03:25:33 pm on
Sunday 19 May 2019

Timbit Diplomacy
David Simmonds

I have frequently resorted to poking a stick at the easy target of Tim Hortons. It’s about time I said something a little nicer about the company. Here we go.

► Tim Hortons on a fast boat to China.

 According to an article in the Globe and Mail, a few weeks ago, Tims has decided to enter the coffee market in China. It plans to open up some ten-to-twenty stores a year, over the next couple of years. The goal is 1,500 outlets in ten years.

Who can blame Tim Hortons? Coffee is becoming a big thing in the land of tea drinkers. The overall Chinese coffee market is $4.5 billion or so. Demand for coffee has jumped 235 per cent in the last five years.

China, let’s not forget, has a population of 1.386 billion, making Canada’s 35 million seem like a rounding error. Yet, Tims have about 3,800 restaurants in Canada. You can work out the potential Tims-per-Chinese for yourself, but, clearly, the upside potential is huge.

There are a few small obstacles for Tims in China. First, the competition is already there. Starbucks has been in China for twenty years and already has about 3,700 outlets, with plans to open 2,400 additional outlets in the next four years. A Chinese chain, called Luckin, set up in just 2017, expects to reach 4,500 outlets by the end of 2019. The British Costa Coffee group wants to be in 1,200 locations by 2022. There are other ambitious Chinese companies targeting the market. .

The apparent capacity of the market to absorb all comers has not led to inevitable success. Krispy Kreme, the US donut franchise, was in and out of the Chinese market, twice. Dunkin Donuts is trying China for the third time.

Tims will have to be careful not to simply show up with its Old Fashioned Glazed, with Extra Large Double Double and tell the Chinese that they are lucky to be able to consume the product. Tims needs to have its ear to the ground. Indeed, Tims has already tweaked its menu to appeal to Chinese tastes by offering fewer sweet items and introducing salted egg yolk Timbits, shrimp sandwiches and green tea lattes.

► Coffee competition in China is heavy.

Apart from being late to the party and having to be sensitive to the market, Tims also faces a challenge in differentiating itself from the competition. Its strategy is to style itself the everyday choice, rather than the special occasion choice, of the coffee consumer. That means careful pricing. On one hand, its coffee will cost roughly thirty per cent lower than Starbucks. On the other hand, the Luckin chain is planning to charge less than a third of the Tims price. Can Tims find a niche somewhere in the middle? Will it be enough to offer quality decor, with wood finishes and comfortable seats? Will it ever develop a cachet?

Then there is the elephant in the room: Tim’s Canadian identity. That doesn’t win you many brownie points with the Chinese government these days. Perhaps the Chinese people will express their independence from authority by loading up on Honey Crullers, but perhaps not.

To its credit, Tims China has rejected the chance to start pitching itself as a Brazilian outfit that just happened to acquire a company based in Canada, but with no special affection for the place. Instead, it is doubling down on its Canadian identity. A giant coffee cup bearing the maple leaf insignia beckons customers. Maple Leaf themed quilts hang on the walls. A maple latte is on the menu. .

If I were Tim’s, I would be sticking to my Canadian guns as well, and indeed doubling down on one of my strengths: the Timbit. The company has already stated that it plans to sponsor Timbits sports teams in China. Maybe the time is right for a little Timbit diplomacy.

Timbits soccer teams from China could twin with teams from Canada and visit Canada for friendly games. The Chinese could introduce the Canadians to salted egg yolk Timbits and the Canadians could intrude the Chinese to the sweeter varieties unavailable in China. A people-to-people connection would emerge. The parents of the Chinese Timbits kids would soon spread their gratitude on social media and rapidly reach all 1.385 billion of their fellow citizens.

Tims could focus its marketing budget on the twinning programme and reap the benefits of a positive public image. This would in turn save it from having to flog some new sandwich gimmick every couple of months or come up with more commercials featuring selfless gestures by hockey kids and their grandparents.

Who knows, our government may be interested in getting involved. After all, ping-pong diplomacy worked for Richard Nixon, why shouldn’t Timbit diplomacy work for Justin Trudeau. Nothing else seems to be going right for him on the China file; well, make that the whole Prime Minister file. He himself could probably benefit from a time out for coffee and a couple of Timbits.

► Timbit is the secret weapon.

Thus, to you, Tim Hortons, full marks for your gumption and good luck in trying to establish a beachhead in the People’s Republic. Stick with the maple leaf and deploy the Timbit.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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