On class, Tim Hortons, and Starbucks

While there is alot being written about the Tim Hortons/Burger King merger from the point of view of taxes and finances, this piece in the blog Worthwhile Canadian Initiative touches on something else: class

Can’t we at least get a decent class analysis of this question? There are two sorts of people: Starbucks people; and Tim Hortons people. And this class distinction is far more important than anything based on superficial differences like income and occupation. As a Tim Hortons person, who feels deeply ill-at-ease in a Starbucks, and who does not understand the menu, I cannot stop myself asking the “barista”(?) the subversive question: “Can I have a small double-double please?”

In my experience with going there, Tim Hortons is an establishment that seems to be staffed sith and patronized by working class people. As opposed to Starbucks, which seems to be staffed and patronized by middle class people. This is not to say that one class is better than another, but there appears to be this class distinction that differentiates them. The blog post linked to above talks about cultural or educated classes, but I think there is a case to be made that this also has to do with economic classes as well as a rural / urban / suburban divide.

Economically, the lowest coffee advertised by Tim Hortons is closer to one dollar (in Canada). In Starbucks, the lowest coffee advertised is closer to two dollars. While that may seem like much to some, for working class people, it makes a big difference. (Never mind that alot of the coffee bought in Starbucks is over three dollars once you start getting it from the espresso bar versus from the coffee carafe.) Likewise, a coffee and a donut costs less than three dollars in Tim Hortons, while a coffee and a snack at Starbucks is closer in the range of four to five dollars. (Based on the many coffee / snack combos I have bought at both.)

In terms of rural / urban divide, Tim Hortons has been over time making a move into the downtown core (at least in Toronto), while Starbucks has been slowly expanding outwards (e.g., Sydney, Nova Scotia recently got a Starbucks).

Those of you who say you have good taste may say: yes, but Starbucks is better. (And there will be others that say both are terrible and only indie coffee shops have good coffee.) I believe it is better too, though I don’t think Tim Hortons’s coffee is bad. (I have drunk bad coffee, and Tim Hortons is not bad.) I think for Tim Hortons customers, coffee is a hot beverage with caffeine that is good to drink while driving and at work.  Having it cost less makes a difference. Tim Hortons advertises that their coffee is fresh: that is the quality it has. Starbucks will talk of their coffee in terms of where it comes from and with terms you often hear wine experts talk about: those are the qualities it has.  Your values will determine where you buy your coffee from.

By the way, one of the stereotypes was that only middle class people (and pretentious ones at that) drank lattes. Now Tim’s has machines that make lattes and a wide range of milk based coffees too. They may not be as good as those in other places, but they are not bad and they have two other qualities: they are fast and they are lower in cost. Those two qualities are valued by working class people. And working class people like to try things too: they are no different from people with more money and more education who live downtown in the city.

Coffee is about class. It’s about the different classes we have in our society that center around money, education, where you work and where you live. Starbucks and Tim Hortons are based upon that as well, though as each attempts to grow more, they are expanding from their class base. As someone who comes from a rural working class background but lives an urban middle class background, I am comfortable in and recognize the value in both.

In Canada, we don’t talk about class much, but it is everywhere. Including the coffee shops we patronize.


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