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How A Hockey Player Became Canada’s Starbucks

Culture | January 12, 2020

Left: Tim Horton touting his famous donuts. Right: Horton's 1962 Toronto Maple Leafs hockey card. Sources: Twitter; eBay

For most Americans Tim Hortons is only a name that we’ve heard in passing. Is it a coffee shop? A donut store? Do they sell guys named Tim? It’s a shame that so few Americans know the true greatness of Tim Hortons, Canada’s largest quick service coffee and donut chain that’s been in business for more than 50 years.

Originally opened by, you guessed it, hockey player Tim Horton, the initial incarnation of this spot was just a place where Tim could get a donut and cup of coffee. Sold for a dime a pop, the donuts became immensely popular and more stores followed. Thanks to his impressive skills on the ice and his donut business Tim Horton is arguably the most famous person in Canadian history, but Americans don’t know anything about him. It’s time to change that.

Tim Horton, hot on the ice and in the restaurant biz


Before he was a successful businessman Tim Horton was a hotshot defenseman who played professional hockey for 24 seasons. During his time in the NHL he was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Buffalo Sabres. His first game as a member of the Maple Leafs was on March 26, 1950. More than a decade later he opened the first Tim Horton’s Donuts on May 17, 1964.

This wasn’t Horton’s first entrepreneurial venture; prior to opening his donut shop in Hamilton, Ontario, he also owned a hamburger restaurant and a Studebaker dealership in Toronto. It’s safe to say that Horton wasn’t looking to get away from hockey -- he loved being on the ice -- but with a wife and four daughters he was thinking of a way to take care of them when hockey was no longer an option.

Tim Horton’s Hamburgers didn’t have the same reach as his donuts

source: CBC

Before we get to his wildly successful donut franchise it’s important to note that Horton first tried to find success with a hamburger restaurant in the vein of McDonald’s and Burger King. After meeting Dennis Griggs and Jim Charade, owners of Your Do-Nut Shop, in a barbershop in Scarborough area of Toronto, Horton worked with this duo to open Tim Horton Restaurants, a chain of fast food restaurants trafficking in chicken and hamburgers.

The restaurants didn’t do well. There was too much competition and not enough to set the hamburger joints apart from any of the other places in Canada. Horton, Griggs and Charade recalculated and made a switch to donuts. Not only was the cost lower to simply serve coffee and two variations on the same item, but Griggs and Charade had experience running a successful donut restaurant.

With the help of Ron Joyce Tim Horton became a Canadian legend

source: blogto

Before Ron Joyce was Horton’s business partner, he was a police constable in Hamilton, Ontario. His biggest claim to fame at the time was delivering a baby after receiving a distress call. After giving up the life of a lawman, Joyce helped deliver the Tim Horton’s franchise to a hungry public. He came aboard the team after getting out of a partnership with Dairy Queen and offered Charade a $10,000 lump sum for his stock in the business. After Charade left, Joyce changed the name of Tim Horton’s Donut Shop to the simple Tim Hortons and became Horton’s business partner in order to help the company branch out into multiple stores in 1967.

By 1968 Tim Hortons was going gangbusters. The franchise was a multi-million dollar win for Horton, who continued to play hockey while his restaurant performed admirably. Aside from opening multiple stores the menu expanded as well. Until ’67, Tim Hortons only sold two types of donut - dutchies and apple fritters. The company continued adding to the menu, although the volume of options didn’t really go through the roof until 1976 with the introduction of Timbits, which are like donut holes but they’re named after Horton.

Tim Horton passed away before the company really took off

source: dailymeal

In 1974, Horton was playing for the Buffalo Sabres and nearing the end of his hockey career -- at 44 years old, he was too old to keep playing hockey professionally, but far too young to die. On the night of February 20, he played a game for the Sabres against his old team the Maple Leafs, and then hit the road in his De Tomaso Pantera to make the drive back to Buffalo. The Pantera had been given to him by Buffalo’s general manager as a way to keep the aging player on the team for another year. In the early hours of February 21, on the streets of St. Catharines, Ontario, an intoxicated Horton lost control of his car. He drove straight into the center median, where his tire caught a part of the road, causing it to flip multiple times. Horton wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and was thrown just over 100 feet from the car. In 2005 it was revealed that his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit, and that a half devoured bottle of vodka was among the remains of the car.

Following Horton’s death the company thrived

source: blogto

It’s sad to say but it wasn't until after Horton's death that his company became one of the most popular chains in Canada. In 1974, the same year that Horton passed away, his business partner Joyce purchased the family’s shares for $1 million, becoming the sole owner of the 40-store chain. In 1993 Horton’s widow filed a lawsuit against Joyce but that suit and her appeal were thrown out of court.

Today it’s considered a uniquely Canadian restaurant with thousands of locations, many of which are owned by members of Horton’s family. In Coburg, Ontario his daughter Jeri-Lyn actually co-owns a set of franchises with Ron Joyce Jr. who also happens to be her husband. In a few short decades, Tim Hortons has gone from being a single donut shop to a massive industry powered by dough, coffee, and a dream. 

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Canada | Donuts | Hockey | Tim Horton | Tim Hortons | What Did He Do?...

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.