In the summer of 2009, Tim Hortons, the fantastic Canadian coffee and donut chain, came to New York City. I was initially hopeful—after all, I loved going to Tim Hortons in Canada—but it has proved to be a mixed experience so far. I’ve visited a number of Tim Hortons locations in New York City, but the one of greatest concern to me is the Tim Hortons at Penn Station, off the Amtrak concourse. The old Dunkin’ Donuts and Roy Rogers and other restaurants closed last fall, and now there’s a Tim Hortons and a Nathan’s and a few other restaurants back there. Penn Station is sort of a food wasteland, and I was really hoping that the new Tim Hortons would spruce things up.
The problem is, these are no ordinary Tim Hortons locations. Unlike most franchises, which might be small, family-run affairs—a Tim Hortons or two—these are all run by Riese, a company which has made a business out of being a franchisee, not just for Tim Hortons, but more than a dozen other restaurant chains as well. And unlike in small, family-run businesses, where the owner has a day-to-day interest in the operation, at Riese quality control seems to be a foreign concept. I should point out, before continuing, that Riese actually used to be a Dunkin Donuts’ franchisee, meaning that it’s quite likely that when the former Dunkin’ Donuts locations were rebranded as Tim Hortons, some of the management stayed the same. Also of note are the circumstances under which Riese became an ex-Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee. According to a Bloomberg report, “Dunkin’ Donuts sued Riese in 2002 to terminate its franchise agreements for alleged health and sanitation standards violations…Riese is converting them [to Tim Hortons locations] following a legal settlement in 2004″.
Because Riese is a franchisee for more than a dozen chains, most of the Tim Hortons locations are co-located with at least one other brand, and employees appear to be cross-trained on all of the restaurant brands present at a given location. While this might seem like a good idea at first, the reality is that quality suffers. Rather than employees becoming experts in preparing and serving Tim Hortons products, Tim Hortons ends up being just another brand lost in the shuffle. It’s not just that the employees aren’t sufficiently trained in Tim Hortons products; sometimes it looks like they’re just not trained, period. Yesterday I visited the Tim Hortons on the LIRR concourse in Penn Station. There was nobody in line, and (to my surprise) they had double chocolate donuts (my favorite), so I figured it would be a quick and easy transaction. I was wrong. I had to repeat my order three times, while the three employees huddled around the cash register continued conversing among themselves—and none of the employees seemed to have a particularly good grasp on the names of the various donuts, as they resorted to pointing around the display case. The donuts aren’t always that good, either, but then again, Dunkin’ Donuts isn’t nearly as good as it used to be back when I first started going to Dunkin’ Donuts when I was young.
The co-location with other brands also gives the locations an unpleasant mall-food-court atmosphere, with noxious food odors from the other operations wafting in, and with Tim Hortons being squeezed into smaller-than-necessary spaces in order to accomodate other brands. This is the sort of thing where really impressive interior design would have gone a long way, and instead Tim Hortons falls flat. There’s this one Tim Hortons, at the corner of Cathcart and University in Montréal, which I really liked for its interior design. It was large, and bright, and airy, with plenty of comfortable seating (and, to be honest, it got points just for being shiny and new, too). There used to be a post office there, and so when the post office closed, I hoped it would be replaced by something good. I was not disappointed by the new Tim Hortons (although on December 12, 2007, they served me a breakfast sandwich whose quality left something to be desired). In fact, I also ended up liking the replacement post office, in the lobby of 800 Boulevard René-Lévesque Ouest, more than the stand-alone post office it replaced, proving that sometimes new things are better. My point is, though, that interior design makes a real difference—and these new Riese-run locations are dreadful. Add in the bad products and poorly-trained and indifferent staff, and you have a recipe for disaster.
I’m also not entirely happy with the branding of the Tim Hortons outlets in New York City; the logo they’re using is different from the one used in Canada, and could really do without the “coffee & bake shop” verbiage, which nearly drowns out Tim Hortons’ usual strapline, “Always Fresh”. Sure, people in New York may not know that Tim Hortons is a coffee shop, but are they really so thick that they need to be hit over the head with that fact every time they see the logo?
It still makes me smile when I see someone walking down the street with a Tim Hortons coffee cup; after all, it’s a little bit of Canada, but I remain disappointed by the execution so far.