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Tim Hortons hopes futuristic store gets ideas percolating with its owners

TORONTO - If a pint of coffee-flavoured beer gets you salivating, then Tim Hortons has a few other ideas that could change how you think about the restaurant chain.

Executives have lifted the curtain on a new concept store, buried deep inside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, as part of an invite-only convention this week for store owners and suppliers that is essentially a visual brainstorming session.

The full-scale model offered the clearest idea yet of where Tim Hortons (TSX:THI) is headed and how it thinks Canadian tastes will evolve, including expecting more than just coffee, doughnuts and sandwiches.

"It's not your dad's Tim Hortons, so to speak," said chief operating officer David Clanachan as he looked around the store.

"Our franchise partners are all going to be here. We want them to think outside the box, along with us, to say 'What if...' and 'What could we be?'"

Certainly there were plenty of ideas to chew on — some even controversial.

Consider the beer taps that pour brews inspired by Tim Hortons' trademark coffee flavour — and a strawberry lager for the sweeter tooths. Or how about a unisex washroom that centres around a communal sink.

And there's even a conceptual design for a new Tim Hortons logo that's features only a bright red coffee bean.

Some of the ideas will never see the light of day, Clanachan admits, while others are certain to land inside your neighbourhood stores only years from now.

Tim Hortons first showcased digital menu boards at its previous model store concept seven years ago and only recently have they become part of the store design.

Redefining itself in the highly competitive food services industry will be a challenge for a mainstay brand like Tim Hortons, but as more companies try to encroach on its dominant position in the Canadian coffee market it's not like there's much of a choice but to find ways to be different.

"The consumer is much more savvy today than they have ever been in the past," Clanachan said.

"They have opinions on what they're looking for, and they have high expectations."

Companies like Starbucks have raised the bar for the local coffee shop, while McDonald's has lowered the price of a cup of coffee and even gives it away for free several times a year.

Tim Hortons executives say that where they can excel is providing something different — a combination of convenience and creativity.

Some of the more immediate changes could be in menu options.

The concept store offers a variety of omlettes, breakfast crepes, cupcakes and decadent cookies that could all be ordered from a touchscreen menu installed in tabletops. Once ordered, a Tim Hortons employee brings the food to you, Clanachan said.

Meanwhile, customers who are registered with a future version of the Timmy Me smartphone app would be able to opt for a more personalized experience.

The app will remember their name and their favourite food items, which in theory will significantly reduce the time it takes to order both in the store and the drive-thru.

Customers in a rush can also swing by a grab-and-go section of food that ranges from sandwiches and salads to hot food items.

Other changes are obvious at first glace, including the entire structure of the building, which is made of glass and wood panels to provide a heightened level of transparency to everything inside, including the kitchen area. The lighting is bright and adjusts to the time of day for a different ambience.

Employees are dressed in white uniforms with a red-trimmed asymmetrical neckline that evokes the retro-futuristic garb of "Star Trek," accessorized with a visor.

Loyal Tim Hortons customers might start to notice at least some of these changes sooner than later, chief executive Marc Caira said.

"I envision a lot of what you see here being implemented not too far down the road," he said.

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The Canadian Press


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