Edward Keenan: Tim Hortons’ warm-and-fuzzy brand now tough to swallow
Any lingering doubt that this is just another cold-hearted corporate behemoth was dispelled this month when franchisees took out frustration over the minimum wage increase on their employees.
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By now most of us have seen the Tim Hortons ad “Proud Fathers,” in which a grandfather reveals to his alienated son, while they watch his grandson’s Timbit hockey game over a double-double, that though he was stern earlier in their lives, he secretly cheered on the son’s progress as a hockey player. He produces a faded team picture from his wallet as proof, and demands it back once they’ve bonded over it.
It’s a real tear jerker— part of a series of ads called “True Stories.”
It’s the quintessential narrative message from the doughnut and coffee chain, the definition of its brand: hot drinks served with a side of nationalism, community generosity, and family-bonding emotion. Not just a business, but a treasured Canadian institution.
If that warm-and-fuzzy brand identity isn’t completely divorced from observable reality by now, it’s become as faded and torn and washed out as the old team picture in the ad.
You can just picture the next ad, “Proud Mother”: a kid gets up early and, in the morning dark, puts her hockey equipment on and places her skates and helmet near the door. Then she goes to wake up her ride, “Mommy, time for the game,” she says. Mom pads out of bed and, as she puts on her threadbare Tim Hortons work uniform, explains that there’s no game, because they can’t afford hockey fees this year because Mommy now has to pay more for benefits and clock out for breaks and buy a new work uniform out of her own pocket. “But, Mom, you mean Tim Hortons sponsors uniforms for kids hockey teams across the country, but they won’t sponsor yours?”
A real tear jerker, in a slightly different key. “Truer stories,” they could call it.
I’ve felt for a long time, and written before, that Timmies’ institutional image was a crock: that the chain’s market-dominating expansion and the changes it made to its business model had virtually eliminated the old Canadian doughnut shop as a beloved community gathering place.
But any lingering doubt that this is just another cold-hearted corporate behemoth was dispelled this month when Tim Hortons franchisees — led by the husband-and-wife team descended from the Joyce and Horton families who founded the chain — decided to react to an increase in the minimum wage by squeezing their employees.
The franchise in Cobourg owned by Ron Joyce Jr. and Jeri Horton-Joyce kicked off the new year by telling their employees that because of the minimum-wage increase, they’d now have to pay half the cost of their own health and dental benefits, and have their paid breaks eliminated.
The premier called it “bullying,” but similar stories soon came out at various other locations. One Scarborough location said tips given to employees by customers must be turned over to management. At least one location, according to the CBC, would now require employees to buy their work uniforms for about $100 each. As a nickel-and-dime insult, that same location would no longer allow employees to take a free coffee home with them at the end of their shifts.
The response from some in the public has been anger. Some launched a “No Timmies Tuesday” boycott this week. A protest at the Cobourg location is scheduled for Wednesday, as well as protests at nine Toronto locations throughout the day.
The corporate mothership at Restaurant Brands International has tried to distance itself from the public outcry that followed: they said this movement to shake down employees is the work of “rogue groups” and doesn’t “reflect the values” of its brand.
Well, no. That doesn’t wash.
The franchisees in question — rogue or not — have certainly demonstrated that faced with a statutory, industry-wide rise in the cost of doing business, their first impulse is to try to take it out of their employees’ wallets.
But as the group representing some location owners — the nauseatingly named Great White North Franchisee Association — said in a statement, the corporate parent doesn’t get off the hook for blame. Because the very most obvious thing to do is raise prices, and that’s something the corporate parent will not let franchisees do.
This shouldn’t even be controversial. As letter writer Ken Fitzsimmons said on the Star’s letters page Tuesday, “All these shops have to do to cover the increased expense is to raise their prices. Now, don’t try to tell me that this will make them uncompetitive. All their competitors are in the same situation and will have to raise prices as well.”
That’s the approach taken by Blackbird Baking Co. in Kensington Market, which posted a sign in their window saying “We at Blackbird believe in supporting decent work for a living wage,” and because of that, “to support our people and continue to bring you the best product possible, our prices will rise for the first time since our opening.”
When my colleague Robert Benzie tweeted a photo of the sign, it was celebrated by social media users as a welcome response. When I called, a manager named Julia said most customers have taken the move in stride. The increases do put their prices above some neighbouring bakery options, she said, and some customers have pointed that out to them. But she thinks, in time, those competitors will need to raise their prices too.
“Overall, the response from customers has been positive,” she said.
Tim Hortons could take the same approach, provincewide — after all, their competitors will be in the same bind they are. And it seems a chain could generate goodwill and good PR by spinning it as a great day for employees that will cost customers only a few cents more per coffee.
If, for some reason, the suits at Tim Horton Central don’t think the market will bear any price increase, they owe it to their franchisees (and their employees) to coach them on some other innovation or solution that will bridge the gap. If they have a plan for how to profitably deal with the change in employee costs, they should share that plan with their franchisees.
After all, when entrepreneurs bought a franchise, they were essentially buying into a business model, brand and plan. And it had lots of notice — the premier announced this change to the minimum wage in June. No one should have been caught by surprise.
Some other companies have similarly reacted by striking out at their employees. It’s the wrong reaction if you ask me, but it’s not a surprise to see corporations try to screw their labourers. But none of those others has so carefully built their brand on compassion, generosity, community spirit, and Canadian identity.
If it seems like Canadians are unduly harsh on this one chain and its operators, perhaps it’s because Tim Hortons has asked us to consider its business to be a part of our own identity, a reflection of our national spirit. Many Canadians, for better or for worse, have embraced that corporate message. Tim Hortons has reaped the benefits of that branding. They are learning there are some expectations that come with it, too.
Edward Keenan writes on city issues email@example.com. Follow: @thekeenanwire