Iconic Canadian Tim Hortons takes a hit

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The ugly showdown between Unifor and Tim Hortons shows just how far this iconic donut shop has drifted from its humble beginnings on Ottawa Street in east Hamilton.


First published on Monday, January 15, 2018 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—What could have been more Canadian than Timmies. That is until last week.

The ugly showdown between Unifor and Tim Hortons shows just how far this iconic doughnut shop has drifted from its humble beginnings on Ottawa Street in east Hamilton.

So revered was the initial location that locals used to joke that the tiny outlet should be included on the national list of historic sites and monuments of Canada.

When I was Canadian Heritage minister, we even plaqued the building because it was the first among hundreds of doughnut diners across the country that were as Canadian as hockey. Three years ago, the business was expanded to a two-storey shop and museum, featuring memorabilia dating back more than a half-century.

Former defence minister, Senator Art Eggleton, so loved the brand that he got a Department of Defence special Tim Hortons outlet in Kandahar, to support our troops’ long-term stint in Afghanistan.

Hockey and Tim’s were equally linked because the original locations, all located in the Hamilton area, were co-owned by famed NHL defenceman Tim Horton.

He lived life fast and furious and eventually perished when his speeding sports car slid off the road and hit a culvert at a reported speed of 140 km/h. His original business partner, was former Hamilton police officer Ron Joyce, who quit the force to launch the partnership. He offered his police buddies Hortons shares for $500 apiece.

Local legend has it that one sergeant refused to participate, saying he earned $20,000 a year in uniform so what would he want with doughnuts. Others reaped thousands from their initial paltry investment.

When Horton died, Joyce bought his widow out. But she quickly soured on the terms of the deal and sued Joyce in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Joyce won.

Joyce parlayed that local presence into a national goldmine. Stores were popping up everywhere. He established drive-thrus and gas station doughnut stops to the point where there seemed to be a Timmies on every corner.

Joyce also managed a national branding campaign that equated Timmies with everything Canadian.

Yuppies drank at Starbucks, but ordinary working people bought their coffee at Tim Hortons.

Drawing on that narrative, I was the first politician to hold a press conference at Tim Hortons. I launched the second of my two Liberal leadership bids at the original shop on Ottawa Street in my riding. Joyce was a strong Conservative but his office was quick to approve the announcement.

I had a secondary reason for launching there. My 2003 bid was a mercy mission against juggernaut prime minister-in-waiting Paul Martin. It was tough to attract a crowd to a suicide mission and that Tim’s would only hold a couple dozen people.

Prime minister Stephen Harper fully understood Tim Hortons’ populist power.

He once skipped a United Nations General Assembly meeting to make an announcement at the Oakville Tim Hortons headquarters.

But multiple demonstrations across the country last week have done irreparable damage to that truly Canadian brand.

The decision by franchise owners to cut benefits after the Ontario government hiked the minimum wage was a huge mistake.

In a Tim Hortons franchise model, the franchisee pays labour costs. Head office sets the prices and is paid by the franchisees on all counts. The frozen doughnuts are prepared in Brantford, by a head office contract bakery, which ships them all over the country.

The corporation put out a statement last week blaming rogue, reckless franchisees for the mess, after two Cobourg local shops blamed the government minimum wage increases and lack of company support for their decision to cut employment benefits. They also now force employees to buy their own uniforms and formerly free coffee at the end of shift has also been chopped.

The ringleaders in the move to reduce employee remuneration happen to be the children of the original Horton-Joyce partnership. Joyce’s son married Horton’s daughter and they own the infamous Cobourg franchises. They should be ashamed.

Timmies has been a golden cow for both families for a half century. Too bad the lowest paid of their employees cannot share a little bit of their fleece.

Franchisees may have a legitimate complaint against corporate headquarters. But the damage done to the Tim Hortons brand will cost them all dearly.

Canadians who care about a decent living wage for the working poor should vote with their feet.

There are plenty of good Canadian coffee and doughnut shops in Canada.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.