Tales From Under the Rim: The Marketing of Tim Hortons

by Ron Buist

Published by Goose Lane

218 pages, 2003

Buy it online




Coffee and Donuts

Reviewed by Sienna Powers


Living on the West Coast where proper Canadiana can pass you right by if you're not careful, I almost missed the whole Tim Hortons phenomenon. Then one day, on a trip home to Calgary, my young niece informed me that we were going for breakfast at Timmy's.

I looked at my sister quizzically. Was this some friend I'd forgotten about? Some relative I'd overlooked. My niece, just seven, saw my confusion and couldn't believe it. "We're going to Timmy's," she said again. Carefully now, as though speaking to a small child: one smaller and less well versed in the ways of the world, even, than her. "Tim Hortons."

The Tim Hortons phenomenon is now Canada-wide, with a fairly healthy trickle south of the border, as well. And though the chain started with donuts and hockey, these days Tim Hortons is just as well known for coffee.

In Tales From Under the Rim: The Marketing of Tim Hortons, author Ron Buist brings us an affectionate if not particularly unbiased look at Tim Hortons, the company, the marketing path the company has taken and the history of the chain.

Buist started with Tim Hortons as marketing director in 1977, and continued in that position for 24 years. In that time, Tim Hortons grew from an ambitious family-style (those familial connections are belabored again and again -- and again -- in Under the Rim) company to one of Canada's contending fast food operations. It stands to reason that Buist, as marketing director, can take a nice share of credit for the company's remarkable rise in that time.

When Buist joined the company, there were less than 100 Tim Hortons outlets, all of them in the Eastern part of Canada. Today there are over 2300 stores throughout Canada and dripping into the North Eastern portion of the United States.

"In the beginning," writes Buist, with humor if not originality, "there was the hockey player, Miles Gilbert (Tim) Horton, born January 12, 1930, in Cochrane, Ontario. Although the Great Depression had made life miserable for his family, he started skating and playing hockey at the age of five. As he got older, he aimed for a professional career in hockey as his means to pull himself out of poverty."

As Buist tells it, Horton had the common athlete's concern: what to do for a living when the hockey career years ended and the money dried up. While playing with the Pittsburgh Hornets, then the Toronto Maple Leafs' farm team, he had come to really, really like the donuts made by a certain bakeshop in Pittsburgh. Back in Toronto, Horton continued his affair with donuts at a bakeshop near his barber in Scarborough. Though he loved donuts, he felt certain that he would be best served investing his money into a fast food restaurant of the type that was beginning to become popular then, in the early 1960s. Chains of stores that sold donuts and hot drinks were pretty much unheard of at the time. Tim found a small group of food and donut savvy partners and together they opened:

a total of five chicken and hamburger eateries called Tim Horton Restaurants, one of them on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto, next to A&A Records and Sam the Record Man. However, the chicken and hamburger chain struggled financially. There was a lot of competition in the business, and apparently Tim Hortons name did not carry enough weight to change people's established hamburger and chicken eating habits.

The first Tim Horton Donut Shop was opened in 1963 in a former gas station on Ottawa Street in Hamilton, Ontario where they were soon serving donuts with tea and coffee to shift working steel workers. Before long the Hamilton donut operation was underwriting the chicken and hamburger portion of the business. The writing was on the wall.

By the time Buist joined the company in 1977, Tim Hortons was ready for him. A large part of Tales From Under the Rim is given to recounting the path the company took from small fry to big marketing palooka. It includes, also, a few paragraphs detailing why -- in my opinion -- the name of the company is mispunctuated:

About 1992, the name was legally changed to "Hortons," since it now stood for a company as a brand unto itself. Further, that's how people most commonly referred to the company: "Meet me at Tim Hortons," not "Meet me at Tim Hortons donuts."

Hopefully, anyone who has taken even fourth grade English will be able to see how flawed that logic is but maybe this, too, is a key to the success. In Under the Rim you learn how a lot of people said it couldn't be done or forecast that it would have to be done differently. The people at Hortons didn't care: they went ahead and did it anyway. And it worked. Sometimes, I guess, you have to take a stand with logic and with the "right" way of doing something. After all, every day Tim Hortons (note how I'm cooperating about that apostrophe, though it pains me) sells over three million cups of coffee and over a million donuts. | October 2003


Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.