What Happened When Tim Hortons Opened in Glasgow

The Canadian coffee chain just unveiled its first European store. In Scotland.

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Jun 21 2017, 9:39am

It's 8 AM on a dreich Glasgow morning. The skies might be grey, but on Argyle Street in the centre of the city, things are turning red and white. Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons is unveiling its first—and only—European store. In Scotland.

The opening has been teased for months with stories in the local press and an expeditionary Tim Hortons van that doled out doughnuts and muffins to university students recently sitting exams. By the time launch day rolls around, the people of Glasgow are buzzing on a high worthy of Hortons' signature Double Double coffee.

A man in a Canadian Mounted Police costume addresses the crowd before cutting the ribbon at the new Tim Hortons store in Glasgow. All photos by the author.
Customers queue outside the store.

When I arrive on Argyle Street that morning, a line of eager customers is already gathered outside. People dressed as the Canadian Mounted Police stand guard under the store's huge Tim Hortons logo and a red ribbon is drawn across the door. Inside, baseball-capped staff fire up a morale-boosting chant, readying themselves for the oncoming surge of Canadophiles and pastry fans: "At Tim Hortons we are … "

"Ready, fresh, go!" comes the reply. "Ready, fresh, GO! READY, FRESH, GO!"

In the queue, I hear more than a few Canadian accents. One expat tells me: "I'm here because this is Hortons! It's a bit of home come all the way to Glasgow, so I need to check if it lives up." Before I can catch his name, the ribbon is cut and he rushes inside with the rest of the crowd. The store promised free breakfasts for the first 100 people through the door.

A Tim Hortons staff member hands out Timbits, small balls of glazed dough.

Glasgow's coffee scene has been thriving long before Tim Hortons had designs on the city. Kathryn Lewis, editor of The Independent Coffee Guide, tells me that since publishing its first Scottish Guide in 2016, the organisation has seen a surge in "new cafes and coffee shops championing locally roasted, speciality coffee" in Glasgow. Places like the student-favourite Artisan Roast and Milanese coffee bar Laboratorio Espresso.

"The fact that tickets to Glasgow Coffee Festival in May sold out is testament to speciality coffee's popularity in the city," Lewis adds.

Inside the new Tim Hortons store.
TImbits.

Of course, Tim Hortons isn't just about the coffee. The chain is perhaps best known for its baked goods, most notably Timbits (not Tim's Bits, as some Scots wondered). Basically the doughnut equivalent of the Polo mint hole, these are small balls of dough that come covered with sprinkles and glazing. Tim Hortons sells them in boxes of 20.

Even with novelty doughnuts to its advantage (albeit ones with dubious baking methods), in attempting to corner Glasgow's pastries-to-go market, the chain faces stiff competition. Local bakery Aulds has been selling scones, doughnuts, and shortbread at locations around the city for over 100 years and the Newcastle chain Greggs—known for its sausage rolls and cheap coffee—has more stores per head here than anywhere else in the UK.

Given the fact that Glasgow seems to have coffee and carbs covered, why did Tim Hortons choose it for its first foray into Europe?

Former Tim Hortons COO David Clanachan, president Elías Díaz Sesé, and current COO Gurprit Dhaliwal.

According to Tim Hortons president Elías Díaz Sesé, there are similarities between Canada and Scotland that make it a natural fit.

"We have done a lot of analysis on where to open in Great Britain and saw tremendous similarities between the demographics of these cities: fast coffee, fresh baked products, fresh food, every day, great value," he tells me. "If you compare that to who we are, we see the demographics are very good."

It also helps that the Scottish expatriate community in Canada is sizeable (Tim Hortons' former COO David Clanachan is from Clydebank), which has led to knowledge of the brand in Scotland already.

The communality between Scotland and Canada stretches to politics, too. In the wake of the Brexit result, which saw Scots vote overwhelmingly to remain, Canadian author Ken McGoogan suggested that Scotland could become a Canadian province.

Inside Tim Hortons, staff are doing their best to grease Scottish-Canadian relations. I'm given a large box of Timbits, which feels a bit like the pastry cake equivalent of a pick-and-mix and makes a lot of dough look perfectly easy to consume. I wash them down with a Double Double—Tim Hortons' double cream and double sugar coffee. It's the colour of tablet and tastes just as sweet. I'm preoccupied with how bad it must be for me but I can't stop drinking it either. It's indulgent and smooth and suddenly the Tim Hortons sales pitch of quality and value feels true. Or it could just be the sugar high.

The Glasgow store's opening hours will stretch from 6 AM to midnight, which exceeds the nearby branches of McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and KFC. I ask one of the Hortons staff if he is ready for the inebriated and hungry Friday night crowd.

"We're confident in our operator," he says, after a pause.

I wonder if he knows that the Greggs in Glasgow's city centre has security staff drafted in for the late weekend shift, should a skirmish break out over a cheese pasty. Welcome to Scotland, Timmy.