Canadians are an odd people when it comes to our cultural exports—we apologize to the world for Celine Dion, are ecstatic about the BlackBerry, and we’re defensive about Tim Hortons. So it’s with a sense of cautious pride that we watched Tim Hortons open nine of twelve new locations in New York City yesterday, including three in a co-branding test with Cold Stone Creamery, because we Canadians know our Maple Dip.
Even though (in our opinion) the quality of Tim Hortons doughnuts has slipped since 2002, when the company began mass-producing the doughnuts in a Brantford plant rather than on-site in each restaurant, the chain has become enshrined in Canadian iconography, boasting almost three thousand stores in Canada and becoming the country’s largest food service operator. Much of the Tim Hortons success story can even be attributed to one of the most brilliant marketing campaigns in history: the thirteen-year-long “Roll Up The Rim To Win” promotion.
Though already operating about five hundred stores in eleven American states, Manhattan has always been the stronghold of another number-one baked goods chain: Dunkin’ Donuts. With relations fouling in recent years between the Riese Organization investment group and Dunkin’ Brands Inc., Tim Hortons found itself inking a deal with Riese to replace ten Dunkin’ Donuts franchises in Manhattan and two in Brooklyn, including in high-profile locations in Times Square, Penn Station, and right beside the New York Stock Exchange.
And New York City is a tough market for olykoeks: following a high-profile national overexpansion and stiff competition from Dunkin’ Donuts, many Krispy Kreme Manhattan franchises were terminated (in Canada, only eighteen of thirty-two stores were opened, and only five of those still exist).
The move follows steps taken by Tim Hortons last month to reorganize itself as a Canadian company again (primarily for tax reasons). Established on a Hamilton street corner in 1964 by the former Toronto Maple Leaf, who would die in a car crash ten years later, the eponymous company was merged with Wendy’s International in 1995. It received an apostrophectomy around the same time to accommodate Quebec language laws and was spun off entirely to shareholders by 2006, remaining registered in corporate haven Delaware.
The pilot project with Cold Stone Creamery—whose schtick is to fold ice cream concoctions together on a frozen slab in front of customers—will also allow new marketing opportunities, such as “muffin bowls,” where the top of the muffin is removed and turned upside down to hold the ice cream.
According to news reports, initial interest in the Timvasion was strong, with the New York Daily News calling it “the caloric colossus from Canada” and NBC’s Today ominously announcing that the chain is “looking to caffeinate the word.” However, with Americans used to the bitter coffee of Starbucks and the familiar pink-and-orange of the Dunkin’ Donuts brand, reactions from the customers were mixed.
“I’m a cop,” said one man to the Daily News. “Take away Dunkin’ Donuts and what’s my stereotype going to be?”
“They better not do this in Queens or Long Island,” threatened a territorial Manhattanite to the New York Times.
Still, in an informal Daily News taste test, Tim Hortons fared better than Dunkin’ Donuts with customers by a better-than 6–5 margin. A New York Times comparison concluded that both products were virtually indistinguishable, lamenting how “mass-produced doughnuts are achieving total global mediocrity.”
Our pals at Gothamist were much more complimentary, and one reader said he was “in heaven” with his six-dollar lunch, but complained that he “stood in line as an annoying Canadian stockbroker waxed rhapsodic about how the stock is a buy.”
The Riese Organization—which also operates KFC, Pizza Hut, and T.G.I. Friday’s franchises in New York—says that the product in these stores will be baked on-site instead of at a central commissary, so that should be a plus toward the brand’s “Always Fresh” promise. It’s too early to tell if the restaurants will provide a different enough experience to attract and maintain New York City customers, but in the meantime, we predict the shops will be a perfect place to interact with other Canadian tourists looking for a taste of home.