How a Toronto-area Tim Hortons helped the franchise get its start

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
The first official Tim Hortons location in Hamilton, ON.

I first set foot in a Tim Hortons in December 1972 outside Thunder Bay, Ont. A friend and I were driving home to Calgary after spending much of the year working construction in Ottawa.

My clapped out '58 Pontiac had blown its front wheel-bearings in Sudbury, forcing an expensive repair and motel layover we couldn't afford. That meant a largely non-stop drive for the rest of the trip.

After a sphincter-tightening 1,000-kilometre day and night run from Sudbury to Thunder Bay through an endless snow storm, we took a break at a Tim's off the Trans-Canada around 2 a.m. as the weather cleared.

A coffee and doughnut never tasted so good, but the waitress and handful of other patrons must have thought these two grizzled, hollow-eyed guys in their beater car looked extremely dodgy. The place emptied out within a few minutes of us sitting down at the counter.

Chances are, every Canadian has a story like mine. We're so inured to Tim Hortons being embedded in the Canadian psyche – right up there with hockey and maple syrup – that we forget the omnipresent fast-food chain was not a sure thing in its early days.

A fresh look at the opening of the first (successful) Timmy's in Metro Toronto gives interesting insight into the years before it became the dominant fast-food purveyor in Canada, before "double double" became part of the national lexicon.

blog TO asserts in a recent blog post that the June 1, 1970 opening of Tim Horton Donuts off The Queensway in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke gave the chain the foothold it needed to begin growing.

Today's empire boasts more than 3,400 Canadian and and 800 U.S. outlets. It's the biggest fast-food chain in Canada by far, with almost three times as many locations as Starbucks and more than twice as many as McDonalds.

Toronto Maple Leafs hockey star Tim Horton, who'd dipped his toes in other off-ice business ventures, first opened several Tim Horton Drive-In Restaurant locations in the Toronto area with a partner, including a downtown location at Yonge and Dundas that doubled as the head office.

The early Tims offered an odd mix of food items. One store specialized in chicken, while the downtown store sold steaks and doughnuts.

The little four-store chain folded in 1964, according to blog TO. Horton and his partner, Jim Charade, retreated to Hamilton, Ont., opening the first outlet of Tims 2.0 in a former gas station in 1964, which is where the company's official history begins.

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At the time, you could buy coffee and a doughnut for a quarter. A dozen doughnuts were 69 cents, blog TO notes.

The franchise operation featured a purple-and-white colour scheme and a window through which customers could watch the 40 kinds of doughnuts being prepared.

Things were still rocky, though, and a series of managerial changes eventually lead to Ron Joyce, a local police officer, acquiring that original franchise. Joyce would become the prime mover in the chain's growth through the 1970s, including the opening of the Etobicoke store, which still exists.

By then, Tim Hortons was opening up to four locations a year, a rate that would accelerate as it expanded into Quebec, Atlantic and then Western Canada.

[ Related: Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons posts higher profit ]

After Tim Horton, heavily impaired, died in a car accident in 1974, Joyce took control of the operation under terms of their partnership agreement.

The man behind the name became less important to the brand's image, though a stylized version of his signature still graces the company's logo, blog TO said.

Tim Hortons was bought up by the U.S.-based Wendy's hamburger chain in 1995 but spun off as a publicly-traded company in 2006. Three years later, it was restructured to become a totally Canadian public company.

And today you can hardly throw a rock in Toronto without hitting a Timmy's; there are 275 outlets in the region.