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Tim Hortons: How A Hockey Player Is Responsible For The Starbucks Of Canada

Ask most Americans who or what they associate with Tim Horton. A few may say, “Isn’t that a restaurant?” Some might even say, “Isn’t that a Canadian restaurant?” Very few, however, will say, “Oh, he was a hockey player.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

So, yes, Tim Hortons is a “quick service” donut and coffee chain—Canada’s largest—and yes, Tim Horton went into the Hockey Hall of Fame posthumously in 1977. Believe it or not, some may even say he’s the most famous Canadian in history. He was a defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs, among other teams, and he was relied upon for his steady play for 24 seasons.

Tim Hortons has been in business for over half a century. On May 17, 1964, the first Tim Horton’s Donuts opened in Hamilton, Ontario. As a wise athlete, Horton was trying to plan ahead and figure out a way to support his wife and daughters after his hockey career inevitably ended. He actually first tried to kickstart a hamburger restaurant, but there was too much competition in the chicken and burger space. His business partners, however, Jim Charade and Dennis Griggs, had experience in donut restaurants, where the cost was lower and the menu was smaller.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ralston-Purina Company

A former policeman in Hamilton, Ontario, Ron Joyce (who had, at the time, recently exited a partnership with Dairy Queen), then joined Horton’s business team, buying Charade out. Joyce was the man responsible for changing the name of the coffee and donut shop from Tim Horton’s Donut Shop to, humbly, Tim Hortons. A mere four years after the first shop opened, the chain was a successful franchise.

Horton’s life was sadly cut short in the early morning of February 21, 1974, while driving under the influence without a seatbelt. He was 44 years old and driving home from his hockey game the night before, which resulted in a loss to his former team, the Maple Leafs.

After Horton’s death, Ron Joyce bought Horton’s family’s shares for $1 million. Tim Hortons’ growth exploded, making it one of the most popular chains in Canada. Over the years, many have tried to figure out why the chain has been so successful. After all, it doesn’t have the ambience or baristas of a Starbucks, for example. What it does have is a powerful brand that has stood the test of time and has grown to be considered a Canadian staple. The company grew through the name of Tim Horton, a beloved Canadian, and an inexpensive, comfortable menu. In fact, one of their more successful marketing campaigns was to provide a complimentary Tim Hortons coffee mug to customers that they could then affix to their car dashboard. Voila, free advertising.

The restaurant is considered “uniquely Canadian” and has around 5,000 locations today. Many of these franchises are owned by relatives of Horton. Ron Joyce’s son, Ron Joyce, Jr., and Horton’s daughter, Jeri-Lyn, actually ended up getting married, and they own numerous franchises together.