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March 08, 2022

Will Tim Hortons' upscale restaurant plans hurt its brand?

Scenario A: You wake up Sunday morning and, as you usually do, head down to the local Tims to grab a coffee. You order a mug, snatch a newspaper and plop down next to Herb, Betty, Jim and the rest of the gang. You talk about nothing in particular, though you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Scenario B: That same Sunday, you get dressed and hop in the car. On the way to your favourite Tims is – huh?  – another Tims, a new Tims. Inside this restaurant aren’t the familiar booths and tables, nor that counter top with the cafeteria-style grooves that run down from the cash to the sandwich pick-up area. The food looks the same, but you peer inside to see patrons sipping from mugs you don’t recognize, and now Herb, Betty and Jim are Chip, Kent and Joan, a trio of stockbrokers on their way to spin class.

Which setting do you choose?

Okay, scenario B is a little dramatized, but such is the worry over the latest Tim Hortons announcement that is sure to have Canada split in opinion.

By now you’ve heard the news our iconic coffee shop has made plans to refurbish, refinish and redesign as many as 900 of its locations as part of a new image Tims seems to be chasing.

Indeed, in an apparent bid to Starbucks-isize itself, the Oakville-based chain will spend up to $200 million this year to include what the restaurant calls “enhanced finishes, fixtures and seating areas” in some of its franchises. Up to 60 Canadian locations will also be converted to include a Cold Stone Creamery counter, the U.S. ice cream chain Tims has plans to soon integrate with.

Now, it takes money to make money, that we agree on. But part of this announcement seems a little counter-productive, doesn’t it? Tims already has a rabid, loyal fan base, and chances are you don’t know anyone who’s against Tim Hortons because of the aesthetics of its restaurants.

Why, then, fork over a few hundred million to jazz up business when business – by many accounts – needs little jazzing up?

No rational Tims customer will turn up its nose to nicer restaurant digs, but they may to the ambience that accompanies them. Look, what are the three things we know about the Second Cups and Williams’ of the world? They’re upscale, expensive and replete with the ability to alienate a huge percentage of Canadians. It’s nothing against those coffee shops, it’s just there’s a certain comfort level with Tims and its restaurants that may be best left untouched. Why mess with a good thing?

As Star  reader CanadianBiker comments on the news Tim Hortons will remodel: “As long as they don’t become another Starbucks. The last thing we need is another pretentious over-priced ridiculous hangout serving … Toronto’s pseudo-intellectual hipsters.”

A crude analysis? You bet. But if these fears are out there for any Tims loyalist, why make the move in the first place? Why risk driving away your bread-and-butter consumer base to attract a smaller, less-faithful group of customers who can’t be trusted for lasting business? And what if these new remodelling trends – and we don’t see how they won’t – lead to a price jack on menu items down the road? What then?

If this is the coffee shop's retaliation for McDonald's' increasing efforts to carve into its market share, so be it. But when everything's said and done, the best change for Tim Hortons might be to make none at all.

By Jason Buckland, MSN Money



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Gordon PowersGordon Powers

A long-time fund company executive, Gordon Powers now heads up the Affinity Group, a financial services consulting firm. Gordon was a personal finance columnist for the Globe & Mail for many years, has taught retirement planning...

James HaversJames Havers

James is the senior editor of MSN Money living in Toronto. He has worked for the Nikkei Shimbun (Tokyo),,, Canadian Business and other publications. Havers turned to journalism after teaching overseas.

Jason BucklandJason Buckland

The modern-day MC Hammer of money, Jason can often be seen spending cash that isn’t his with the efficiency of a Wilt Chamberlain first date. After cutting his teeth as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, he joined the MSN Money team with...