What do coffee chains say about culture?

I never learned to like coffee, so I can’t weigh in on the java side of this pop-culture question. But I have been very grateful for access to washrooms on long road trips. Or for the use of free wi-fi when away from home. So, I have my own favorite stops and have purchased a pastry or two as thanks for those other features.

Tim Hortons. According to the photographer, "The one thing that unites Canadians of all backgrounds, languages and ethnicities..." Photo: Doug, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Tim Hortons. According to the photographer, “The one thing that unites Canadians of all backgrounds, languages and ethnicities…” Photo: Doug, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Here in Canada, it’s all about Tim’s. Named for a real hockey player, Tim Hortons has become part and parcel of modern Canadian culture. (Dear grammar police: I don’t know what to do about possessive apostrophes in this post. A person’s name would need those, but the corporation seems to eschew them. We’ll just muddle through, shall we?)

Tim’s has a back story of a merger with the Wendy’s restaurant chain that’s too complicated for the purposes of this post. But I recall a flurry of speculative excitement here when Tim’s had a public offering of shares in 2006, alongside of efforts to venture into the large and tempting U.S. market. The thinking ran: hey, better get in now! If America takes to Timmy’s the way Canadians have, here’s a chance to get rich! (Like buying shares of Coke or Microsoft before they hit big.)

Well, thus far that doesn’t seem to be going very well. As recently reported by Lauren S. Murphy in Bloomberg news: ” Tim Hortons is a flop in the US“.

Why? Don’t American like coffee and doughnuts? (Silly question, of course they do!) But that market was already very well-served and continues to be fully saturated.  The expansion of Tims served no pressing need abroad. (With the possible exception of a rapturous reception for the Tim Hortons that operated in Kandahar, Afghanistan from 2006-2011.) Tim Hortons may have to just steadily chug along in its birthplace, without the explosive growth or expanding profits once dreamed of.

Coffeehouse culture has seen a modern revival in places like Seattle, or the surge or Starbuck’s. But it’s quite old, even if Europe was a johnny-come-lately to the habit. As discussed by Fordham University and the Internet Modern History Sourcebook, this page addresses The First English Coffee-Houses, c. 1670-1675:

As you have a hodge-podge of drinks, such too is your company, for each man seems a leveler, and ranks and files himself as he lists, without regard to degrees or order; so that often you may see a silly fop and a worshipful justice, a griping rook and a grave citizen, a worthy lawyer and an errant pickpocket, a reverend non-conformist and a canting mountebank, all blended together to compose a medley of impertinence.

Indeed, the effects of coffee and the atmosphere it fosters are much loved:

Lastly, for diversion. It is older than Aristotle, and will be true, when Hobbes is forgot, that man is a sociable creature, and delights in company. Now, whither shall a person, wearied with hard study, or the laborious turmoils of a tedious day, repair to refresh himself? Or where can young gentlemen, or shop-keepers, more innocently and advantageously spend an hour or two in the evening, than at a coffee-house? Where they shall be sure to meet company, and, by the custom of the house, not such as at other places, stingy and reserved to themselves, but free and communicative; where every man may modestly begin his story, and propose to, or answer another, as he thinks fit.

I like that phrase “…man is a sociable creature, and delights in company.” Where is that taking place in your life?

Do you still find good conversation and a lively mix of class and political discourse at coffee shops? Or is it now more about dispensing a mild but legal drug in an efficient manner, with heads glued to smart phones and heads stuffed with earpods?

I suppose NCPR functions as a local dispenser of NPR brand coffee: a big, local community that talks – and listens. Just not in the same room at the same time!

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4 Responses to “What do coffee chains say about culture?”

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  1. Peter Klein says:

    Never stopped for coffee at a Starbucks because it is way too expensive and coffee is coffee.
    Did stop once at a Tim Horton’s when driving from NY to Detroit and thought it was a nice place.
    Speaking of coffee shops, I remember back in the 50′s and early 60′s espresso places enjoyed some popularity. You could go to one and play some chess while pretending to be a beatnik.
    WiFi? Why? I don’t want to be connected when not at home and I positively hate cell phones.

  2. Ward Geddes says:

    I’m not sure but Tim Hortons lack of a comma may reflect something cultural also. During the Quebec Liberation movement, Eaton’s was highly criticized as an English establishment which mistreated its French customers, often refusing to serve them in French. In the French language law designed to right this type of wrong in Quebec, apostrophe’s were regarded as English and outlawed in commercial signs. The signs “Eaton’s” and “Hudson’s Bay” disappeared in Quebec and all over Canada. Another sign of Canadian culture: The Montreal Star (no longer publishing) pointed out that the law didn’t seem to enforced against American companies as McDonald’s and others kept their names intact with no criticism. There’s culture at work.

  3. Hank says:

    Tim Hortons has far from the best coffee one can find in Canada (here in Ottawa, places like Bridgehead or numerous independent shops brew much better coffee, in my opinion) but they do offer consistency from store to store and that is a great thing when you’re traveling by car. The coffee is almost always acceptable (in terms of taste and temperature), the washrooms are almost always clean, the wi-fi is free and speedy and Tim Hortons is located almost everywhere (there are 4 outlets within a 15-minute walk of my house).

    And, yes, when I visit a Tim Hortons while traveling on the road, especially in the small town and rural areas of the country (like I said, they’re everywhere!) I overhear a lot of local gossip chatter from groups of people seated at tables. Tim’s has become a social institution, a neighbourhood meeting place.

  4. “apostrophe’s were regarded as English”

    Even when apostrophes (no ‘) are misused like this?

    Sorry, just teasing. =)