A Love Letter To Tim Hortons From A Canadian Expat In Paris

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The first stop on my annual pilgrimage home to Toronto, Canada from Paris, France, where I've been living over the last decade, is always Tim Hortons. And given the sheer number of locations across the country—about 4,300 in Canada—I'm never very far from one.

Canadians with more highbrow coffee tastes than me may puzzle at my unsophisticated coffee habits. I live in Paris, one of the café capitals of the world, and Canada itself boasts a dynamic scene of artisan craft coffee roasters and gourmet coffee houses. There are a host of more premium Canadian coffee chains and franchises I can patronize, including Second Cup, Timothy's World Coffee, and Van Houtte.

But as many other Canadian expats can attest, when you return to the country after being abroad for a while, the sight of a Tim Hortons coffee shop is perhaps one of the warmest, friendliest, and most comforting affirmations that you're finally home.

For non-Canadian readers who may be unfamiliar with the brand, here's where Tim Hortons lies on the coffee landscape in Canada: Compared to Starbucks, Tim Hortons is the Everyman's coffee shop, akin to Dunkin' but loaded with much more cultural cachet. It's the people-friendly chain, free of coffee snobbery, free of judgement, with both blue- and white-collar customers alike and, most importantly, democratic pricing.

If Starbucks uses the sophistication of Italian coffee culture to sell their products (even the cup sizes "grande" and "venti" were inspired by former CEO Howard Schultz's trip to Italy), Tim Hortons uses straightforward, plain, distinctly Canadian English. Donut holes are branded as Timbits, and the double double—Canuck-speak to denote coffee with double cream and double sugar—has become synonymous with Tim Hortons.

It's the quickest and most nostalgic way of assimilating myself back into Canadian life: I cradle my cup of Double Double (capitalized here because Tim Hortons has trademarked the name) and take generous gulps of the rich, milky, saccharine solution that's more cream than coffee.

Every sip takes me back to my high school and university years when cheap and cheerful student-friendly Double Doubles fueled my pre-exam all-nighters and double shifts at my restaurant jobs; later, they would power me through my brief stint working as a flight attendant, when I'd grab a coffee at the airport Timmies before my 6 a.m. flight (because, as the unofficial coffee brand of Canada, Tim Hortons outlets can easily be found at airports nationwide). And if I stretch further back, I can summon memories of my childhood Sundays, when the after-service snack at my small Korean church in suburban Ontario often featured boxes of Tim Hortons donuts.

For both newly arrived and longtime immigrant residents, Tim Hortons has always been an easy and accessible initiation into Canadian life. By virtue of eating a maple-glazed donut and uttering the distinctly Canadian words "Double Double" at the counter as though it were a secret password (the term was entered officially into the Canadian Oxford Dictionary in 2004), immigrants with limited English could embrace a part of Canadian culture for, well, the price of a cup of coffee. Within many immigrant groups, it's not uncommon for friends to meet at their local Tim's and use the restaurant as their own community center and regular hangout, in spite of the hard chairs and generic, no-frills setting.

It's been a long time, but when I close my eyes, somewhere in the fog of my memory are vignettes of Sunday school kids rushing toward the donut line, little hands groping around greedily for the popular jelly-filled or chocolate-glazed donut. Korean mothers are standing around drinking from Styrofoam and paper cups, admonishing the noisier kids in between rounds of friendly gossip, while the men are sat at long communal tables, eating their donuts in four bites and slurping their first coffee of the day.

It's a scenario that fits nicely with the brand's corporate image, which emphasizes the company's Canadian heritage—Tim Horton was a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey player—and tries to tug at heartstrings with marketing campaigns that sell the brand as a bridge-builder for families, neighbors, and communities.

But being upheld as a cultural icon also makes the chain more prone to scrutiny. In 1995, Tim Hortons merged with Wendy's International, falling under American ownership until 2009 when it returned home and restructured as a Canadian company. In 2014, Burger King snapped up Canada's most valuable domestic brand in a deal that brought it under the corporate banner of Restaurant Brands International (RBI), which is backed by Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital.

Since Tim Hortons' latest merger, disputes between franchisees and the corporate head office, as well as threats to employee benefits amid minimum wage increases in Ontario, have damaged the brand's reputation and inspired calls to boycott the company. This fallout with the Canadian public has translated to sluggish sales and an overall identity crisis. Earlier this year, corporate executives pledged to rebrand the company and emphasize its Canadian ownership: RBI is registered in Canada, its head office is in Toronto, and 3G has been selling off its stake in RBI.

But even as it recommits to its Canadian image, Tim Hortons has entered new markets like the UK, Spain, Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines, and China, and it's expanded its presence in the U.S. Call me a coffee snob, but the idea of walking into a Tim Hortons outside Canada holds little appeal to me. As an expat, I imagine it would make me feel even more displaced and alien. Because for me, Tim's is less about the food and drink and more about saccharine Canadian memories.

Shortly after arriving in Paris, my coffee lexicon expanded to include the term "café crème," the French term for a latte. A simple "café" in French will get you a single espresso and my palate is not cut out for the strong, bitter shots served at many French restaurants, bars and cafés. I still prefer mine to be milky and comforting, and I know there are plenty of expats worldwide who feel just the same way.