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Why HarborCenter’s Tim Hortons store matters

hortonGo back to February 21, 1974… The Buffalo Sabres are hosting the Atlanta Flames at Memorial Auditorium, coming home after a loss up in Toronto a night earlier. But this was no ordinary night. Hearts were heavy. Fans, players, everyone associated with the Sabres were shaken and devastated. In the wee hours of that very morning, Buffalo defenseman Tim Horton had perished in a car crash on the QEW just outside of St Catharines, Ontario while driving back from the game at Maple Leaf Gardens by himself. The grief hung throughout the Aud as people came to grips with what had happened. The players of both teams wore black armbands. Second year defenseman and Horton’s line mate Jim Schoenfeld wept openly as the building descended into a moment of silence. It remains the saddest story in Sabres’ history.

Horton played but 124 games in a Buffalo Sabres uniform. He tallied one goal during that time. But the mark he made on the franchise was so substantial, so indelible, his leadership willed the up and coming expansion team into the Stanley Cup playoffs in 1972-73, and cemented the love affair between a city and its hockey team which endures to this day. His retired number hangs from the rafters at First Niagara Center, as well as in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, in a city where he helped lead the Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s.

Yet while Horton was putting a period on a stellar hockey career cut too short, he was also building a business, that nobody could ever believe would become a world wide brand. He and partner Ron Joyce opened their first coffee and donut shop in the 1960s in Hamilton, Ontario. Tim Horton’s Donuts, took off. He opened his first American based store right here in the Buffalo area on Niagara Falls Boulevard while he was with the team. At the time of his death there were 30 locations. Fast forward to today, and the Tim Horton’s Cafe and Bake Shop chain boasts a footprint all across North America and as far away as Kandahar, Afghanistan. It is a true corporate success story, and one that has many of its roots right here in Buffalo.

And that’s what makes yesterday’s announcement significant, that a “destination” TIm Horton’s Cafe and Bake Shop will be opening at HarborCenter as part of the center’s retail storefront mix.
The honoring of Horton, both as a player and businessman, is a story that should be told, and enshrined. Following the pattern that HarborCenter has put forth as they have unveiled every piece of this dynamic and exciting project, this Tim Horton’s will not be your ordinary template coffee shop which one can find on any street corner in Ontario, across Canada and at locations throughout Western New York. This store will bear exhibits and displays from Horton’s playing days, artifacts and memorabilia from the Aud, and other exhibits showcasing the Horton chain’s corporate success story.

Local urbanists and armchair planners have watched the emergence of the HarborCenter with a bit of a wary eye and some trepidation. Issues such as the architecture and fenestration, some opinions that the building will be nothing more than a “glorified parking ramp”, and the bridging of the structure over Perry Street have drawn criticism in some circles.
So that is why the announcement of this Tim Horton’s certainly has to be viewed as a win by those very same circles. And why not? The interior design will mimic the look and feel of the historic Erie Canal period; chairs and furniture will replicate the old Aud’s blue seats. Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium was for sure a beloved and cherished building among local preservationists, an arena which was demolished in 2009. More good news – some of the limestone saved from the Aud will actually be used in the construction of the restaurant. Also, there will be no suburban style drive-thru, which would definitely not be appropriate for this site or this structure.

Some might decry the presence at Canalside of “corporate chains”. And what exactly is a “destination” Tim Horton’s anyway?
The best answer would be to cite a peer example. How about a “destination” Kentucky Fried Chicken?
In Corbin, Kentucky, there is a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food restaurant, one that looks virtually identical to any one of the thousands one would find anywhere across America, and a menu which is also identical. But in Corbin, this KFC is anything but ubiquitous.
Attached to this fast food outlet is the original “Sanders Cafe”, where Colonel Harlan Sanders perfected his secret recipe that became a worldwide phenomenon. There are exhibits, artifacts, displays, even the old tables and booths, and a statue of the Colonel which makes for a perfect photo opp for visitors and tourists.
And guess what? People come. They come from all over. And while at most locations patrons would just buy their chicken and fries and skeedaddle, over there in Corbin tourists stay a while to check the place out, to take photos, to savor the experience.

There is absolutely no reason that visitors to Canalside might not want to take in the very same experience when it comes to the story of Tim Horton and Tim Horton’s. It is not at all crazy to say that this restaurant will be another component that is making the emerging and growing neighborhood at the foot of Main Street a very cool place to be.
Welcome to HarborCenter, Tim Horton’s. And if you are old enough and lucky enough to have had the chance to actually see Horton play, make sure you raise a cup of coffee and toast the old guy on your first visit to the location at the corner of Main and Scott. Tim Horton, the player, and Tim Horton, the entrepreneur, deserves that tribute for sure.

  • Matthew Ricchiazzi

    Very well written. I didn’t realize the history, and was dismissive of the idea of a “destination Tim Hortons,” before reading this article. I hope they execute the concept well.

  • The concept of a destination Tim Horton’s sounds great. If only they would offer a good quality single origin coffee, freshly roasted and brewed to order.

  • JoeBflo

    Not buying it; a nice Tims is great, but displays in a donut shop do not a museum make.