Make mine a double (double): Dougals Hunter on Tim Hortons’ rise to coffee superstardom

December 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Double Double: How Tim Hortons Became a Canadian Way of Life, One Cup at a Time. Douglas Hunter; $33.99 cloth 978-1-44340-673-4, 382 pp., HarperCollins Canada

Double Double, Douglas HunterThe year 2004 is remarkable in the history of the Tim Hortons chain of coffee shops/eateries. That was the year the term “double-double,” referring to customers’ preferred method of ordering Tim’s signature blend of coffee (two creams, two sugars), first appeared in The Canadian Oxford Dictionary. At the time, Katherine Barber, the dictionary’s editor, told the CBC that the criteria for including the term in what had become the go-to reference book for the Canadian lexicon required ensuring it had penetrated the culture fairly broadly: “‘We had to determine if it was used only in Tim Hortons doughnut shops or more widely,’ Barber said. ‘We found evidence in The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Hamilton Spectator, and the book Men with Brooms, based on the curling movie.'”

National Business Book Award winner Douglas Hunter mentions the dictionary milestone only once, in passing, in Double Double, his new volume on the history of the company that, in one sense at least, has become indelibly associated with the Canadian identity for many people. “Tim’s is routinely said to have inspired the Canadian ‘double double,'” Hunter writes, “although when the editors of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary recently tried to verify this, they couldn’t nail down an indisputable source.”

Hunter makes this observation at the beginning of a chapter titled “The 100 percent: Tim Hortons Becomes the Inclusive Canadian Experience,” in which he floats the argument that the perception of Tim Hortons as the location of choice for hardworking, average Canadians – as opposed to, say, Starbucks, which caters to effete, latte-swilling elites – is largely chimerical, at least from the perspective of corporate governance. Hunter references a York University marketing professor who contends that the Tim Hortons brand is built around the idea of inclusion, not exclusion: “[A] rich businessperson and the unemployed worker can both walk down the street carrying a Tim Hortons coffee and feel comfortable,” Hunter writes. “That’s a unique brand proposition that Tim Hortons does not want to harm. Tim Hortons has always been about the 100 percent.”

While this may be true in terms of branding tactics at head office, it is clearly less true for the politicians who seem to feel it a necessary part of a campaign to appear in a Tim Hortons outlet, holding a steaming cup of java, as a means of forging a connection with Joe and Jane Average Canadian (whom Hunter opposes to “Richard or Rachelle Pretentious Internationalist, frequenter of Starbucks and espouser of non-working-family values”). So essential has this image (or myth) become that Stephen Harper, who does not drink coffee, made a point of pausing in a 2009 address to sip from a Tim Hortons coffee cup (the cup contained hot chocolate). Michael Ignatieff, a tea drinker, also went out of his way to court the Tim Hortons vote during the federal election of 2011. When the Toronto Star‘s Susan Delacourt snapped a shot of a Starbucks coffee cup on a table in Ignatieff’s campaign bus, social media lit up. “‘The Conservative bloggers went wild,’ [Delacourt] recalled. ‘It was, “The elite, latte-drinking Iggy is revealed.”‘ She thinks the image was retweeted more than 500 times.” (The offending beverage belonged to Zsusanna Zsohar, Ignatieff’s wife.)

The process by which Tim Hortons became an iconic part of the Canadian landscape is Hunter’s focus in Double Double. He touches on many key aspects of the corporation’s development, beginning with its inception as a side project for the store’s eponymous NHL defenceman, who was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1967, the last time the team won a Stanley Cup. The major historical points are enumerated: Horton’s partnership with Ron Joyce; the (apparently alcohol-fuelled) fatal car crash in 1974; Lori Horton’s lawsuit claiming she was duped when she sold her half of the company to Joyce; the company’s IPO and attempt to break into the market south of the 49th parallel. Casting his net broadly, Hunter necessarily sacrifices depth of penetration, but there is much interesting information on offer. The chapters on branding and marketing strategy are particularly interesting, especially in addressing the way the chain positions itself in an increasingly crowded and competitive market. (Hunter contends that the Tim Hortons/Starbucks rivalry is overstated: McDonald’s is actually the larger threat to Tim’s bottom line. And the observation that Tim Hortons is seen as a coffee supplier in Canada but a doughnut purveyor in the States is a fascinating insight into the divergent psyches of the two countries.)

But the resolute focus on the corporate aspect of the story means that the other side of the story – the one involving the millions of people who daily consume the products that Tim’s offers – largely goes missing. The book’s subtitle promises to explain how “Tim Hortons became a Canadian way of life,” but Hunter does this from the viewpoint of the brand, not that of the commuter standing in line every morning to get his or her caffeine fix before heading into work. Hunter deftly explains corporate endeavours to entice customers during each discrete “day part,” and examines the company’s attempts to broaden its customer base by offering more nutritious menu fare and European-style frothy beverages, but apart from quoting a few posts on the Tim Hortons Facebook page, the voices of the people who actually consume the products being sold are never heard. As a result, we get the company’s MBA-influenced attitude toward consumer psychology, but aren’t permitted to assess that psychology first-hand.

Similarly, Hunter includes quotes and references to a plethora of CEOs, consultants, politicians, and marketing professionals, but does not allow sufficient space for the one group that could arguably provide the most unvarnished ground-level perspective of all: front-line employees in the chain’s stores – the shift workers and part-timers who actually pour the coffee and toast the bagels day in and day out. It is possible that many of these people, working within a corporate culture that maintains rigorous control over its brand image, would be reluctant to talk, or might be less than forthcoming about grievances or problems within the company, but the absence of their voices altogether renders the company portrait somewhat one-sided and incomplete.