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Business, culture meet over a cup of joe

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Double Double

How Tim Hortons Became a Canadian Way of Life, One Cup at a Time

By Douglas Hunter

HarperCollins, 378 pages, $33

A quickie Canadian citizenship test could piggyback on this book's title: "What's a double double?"

Tim Hortons is widely credited as the inspiration for the all-Canadian shorthand for two cream and two sugar in your cup of joe. Although, as author Douglas Hunter notes in his excellent profile of the coffee-shop chain, when the editors of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary tried to verify this, "they couldn't nail down an indisputable source."

Hunter is a Port McNicoll, Ont.-based non-fiction writer and past winner of the National Business Book award. His 2010 popular history God's Mercies was a finalist for both a Governor General's Award and a Writers' Trust Prize.

Hunter's thesis is that Tim Hortons is at once a Canadian cultural phenomenon and a business juggernaut.

In 2010, according to Hunter, Hortons sold an astonishing 77 per cent of the cups of coffee served in Canadian restaurants. McDonald's, he reports, sold seven per cent and Starbucks three per cent.

Hortons has over 3,000 locations in Canada, coast to coast. In its fiscal year 2010, he reports, it opened up 149 new Canadian outlets, including three in Nunavut.

Hunter's is a full diagnostic treatment of the corporate body that's Tim Hortons.

He chronicles the history of the business and its principals -- deceased NHL hockey player Tim Horton, pioneering franchisee and ex-CEO Ron Joyce, and the unsung (unfairly by Hunter's account) Jim Charade.

He analyzes the systems and processes Tim Hortons employs as a franchisor, explaining in detail the permutations of the financial split between the franchisor and its franchisee outlets. He's especially good at the difficult trick of explaining the economics of franchising for the average reader, without becoming dense or tedious.

He also deftly traces both Tim's crystallization into a Canadian cultural icon and its parallel dubious ventures into the U.S. market.

The corporate entity that's Tim Hortons Inc. traces its origins to a humble single doughnut shop that opened in an industrial part of Hamilton in 1964, "store No. 1" as it's reverently referred to in the company's official history.

But Tim's was not the instant success it markets itself as. Hunter ferrets out the painful truth there were four failed restaurants with Tim Horton's name on them in and around Toronto in 1963.

The book's most provocative chapter recounts how during the 2011 federal election the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives successfully identified themselves as the party of the "Tim Hortons voter" -- synonymous with "the broad mass of middle-spectrum Canadian electorate." All in pointed contrast to Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff who, according to Hunter, got a public rep as a fancy-dan elitist foreign (read: American) Starbucks kind of guy.

Hunter suggests Tim Hortons recent run of unparalleled growth and success may be about to hit a wall.

Its marginally profitable U.S. expansion, its dilution of its Canadian brand name by 2011 upscale forays into espresso coffee and beef lasagna casserole, and its failure to join its competitors in selling products tailored to use in home single-cup brewing systems, are all red flags, says Hunter.

Still, in 2012, it remains Canada's largest franchised business, and commands a degree of consumer loyalty that borders on fanaticism.

Overall, Hunter nicely captures Tim Hortons' complementary roles as business model and Canadian cultural touchstone. Double Double is a detailed, well-researched and fascinating business history.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 J7

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