Suburban phenom Tim Hortons muscles into downtown.
Every day at NOW's Church Street office I'm faced with a choice: Tim Hortons or Starbucks.
Before you start yelling your opinion at this page, consider that my pick has nothing to do with taste. I recognize that I can produce a superior cup at home. But for me and many other desk jockeys, the walk is a ritual based heavily on brand perception.
It used to be easy, sort of my national duty as a Canadian - or so suggests the Tim Hortons cultural myth. I'd head over to the Esso at Dundas, get in the silent queue and walk away with my double-double.
Then came the Starbucks on Shuter, with its jazziness, couches, friendly staff and array of choices that now have me going there because I've done good and deserve a treat. It's a choice that really comes down to whether on any given day I feel economical and kind of average or trendy, special and worth the extra outlay.
Tory advisers know what I mean. One of Stephen Harper's long-time boosters opined during the election that the Conservative leader aimed his arts cuts squarely at the "Tim Hortons crowd," a deft dis of the latte-sipping elites, taking a page out of Sarah Palin's Joe Six-pack or hockey mom playbook.
But is Tims really shorthand for the suburban and non-cognoscenti? The fact is, the hyper-normal caffeing joint now has about 65 outlets in the downtown core bounded by St. Clair, Lansdowne and Leslie - shockingly, an equal number to Starbucks in the same area. As well, café-watchers will have noticed that Tims has replaced Coffee Time at prime College and Spadina and recently opened its doors at Bloor and Dufferin, directly across from a shuttered Coffee Time.
A citified Tims may not be in Tory country, but can it really pitch to the the cappuccino crowd? Or will it always be kind of like the well-meaning dad trying to talk cool to the kids? The company, as Steve Penfold, a U of T history prof, suggests in his book The Donut: A Canadian History, is astoundingly adept at tapping into the Canadian consciousness. Remember the True Stories marketing campaign in the 1990s?
Tims little taste of home, and all those associations with hockey, helped turn the Horton brand into an icon strong enough to be sent as a morale booster to soldiers in Afghanistan. Name another fast food coffee that could pull that kind of marketing stunt.
Says David Dunne, marketing professor at U of T's Rotman School of Management, "Their advertising is very folksy, about small towns and suburban neighbourhoods, which is where they have most of their strengths."
And he says, coffee culture encompasses a great divide. "Having a Starbucks in your hand says you can afford to have Starbucks. In terms of the Tim Hortons [consumer], there may be a backlash effect where you see yourself as a sensible person who won't pay $5 for a coffee."
Branded as the practical option or no, Tim Hortons just doesn't have the downtown chops to make it cool. As Youthography's Jacquelyn Salnek explains, young urban people pick their coffee environment according to music choices and the presence of Wifi. The coffee shop, she says, becomes "part of their hangout repertoire."
But Tims has no Internet, no hip musical taste, and some locations still employ that stale-dated time-limit sign, the vary antithesis of what café norms are all about. Not to mention the fact that the cappuccino (which should really say "our version of," the way knockoff cologne does) is made with none of the flourishes of "fresh for you," being machine-made from start to finish.
No niche market here. Says Salnek, "Tim Hortons means similar things to anyone, whether it hangs its hat on patriotism or ubiquity. It's affordable, casual, something that transcends age and is comfortable for all."
How do company reps describe their urban foray? Not very eloquently, actually. "In the beginning, we sold only donuts and coffee, but now donuts are a very small part of the mix," says Rachel Douglas, the company's director of public affairs, tersely. "Where we see ourselves in the future will depend on changes in the consumer landscape."
The next few years of this coffee culture game will be fun to watch. Some Starbucks closings have been attributed to reckless expansion, but the company has already started battling McDonald's coffee with a 99-cent coffee option of its own in the U.S.
Yet even in recessions people want luxuries. Maybe you can't score a big-screen TV, but you can always get a temporary high from a double shot of espresso. And, of course, there will also be the people weathering economic troubles with medium double- doubles.
Meantime, if you want to stay out of the blue-collar versus white- wars, it might be best to find a nice, neutral, independent tea shop.