The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Burger King's plan to buy Tim Hortons could take a bite out of Canada's national identity

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TORONTO - Few things unite Canadians the way Tim Hortons does. For half a century, they have warmed themselves on chilly mornings with the chain's coffee and Timbits — or doughnut holes to Americans.

So news this week that Burger King will buy Tim Hortons served as a bittersweet reminder of how beloved the homegrown chain is in Canada, where 75 per cent of the all the coffee sold at fast food restaurants comes from "Timmy's," as it is affectionately known. Tim Hortons is found in just about every small town and large city across Canada, and hockey-mad Canadians often head to their local Timmy's before or after their kids' games.

Tim Hortons, in a bid to quell any concerns that its distinctly Canadian brand could be watered down, went out of its way to assure that the red and brown coffee and doughnut shop won't change, taking out big ads in newspapers and declaring "fellow Canadians can all rest assured that Tim Hortons will still be Tim Hortons following this transaction."

The chain's aura in Canada comes from its namesake: hockey Hall of Famer Tim Horton, the co-founder who died at 44 in a 1974 car accident after playing in a game for the Buffalo Sabres. In a long run with Canada's most popular NHL team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the defenceman won four Stanley Cups, including Toronto's last in 1967. That, and the chain's omnipresence, puts his fame in Canada on the order of a New York Yankees baseball legend like Mickey Mantle or Yogi Berra.

"Tim Hortons is iconic in terms of Canada and I wouldn't like to see that diluted," said Daraius Bharucha, a 46-year old teacher from Ajax, Ontario, and a customer since he immigrated to Canada from India 21 years ago. Bharucha said the first thing he does when he returns home to Canada from a vacation is visit the local Timmy's. He knows he's home. "Even among new Canadians the idea of going to a Timmy's has become part of the vocabulary," he added.

While the takeover by Burger King, which is based in Miami but controlled by a Brazilian private equity fund, is getting much attention in Canada, it's not causing panic. U.S.-based Wendy's recently owned Tim Hortons and its brand remained intact. Wendy's then spun off Tim Hortons as a separate company in 2006 after more than a decade of ownership.

In the meantime, Tim Hortons kept expanding and now has 4,546 restaurants, including 3,630 in Canada, 866 in the United States and 50 in the Persian Gulf.

Both Burger King and Tim Hortons vow they will continue to be run independently. So don't expect to see Timbits alongside Whoppers on Burger King menus.

The global corporate headquarters of the two chains will be based in Oakville, Ontario, and the move is viewed as being driven by Burger King's desire for a tax haven.

The Canadian government welcomed the deal. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's spokesman said the government has been "reducing business taxes and creating jobs and boosting investment, making Canada one of the best countries in the world to do business."

Harper previously celebrated the return of Tim Horton's corporate headquarters to Canada in 2009 with a speech that talked about Timbits and the equally famous "double-double" coffee of two sugars and two creams.

"Millions of Canadian hockey parents like me know well that when it is 20 degrees below zero and everyone is up for a 6 a.m. practice, nothing motivates the team more than a box of Timbits, and nothing warms the parents in the stands better than a hot double-double," Harper said then.

Harper also quoted Canadian author Pierre Berton, who said "In so many ways the story of Tim Hortons is the essential Canadian story. It is the story of success and tragedy, of big dreams in small towns, of old fashioned values and tough-fisted business, of hard work and of hockey."

Harper's support is built in rural areas and with the "Tim Hortons crowd" — which is popular with blue-collar Canadians. While some wealthier Canadians might prefer Starbucks, most just want a Timmy's double-double.

And they hope something so Canadian won't be diluted.

"It's the association with hockey and the legend of Tim Horton and a part of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the tragic circumstances in which he died at a young age," Bharucha said. "There is that kind of mystique attached to that name."

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