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From the trademark cups seen around town, to the long line of cars that stream behind many drive-thru windows, it’s no secret that Western New Yorkers have a love affair with Tim Hortons.

Since January 1985, when the first U.S. store opened on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst, Tim Hortons coffee and doughnuts have been a part of the Buffalo Niagara landscape. And as much as Buffalonians have relied on the coffee chain, the Canadian company, headquartered in Oakville, Ont., has relied just as much on Buffalo as its U.S. platform from which to launch its southern expansion.

Today, there are more than 225 Tim Hortons stores in Western New York – including 61 that have opened just in the last three years. Moreover, the company says it’s not done growing here, let alone elsewhere in the Northeast and Midwest.

This month, the company unveiled a “one-of-a-kind” two-story shop inside the Buffalo Sabres’ planned HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo, where the hockey team and Tim Hortons are collaborating to pay tribute to the company’s founder and namesake and longtime National Hockey League star defenseman.

The announcement was important enough that Tim Hortons CEO Marc Caira and many of the company’s top executives from Canada and the United States joined local franchisees, the Sabres’ top leadership and owners, and even Tim Horton’s daughters and former teammates for the event. The Buffalo News talked with Caira afterward.

Jonathan D. Epstein: Is this the most unique location for Tim Hortons?

Marc Caira: I wouldn’t say it’s the most unique. We’re proud of all of our locations, but it’s certainly one of the unique ones. It’s about the human being, it’s about the hockey player, it’s about the person that started this fantastic business, along with other people.

JE: Do you have any other stores that have basically a museum inside?

MC: None that come to my mind, no, but we have 4,300 stores, and there’s uniqueness in many of them.

JE: How long was this in the works?

MC: I wouldn’t say it was in the works for too long, but we’ve been talking about it for a while. The important thing is that we have been able to bring it to fruition, that somebody’s vision has been realized, and that’s fantastic, because the Tim Hortons business goes on, but also the legacy continues.

JE: How much will it cost?

MC: I don’t know exactly what the cost is, but it comes down to getting as many of these fantastic consumers into our restaurants as we possibly can and I’m looking forward to the next time I come down here in October, seeing lots of people waiting for our coffee and baked goods.

JE: How important is the Buffalo market?

MC: The Buffalo market is very important. We have over 225 restaurants in Buffalo alone. We’ve added 61 restaurants in the last couple of years. And this was the first market for us outside our home market of Canada. So Buffalo continues to be a very important area for us.

JE: Is there still room for growth here?

MC: Absolutely. There’s no such thing as a mature market. There’s always ways that we can find growth, and this is a prime example. Who would have thought of putting a Tim Hortons restaurant in a venue such as this, but here we are.

JE: Are you planning more growth in the United States?

MC: Absolutely. We’ve called out the U.S. market as a must-win battle for us. We have a very successful business in Canada. We have a good business in the regional parts of the U.S. so there’s opportunities to grow and we’re looking to do that in the coming years.

JE: How has your New York City expansion gone?

MC: We’re in New York City. We’d like to have a bit more presence in New York City, and we’ll have to work on that.

JE: Is it a challenge to go into markets where hockey isn’t as important?

MC: Not really. At the end of the day, the café and bake shop has to stand on its own. So as time goes on, the legacy of Tim Horton the hockey player will continue. The legacy of Tim Hortons Café & Bake Shop will also endure as we continue to serve our loyal customers the best coffee and the best baked goods throughout the day for seven days a week, in many cases 24 hours a day.

JE: Is the coffee business very competitive?

MC: I’ve had the pleasure of traveling the world in my previous jobs, and I can tell you that every market is competitive. Is it more competitive here? I don’t think so. At the end of the day, we’re going to have to find ways of giving consumers what they’re looking for, giving consumers innovation, giving consumers value, giving them service, and if we do all those things well, then it doesn’t matter how much competition there is. I think we’ll continue to succeed.

JE: Is it difficult being a Canadian company doing it in the United States?

MC: No, I don’t think so. Whether we’re a Canadian company or not, it’s about what’s your offer to consumers, and our offering is accepted not only in Canada, not only in the U.S., but now we’re in the Gulf States, we’re in the Middle East, and we’re doing very well in that part of the world.

JE: Are there any other markets you’re looking at?

MC: Well, stay tuned. You gotta give me something to talk about in the future.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com