EXCLUSIVE: Tim Hortons sets out its national ambitions

The Canadian chain also explains why they chose to expand in the North first.

Expect a Tim Hortons in every major city and town in the UK in the next two years, its chief commercial officer for the UK & Ireland told QSR Media.

The Canadian coffee chain looks to make its vision primarily happen via drive-thru restaurants, an incredibly competitive market that other specialised coffee shops are looking to pursue amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve proven that the [drive-thru] model is one that works for us. We are very, very happy with the results we’ve achieved from this store type and now we’ve come to a period in time to drive that number up significantly,” Tim Hortons chief commercial officer for UK & Ireland Kevin Hydes said in an exclusive interview.

“Realistically, we’ve come in here to be a leader in the marketplace. We’re not here just to do 20, 30 sites. We aspire to have a leadership position.”

This aspiration comes with a much-welcome reward. Hydes revealed the chain experienced more visits after the lockdown compared to pre-lockdown levels, with like-for-like sales last quarter up to the beginning of October growing 37% year-on-year.

This is despite closing stores for dine-in for 8-9 weeks due to the COVID-19 trading restrictions.

“We place equal emphasis on coffee with food, and delivering them very quickly,” he said.

Hydes also believes they can properly execute the drive-thru model, having taken insights from their international counterparts.

“Consumers are looking for venues which deliver against the need to cross multiple dayparts. Drive-thru restaurants can certainly support that,” he said. “It’s the multi-purpose use that drive-thrus have which is how they set themselves apart.”

However, he admits that they are relatively unknown in the UK market and that they “have to fight hard” to secure opportunities for their coveted sites.

“Today, coffee operators are being very active in the marketplace. If you look at what they’re doing, they’re pushing into more drive-thrus,” he said, arguing that competition for drive-thru sites is much more significant relative to finding locations on the high street.

Finding drive-thru locations in major cities are “prohibitive”, Hydes said, but revealed that they are also looking “inside and around” the M25.

An unconventional expansion path
Tim Hortons currently has 23 restaurants in the UK, after debuting in Glasgow in June 2017. The chain made noise across the industry for initially expanding in the North, as opposed to the usual path of opening in London first. They will make their first foray into the South this December, opening in Milton Keynes.

Hydes offers two reasons for the unconventional move: brand awareness and affordability.

“We believe in building a sustainable and profitable business. This is more important than taking an expensive site on Oxford Street to build awareness,” he explained.

From a brand awareness perspective, the North and Scotland have the highest brand awareness of Tim Hortons, citing “many” family connections to Canada.

“The brand following is very, very strong. They advocate for the brand,” he said.

“We have plans in place right now that will take us to every major city and town in the next two years. We’ve very confident in achieving that goal.”

At present, the chain’s stores are at 70% seating capacity compared to pre-pandemic setups. For delivery, they are working with Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber Eats to complement their in-store and drive-thru services.

“Delivery’s not going to go away,” Hydes said, also revealing that these channels are profitable for them.

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