ANCASTER, Ont. – Coffee lovers are all too familiar with that satisfying moment — the first sip of a freshly brewed cup — but for the lead coffee taster at Tim Hortons, that borderline euphoric sensation has become a lifestyle.
Kevin West leads a team responsible for maintaining the trademark flavour of Tim Hortons’ coffee, a process engineered from the company’s facility on the outskirts of Hamilton.
Every day he pours a seemingly endless stream of coffee made with beans from around the world. The goal is to ensure that the quality of each is up to expectations, and all together he estimates that he tastes about 75,000 cups each year.
At first, West’s estimate sounds like a huge exaggeration, but he’s quick to follow it up.
“When we first built the facility, we cupped so much in one day that I went home calling my brother thinking I was having a heart attack,” West says.
“I had about 600 cups of coffee and my heart was racing.”
Tim Hortons wants Canadians to know that, like its coffee tasters, it’s critically serious about coffee.
The country’s biggest restaurant chain is in the midst of an intense battle for the lucrative coffee products market, facing competition from both low-priced and higher-end rivals.
But unlike a majority of businesses vying for the same market, the Canadian mainstay has built its reputation almost solely on coffee and doughnuts since 1964.
The Oakville, Ont.-headquartered company is just a short drive from its $30-million facility in Ancaster, Ont., which opened nearly three years ago.
The 74,000 square-foot building is tucked in the corner of an industrial park and operates under the guise of Maidstone Coffee, a company owned by Tim Hortons. Inside the building, a sequence of machines process beans fresh off the truck into the finished ground product.
At several points in the process, West steps in with his taste buds at the ready, looking for any brews that don’t fit the profile. The procedure begins in the morning when he and his team of four other “cuppers” gather around a stainless steel Lazy-Susan that’s equipped with built-in sinks that bear a slight resemblance to the spittoons at your dentist’s office.
The table top is covered in a neatly arranged circle of coffees made with beans from around the world — Columbia, Brazil, Guatemala, regions of Africa. A top-secret formula determines which quantity of each bean go into making the blend that has defined the Tim Hortons flavour.
Each cup on the table has been steeping for exactly five minutes before the team “breaks the crust,” or removes the floating coffee grounds, and begins their flavour critique.
“It’s very similar to wine tasting,” West says as he dips his spoon into one of the little white bowls.
But this tasting session is noisy enough — sluuuuuurp — to make any wine connoisseur blush.
West swishes the coffee around in his mouth while making a chirping sound that he says helps the flavour reach all of his taste receptors.
After a moment he spits the coffee into the sink before turning his attention to the next brew.
“This is a lower altitude Guatemalan coffee,” he says, wafting the scent towards his nose.
“When you smell this, think of fresh grass from mowing your lawn.”
For the average coffee drinker, most of what West is saying its probably too esoteric. And by the time he begins describing other coffees at the table as “chocolate,” “citrus,” “lemony,” and “flowery” it becomes clear that it might be easier to agree than question his veteran palette.
The proof is in the coffee served at Tim Hortons restaurants across the country, a flavour that has divided some but is still a familiar favourite of many Canadians.
In the first quarter, the company’s sales were up 12 per cent to $721.3 million. Profits increased 10 per cent to $88.6 million or 56 cents per diluted share.
Despite the improved results, even a household name like Tim Hortons has to keep its reputation in check, especially in the increasingly competitive world of coffee. Over the past few years, McDonalds has emerged as a formidable low-priced brewer with its McCafe line, while Starbucks continues its aggressive rollout of locations across the country.
However, none of Tim Hortons’ competitors have put a notable dent in the company’s sales yet.
“Tim Hortons has such a high market share in Canada that while they may lose a little bit here and there, at the end of the day I think coffee drinkers are hard to get to switch,” says Brian Yarbrough, research analyst at Edward Jones in St. Louis.
“Most people I talk either like Hortons, Starbucks or McDonalds, and switching for them just doesn’t happen.”
While some customers are steadfast loyals, the pressure of a weak economy has hurt sales in some of Canada’s manufacturing towns where high unemployment has caused some to visit less frequently throughout the day.
Tim Hortons’ strategy has been to give customers more reasons to return to its stores multiple times throughout the day. It has recently expanded its line of specialty beverages, and branched out into non-coffee products, like frozen lemonade, and a range of hot foods like lasagna and breakfast sandwiches.
“People laugh, but adding lasagna worked well,” Yarbrough says.
“They’re always innovating with new bagels or cookies, and I give them credit for that.”
But it ultimately comes back to the basic cup of coffee. About 40 per cent of Tim Hortons’ annual revenue comes from coffee, even though its one of the lower-priced items on the menu.
“I know for myself on the weekend I’ve got to go to Tim Hortons three or four times to get the coffee,” West says.
“(I do it) as an employee but, more than anything, as a consumer. I’m addicted to the coffee. It’s so easy to drink.”