Tim Hortons and America’s Canadian Food Obsession

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It was confirmed Tuesday that Burger King, one of the largest fast food chains in the world,  acquired Tim Hortons, the iconic Canadian chain popular for its coffee and doughnuts, for a reported $3 billion in cash, $11 billion overall. The deal will turn the two joined companies into the third largest quick service restaurant company in the world. With headquarters planned for Canada, some have pointed out that it was a deal based mostly on taking advantage of Canada's lower taxes, and people on both sides of the border are taking to social media to voice their unhappiness with a deal that is turning one of Canada's most recognizable establishments into an international food service operator. How serious is the news to some Canadians? The country's opposition party called a press conference to decry the sale and the effect it might have on the thousands of people Tim Hortons employs across the country. 

While politicians are quick to seize on any bit of news that they can turn into a sound byte, the sale actually is such a national concern to more than a few Canadians that it is the main story on the front page of Tuesday's Globe and Mail, the largest-circulation national newspaper in the country. Not only is the story of such national importance that it is the first thing readers will see when they wake, it also merits another story, "Tim Hortons: How a brand became part of our national identity," showing just how personal this is to Canadians, how it is about more than just a place that has a hold on 62% of the country's coffee sales (Starbucks comes in second at 7%), and that it's something that transcends dollars and cents. The chain, named for and co-founded in 1964 by the Hall of Fame Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman who died in a car accident in 1974, has over 3,000 restaurants across the Great White North, and is part of Canadian culture in a way that one might say Coca-Cola or Ford trucks are America. As Sonya Bell at The Guardian put it, "In a diverse country that touches three oceans, Tim Hortons is our great common denominator." 

Although a doughnut from Tim Hortons hardly counts as fine dining, Canadian cuisine – one of the most important things to any nation's culture – has been gaining popularity in America. On the fourth episode of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain explored just how important food is to Canadians, spending most of the episode with Dave McMillan and Fred Morin of the popular Montreal restaurant Joe Beef, eating seared foie gras in an ice fishing shack, a pressed beef bologna sandwich at Wilensky's, breakfast with a generous helping of shaved truffles on a train, and a visit to an old sugar shack. If it isn't the best episode of the series, it certainly is the most hunger-inducing, and it showed Americans just how well Canadians know how to eat. 

While Bourdain showed-off what is great about Canadian food, regular and casual disinterest or disdain for Tim Hortons is another example of America just not getting it. This past July, popular New York deli Mile End created some buzz for Canadian staple, poutine. The restaurant that serves Montreal-style bagels and smoked meat (which is, it should be pointed out, owned by actual Canadians), unveiled its Poutine Week menu, and caught the attention of Gawker writer and "former Montréaler," Michelle Dean. Dean wrote that the restaurant was, "trying to ruin its [poutine's] glory with vegetables. This blasphemy cannot stand." Offering up five different twists on the popular and simple Canadian dish of fries, gravy, and cheese curds, Mile End put everything from red onions and celery atop their plates, to salsa verde, prompting Dean to ask Mile End owner Noah Bernamoff, "What is this bullshit you are serving at your restaurant?" and demanded New Yorkers "Resist the urge to colonize it with nutrients."

Using the term "colonize" might seem a little drastic to some, and the Americanization of Canada's favorite artery-clogging food might not rank as high on the pain scale as a team from California winning two Stanley Cups in the last five years when the trophy that comes from and symbolizes the national winter sport of Canada hasn't been hoisted by a team from there since 1993, but these things are all related and tie into Burger King buying Tim Hortons and the emotions it stirs up. When America gets its hands on any food from another country, you always hear how it isn't real [insert name of country here] food. You can't take a person that calls Taco Bell "Mexican food" seriously. Although the doughnuts and coffee Tim Hortons is popular for might not be Canadian foods per se, the restaurant that serves them is undeniably part of the country's national fabric, and the American co-opting and corporatization of these things is unsettling to many who cherish the things that make Canada so different from its similar looking neighbor to the south.  "We delight in these things because – unlike much of what we have, as the northern neighbour of a world giant – it’s “so Canadian," as Sonya Bell sums it up.