Wednesday, August 27, 2014

O doughnut chain! U.S. snatches Canada's sweet round heart

     Brand loyalty is a funny thing.
     Because it’s a kind of love.
     And love is a funny thing.
     Take Burger King.
     I do not love Burger King because I’ve never loved Burger King. McDonald’s, all shiny white and red tile, showed up and won me when I was a wee lad. They didn’t offer seating, and you ate in your car, itself a thrill for a 6-year-old. McDonald’s lodged in the spot in my heart—metaphorically, though it probably lodged in an actual spot in my physical heart as well, though I try not to think of it—a place reserved for cheap, fast, alternatingly repulsive-and-attractive food.
     But Burger King? The first one I remember is on Orrington Avenue in Evanston across from what was then the Northwestern Apartments. Eating there was a sign that I had absolutely nowhere else to eat. And the odd thing is, I’ve always believed that Burger King burgers, flame-broiled on toasted buns, taste better than McDonald’s predigested mash of a burger. No matter. I still prefer McDonald’s, the way you love your mother and not the more fun and more interesting neighbor lady down the street.
     Love is a funny thing.
     So had the news Tuesday been that Burger King was going out of business, except for sincere sorrow at the loss of jobs; I’d be indifferent. Ta-ta, BK Lounge.
     But instead the news is that BK is buying Tim Hortons, the Canadian doughnut chain, and while we barely note it in passing here, north of the border it is a huge deal.
“Why not just cancel hockey while we’re at it?” The Globe and Mail editorialized.
     The name Tim Hortons might not resonate with you if you’ve never been to Canada. (Although, really, never? It’s a five-hour drive. Go. They have the metric system and different colored money and everything).
     The word people tend to use over and over to describe Tim Hortons is “beloved”
     “Extremely beloved,” said Robyn Doolittle,  star reporter at the Globe and Mail and author of “Crazy Town,” a new best-seller chronicling her city’s doughnut-larded mayor, Rob Ford. “It’s as much a part of our culture as hockey is and we do love our hockey.  It’s such a ritual part of life, especially small town life. You drop you kid off at hockey and grab your Tim Hortons.”
     Tim Hortons was founded in 1964 by a famed Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman named - wait for it—Tim Horton. It has 4,000 stores, and a staggering 8 out of 10 cups of coffee sold in Canada are sold there.
     The BK news echoed across Canada.
     "It's a huge deal," Doolittle said, "front page of the paper, the lead story on the national news."
      But what is it about the place? The United States has its own big chain, Dunkin' Donuts. It's not part of our national identity. A Tim Hortons doughnut is practically on the Canadian flag next to the maple leaf. Why?
     "We talk about it," Doolittle said. "We're conscious of how odd it is. We ask, 'What is up with Tim Hortons?' The best I can come up with is its consistency."
     "It's kind of mysterious," said Patricia Cormack, a sociology professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. "I've been trying to figure this out for 10 years."
     She cites "quite aggressive marketing."
     "They have this very confident positioning of themselves," she said. "It's more than just hockey, but collectivism, statism—Canadian values. They're very unpretentious, even though we're very pretentious about our unpretentiousness."
     Of course, whether the chain's popularity says more about Tim Hortons or more about Canada is an open question. My family sought refuge there from time to time during our trips across the country, and I couldn't decide if we went there because the doughnuts were good or simply because we were in Canada and had to do something to pass the time.
     Given Canadians are prone to crises of the soul over anything involving the United States (the Globe and Mail editorial suggested the government block the sale), I imagine that an American company buying their national icon might be a source of some angst. Though perhaps not so much, since the plan seems to be for Burger King to shift its headquarters north, for tax purposes. So Canada is not so much losing a doughnut chain as gaining a burger giant.
     Or to put it another way: Iconic Canadian beer company Molson's has been headquartered in Colorado since its 2005 merger with Coors. They still drink the stuff up north. And lest we be too smug—an American trait for sure—our red-white-and-blue national beer brand, Budweiser? For the past five years owned by InBev, a Belgian brewer.


  1. The Burger King across from the Northwestern Apartments-now that's a locale I haven't thought of in a long time. Due to the Evanston fast food ban, you had to bag your own Whoppers and fries. And it is location of the famous Paul Lynde homecoming altercation. Thanks for stirring up those memories!

  2. 1. There was always seating at any original McDonald's designed store. It was a long tiled bench on each side of the building. The toilets were in the back & entered from the parking lot.

    2. The Orrington Burger King has always been the weirdest place. Before there was a total smoking ban, the non-smoking section was shoved into an unpleasant corner, with 75% as a smoking section, including the area where you ordered the food.
    But the bag your own foolishness was supposedly due to some obscure zoning ordinance for Downtown Evanston & I think doesn't apply anymore. The current layout is even stranger & I think is supposed to be BK's version of a sports bar.

    3. But the McDonald's that was in the south end of the Orrington Hotel for maybe 10 years was supposed to be a showplace, but McDonald's chickened out on it. It had curtains with valences, but they never did put down the tablecloths they had promised. But it did have hosts/hostesses in uniforms for a short time to help you find an open table!

  3. Not to be difficult or anything, but Horton's was owned by Wendy's for quite a long time. Corporate HQ in Ohio. Hard to feel bad for the Canadians when they seem to be conveniently forgetting that....

    1. Not difficult at all -- I knew that, but one thing about writing, is you can't explore every tangent or include every fact. And it was more a joint-operating partnership than ownership. Anyway, if you got the impression that the column was about feeling sympathy for Canadians, beyond for their being in Canada, you misread it.

    2. Naw, didn't think you were feeling sympathy for them...did feel like they were being excessively offended by this concept given this little tidbit of information.

      And you can't include everything? Jeesh.

    3. Being excessively offended is a Canadian trait. One that readers often share.

  4. 1) Canada rocks. Their middle class just passed by our middle class economically for the first time in history. They have universal health care, low crime, and clean air (Ontraio just became coal free).

    2) And now they'll have who-knows-how-many-more hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue for their citizens. But hey, it's not like the kids in Englewood could use that money.

    3) Tim Horton's rocks. Sooo much better than Dunkin' Donuts. I don't blame the Canadians for being worried - Wendy's is more or less a well managed chain and they've got a respectable menu. Burger King all but ran itself into the ground with dumb business decisions.

  5. Not to mention that Burger King is owned by a Brazilian company.

  6. The millions who watched the very popular How I met your mother have a very good understanding of what Tim Hortons means to Canadians.


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