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Canadians will be politely sad if Burger King takes over Tim Hortons

Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Burger King is in the midst of a potential takeover of Canadian coffee and donut chain Tim Hortons. Canadians, while still a mild bunch, are not thrilled with the idea.

"It's our brand," Holly Cosgrey, a 60-year-old Torontonian told Bloomberg News. "Timmy's is always trying new things, adapting, they always have good service, and you always get your coffee fast no matter how long the lineup is. Burger King may screw it up."

To understand what the Tim Hortons purchase means in the United States, you need to dig into to the arcane tax policies about inversions. But understanding what a takeover of Timmy's (as the chain is known north of the border) means to a Canadian is a story about culture and pride. It's about an American fast food company taking over a beloved institution older than the Canadian flag itself.

1) What is Tim Hortons?

Tim Hortons is Canada's largest restaurant chain. With more than 3,600 locations across the country, that works out to one Tim Hortons for every 9,500 Canadians. (By contrast, Starbucks maintains a paltry one coffee shop for every 28,000 Americans).

Tim Hortons is ubiquitous in Canada. Canadians spend an average of $150 at Tim Hortons annually, higher than spending at any other store. As of 2008, it controlled 62 percent of the country's coffee market. Some researchers use the proximity of the nearest Tim Hortons to measure whether an area of Canada is rural or not. Really.

2) Who is Tim Horton?

A real person, to start.

Before he was known for a massively successful coffee and donuts chain, Tim Horton was a professional hockey player. Yes, this story is really that Canadian.

Born in Ontario, he spent most of his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs; for decades, he held the record for most consecutive games played for the team (486, to be exact). In the middle of his hockey career, Horton got into the franchise business, opening his first store in April 1964 under the name Tim Donut.

Tim Hortons grew quickly, as you can see in this most excellent graphic from Victoria Bloomfield's article, "Tim Hortons: Growth of a Canadian Coffee and Doughnut Chain."

"The growth of Tim Hortons," Bloomfield writes, "has made a distinctively Canadian contribution to the evolution of fast food."

3) How popular is Tim Hortons in Canada?

tim hortons parade

This is a Canadian parade where a person in a giant Tim Hortons cup marched. For real. (mnoa357 / Shutterstock.com)

It's popular, and ingrained in national culture in a way to that's difficult to compare to any fast food chain in the United States.

Tim Hortons finds itself into official Canadian moments with shocking ease. Like take the time that the Royal Canadian Mint wanted to distribute a new, commemorative quarter in 2004. It distributed that new coin exclusively through Tim Hortons locations. Let that sink in: the federal government was distributing new currency through a donut shop chain. You couldn't go to a bank and get this quarter; you had to go to Tim Hortons.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary has added the phrase "double-double" to its list — that would be Tim Hortons-speak for a coffee with two creams and two sugars. When former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Canada in 2006, the foreign minister took her to a Tim Hortons for coffee.

"The chain is celebrated as a 'national institution' and is connected to broader ideas of cultural identity, an iconic status only partially connected to memories of Tim as a Canadian hero," University of Toronto sociologist Steve Penfold writes in his book, "The Donut: A Canadian History."

In that book, Penfold quotes one independent donut shop owner on the popularity of Tim Hortons: "They'll go anywhere," he says. "They could survive in the middle of Lake Ontario."

Maybe it's the quality of the coffee (there 's a longstanding rumor in Canada that Timmy's puts nicotine in its coffee to make it addictive, which has, unsurprisingly, turned out to be false). Or maybe it's the donuts. But the significance of Tim Hortons seems to really come down to its place as a long-standing, home-grown business that is everywhere in Canada.

4) Isn't a little sad that Canadians are so enthusiastic about a donut store?

Is it sad that Americans get prideful about apple pie? We all have our national icons and, in Canada, Tim Hortons is one of them.

canada hand

Big thumbs up for Tim Hortons (Shutterstock.com)

Canada is a relatively small country that shares a border with one of the world's largest; it's easy for Canadian culture to get overwhelmed by American brands.

And Tim Hortons is a rare exception to that trend. Because of it, Starbucks has barely been able to get a foothold in the Canadian coffee market (it's the second largest coffee chain in Canada, but only holds 7 percent of the market). Even when you live in Canada, it's rare to see a homegrown brand that is so dominant.

More than a coffee shop, Tim Hortons is something that feels uniquely Canadian — in a way not many outlets (not really much of anything, for that matter) do. The vast majority of large chains in Canada are American, perhaps with a little homage to their newly-annexed land. Breakfast chain Denny's, for example, replaces the apostrophe in its name with a maple leaf in signage at Canadian locations; Pizza Hut uses the same maple leaf to dot the "i" in pizza.

But that's not the case with Tim Hortons: it's a massively successful, homegrown, definitely Canadian success. One that could soon have uniquely un-Canadian ownership.

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