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Going for a coffee, Toronto-style

I thought that the British talked about the weather a lot – and then I went to Toronto. Granted, the weather changed a lot in the 12 days that we spent there earlier this year, but I did not expect it to be the hot topic of conversation that it was. Maybe it was just because the weather changed so much – it was May after all, and it varied from being warm enough to sit in the garden to heaving rain – but I had not expected to find everyone talking about it.

As well as talking about the weather a lot, Torontonians are also – to quote Jan Morris – ‘almost incoherently polite’ (I think she meant this in a good way, although much of what she has had to say about Toronto over the years comes across as a backhanded compliment). This is a city where you will receive an apology if you tread on someone’s foot while travelling on the TTC. These two traits combine when the visitor to Toronto receives apologies for the state of the weather. I call this the ‘colonial legacy gone wrong’.

One aspect of Toronto that was certainly not inherited from the old country – although given the multicultural plurality of modern Toronto you may need to specify which one you’re talking about – is the citizens’ love of coffee. There are many places where you can go for a coffee in Toronto, but this love is best symbolised by one fast-food chain which stands above all others.

If you were to catch the TTC out to Kipling Station and, on leaving it, walk west along Dundas Street (not that many people do), you’d come to a road junction that emphasises the point I’m working towards. On one side of the road is a branch of Starbucks that looks, well, just like you would expect any suburban branch of Starbucks to look like. Apart, that is, from the fact that it’s far from busy and the surrounding car park is empty. The reason for this lies opposite, where the car park at Tim Hortons is always full and there are usually at least half-a-dozen cars queuing for the drive-thru.

According to the Internet, in Canada Tim Hortons is bigger than McDonald’s, and is responsible for 62% of the Canadian coffee market (Starbucks, which is in second place, accounts for a mere 7%).

Why is Tim Hortons so popular?

The coffee is cheaper for a start, and there’s no messing around with frapachinos and skinny lattés. If you just want your coffee with milk and sugar, you go to Tim Hortons (although Canadians are more likely to ask for cream). 

Although it is starting to make inroads into the USA, you can’t get more Canadian than Tim Hortons. It’s even named after an ice-hockey player, for heaven’s sake (and not just any player; a defenceman whose playing career spanned 24 years, he won four Stanley Cups with the Leafs in the 1960s).

Now I am usually a tea drinker by choice, but when travelling abroad I adopt a ‘when in Rome’ approach which means that I tend to switch to coffee when in Toronto. My preferred option in Tim Hortons is a ‘regular’ (one sugar, one shot of cream), although for a real hit there’s always the option of the ‘double double’ (two sugars, two creams). I have heard people ask for a ‘triple triple’ on occasions, although one does wonder if there’s any room for the coffee in such a drink.

One morning during our visit back in May, Allison and I were driving into the city to meet some friends when we stopped off for a coffee at Tim Hortons, as you do. We joined the queue for the drive-thru purely because it was also the queue to get into the car park (that’s how popular it is). After a few minutes sitting in the car, though, I started to wonder: What would be quicker – the drive-thru, or going in to get the coffee?

I left Allison in the car and joined an even larger queue inside. Things were not looking good until someone behind the counter shouted out that there was an express checkout for customers who only wanted to buy coffee. Most, it seems, were after some food as well (doughnuts, probably) – so I was able to get our coffees in double-quick time and thus prove that going into the place is quicker than the drive-thru.

An express checkout for coffee? No wonder it’s popular.

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