the dozens in the ruins of Canadian cities (vaporized, no doubt, in the Trebulon Megawars of 2120), and postulating that this "Tim Horton" was some sort of religious leader, head of a powerful and pervasive urban cultus?

And in a way, that's what Tim Hortons is. Much of the pleasure of going there is ritual in nature. If you stop off on the way to work, it's something you do at the same time every day, re-energizing yourself with a sacred, mildly addictive beverage — one sometimes said to have monastic origins. In many offices a day of the week, a baked-goods Sabbath, is set aside for a relaxed meeting over doughnuts. The numerological overtones involved in the Hortons visit are blatant (a dozen, for example, being the number of Christ's apostles) as are the Eucharistic aspects of the Timbit. The bit of Tim?

It's a stretch, I know. Anyway, I wasn't too confident that Tim Hortons name would survive. In the life of a large business there comes a time when some influential manager is seduced by a "rebranding consultant," and the company ends up changing a tradition-freighted name to something nonsensical and sterile like Unisys or Consignia. Never mind 250 years, I reckoned: Before our grandchildren are grown, Hortons will have become Pastrex or Globotaste. Or possibly Trebulon.

It now appears that the TDL Group Ltd. — the private subsidiary of Wendy's International that operates Tim Hortons — has succumbed to another common form of corporate insanity: forgetting what business it is in. For a year or so, rumours have swirled that Tim's was planning to radically centralize its doughnut preparation, or had already done so. Canada's doughnuts, various informants insisted, were all being cooked in Brantford, frozen, and shipped across Canada, to be dipped briefly into a fryer on arrival and passed off as the same old article.

These stories were denied, sort of, by TDL. ("We're merely conducting tests. Now go away.") They could have been dismissed as urban legends if the product quality had not confirmed the whispers. Sometime during the past year, the doughnuts at my own neighbourhood Tim's turned clothy and flavourless. Eating them required rodential gnawing instead of pleasurable chewing. The filling, in the ones that had filling, had become attenuated and joyless; occasionally it would even be suspiciously cold around the edges.

On Wednesday, Tim Hortons' co-founder and longtime owner, Ron Joyce, confirmed that Brantford hockey pucks, warmed over lightly, are being sold in all the Alberta shops and at countless other Canadian locations. Mr. Joyce had once studied the cost-saving potential of frozen doughnuts, but concluded that the Tim's reputation for freshness was too important to risk. He is mortified at the new baking procedure, though he says the unloading of his remaining shares in the company is unrelated.

The revelation that Tim Hortons has been less than frank with customers is particularly appalling when you consider how skilful the company has been at positioning itself psychologically within Canada. Certain Canadian consumer brands have — for better or worse — become talismans of national identity here. None played the nationalistic branding game better than Tim Hortons. Besieged by Starbucks and Krispy Kreme, it has succeeded in retaining a certain boreal authenticity and the fervent love of the public. This work can be undone quickly, as ordinary customers have been trying to warn TDL. If it won't listen to Ron Joyce, it won't listen to anybody.

And it may not. Rare is the recent Tim Hortons advertisement that even mentions doughnuts. Management clearly intends to retrench the company in a "fast casual" market space, believing that non-greasy meals offer a brighter business future than high-calorie treats. The TDL Group, one suspects, simply doesn't care about doughnuts anymore. It seems the company proceeded on that premise, and got quite far along, without noticing that it couldn't come right out and say, "Hey — doughnuts are old news." This forced it to behave in an unacceptably cagey, almost sinister manner as it slashed doughnut production costs on the sly. As in politics, so in food. It's not the culinary crime that'll kill ya, it's the cover-up.

© Copyright 2003 National Post


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