On Canadian Coffee, and the Other Tim's


I’m writing this in the lobby of Kitchener’s new Hampton Inn Suites, just north of the 401. It’s Sunday morning, but I’m writing this blog for Monday as I’ll be busy at BookExpo that day. My mother-in-law and her husband are staying here with Rosemarie’s parents as they visit for Vivian’s baptism and a quick tour of Canada. When Erin and I arrived, we’d just missed breakfast, so Erin sent me out to Tim Horton’s for muffins and donuts, and to Starbucks for coffee. And this gets me thinking about the state of coffee in this country.

There’s something of a rivalry going on between customers of Tim Horton’s and Starbucks. Even on the Blogosphere, each establishment has their own proponents. Tim Hortons plays the nationalist card, rendering the lowly timbit one of Canada’s national icons, while Starbucks offers up high class (snobbish) offerings, and its customers wouldn’t be caught dead consuming donuts. Each must have something going for them, as both establishments are as ubiquitous as mosquitos on a summer night, and Starbucks is the one responsible for the cliche that a good cup of coffee costs five dollars these days.

But do you ever notice that for both establishments, it’s not really about the coffee?

Tim Hortons sells donuts. That’s what they’re known for, even as they add sandwiches, chile, soups, bagels and muffins to their menu. And at least one Starbuck fan condemns Tim Horton’s coffee as being next in quality to instant. I have to confess a fondness for Tim Horton’s coffee, and I occasionally develop cravings for the substance, something I suspect may be the result of a psychotropic drug they put in their cream, but I have to agree with Jordon Cooper that Tim’s coffee can’t be called good coffee. It’s pretty bog standard, on the level with Folgers and Maxwell House, with most of the flavour provided, I think, by the cream.

The other problem is that you can’t really lounge in a Tim Horton’s. Donut shops may be the cultural centres of Canadian towns and cities — our version of the English pub or the American bar — but you can’t write inside of a Tim’s. I’ve tried. The atmosphere just doesn’t sit right. This is a place to read a newspaper (probably the Toronto Sun) and to talk with friends, but not for solitary activities. Just drink your coffee and get out.

Starbucks encourages you to lounge and write, an atmosphere enhanced by its partnership with Chapters/Indigo bookstores. However, Starbucks doesn’t sell coffee either. Oh, sure, Coffee is in their name and their logo, but tell me this: since when have you seen anybody go to Starbucks and order just a coffee?

They do have coffee on their menu. The medium (I refuse to say “grande” on this blog) costs $1.60, but nobody orders it. I think the baristas would have a heart attack if you ordered it.

Barista (cheerily): Welcome to Starbucks! How may I serve you?

Me: Yeah, I’d like a medium coffee, please.

Barista (looks confused): Would that be a grande latte?

Me: Nope. Just a coffee, please.

Barista (eyes widen): Wha— n-no soy? Whipped cream? Low-fat double shot espresso? Half-caf, double-caf deep fry?

Me: Just. A. Coffee.

Barista (falls to knees): No! Please! Order something special? I must foam milk! I must drizzle chocolate! I’ve got a wife and children to feed! Please, just USE ME!!!

Me: Right. I’m going to Second Cup.

I have to confess that Starbucks offers a good latte, and I have a special fondness for their four dollar vanilla lattes. But that’s not a cup of coffee. If you have that every morning, you’d be in the poorhouse by the end of the month. As for Starbuck’s plain coffee: I don’t like it. They burn their brew.

Which brings me to my two favourite coffee chain establishments, neither of which get the press and ad copy that Starbucks or Tim Horton’s receives: Second Cup and Timothy’s. Both are Canadian companies/franchises, but neither really plays on the heartstrings of our national psyche. The last time you heard about Second Cup in the press, it was when wannabe-FLQ terrorists threatened to bomb a couple for the English on their signs. Both Second Cup and Timothy’s offer four dollar special coffee drinks, but I go to these establishments just for a good old under-two-dollar cuppa-joe. And it’s good coffee to boot, without that burnt aftertaste.

A decade ago, the Second Cup used to be as ubiquitous on Toronto’s streets as Starbucks is on every city street today. When Erin and I were visiting the city for the first time as a couple, it became a joke: “another corner, another Second Cup”. But Second Cup plateaued, and Starbucks made an aggressive incursion into the city, and now both seem to be on a fairly even keel. Timothy’s offers coffee that’s just as good, but the fact that it’s less of a franchise operation than Second Cup means that you have to go farther to find their particular brand.

I know which coffee place I prefer. It’s the one that allows me to lounge, but doesn’t require me to order “grande” when I want a “medium”. It’s the one whose coffee isn’t burnt, and which costs less than $2 per cup. So, in the debate between grungy Tim Horton’s and snobbish Starbucks, I am a contientious objector. There is a third and a fourth way, and those are the paths I follow.

P.S. My in-laws can’t say enough good things about Kitchener’s new Hampton Inn Suites. They’re visiting with Vivian’s great-grandparents, Howard and Lucille O’Connor, who are both in their eighties. The various hotels Michael and Rosemarie have called, trying to get reservations, have all promised accessible rooms and bathrooms, but have produced nothing of a kind. A handlebar beside a bath is not fully accessible. But Hampton Inn Suites offers walk-in showers, accessible desks and tables, and a very accommodating and attentive staff. They kindly accepted my in-laws with almost no notice, and they offered them a special “welcome to Canada” rate. So, top marks, Hampton Inns!

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