Sunday, February 16, 2014

Canada: Land of the Rolling Rims

It's mid February in Canada, and that means that we Canadians are at the start of that special time of year that transcends the boundaries of race, creed and colour and unites us all by virtue of that one unbreakable bond that all Canadians share.  Yes, tomorrow marks the dawn of Canada's annual Roll Up the Rim season.

For any non-Canadians who may stumble upon this post and scratch their heads, wondering just what exactly a "Roll Up the Rim" season is, allow me to explain.  Roll Up the Rim is a contest, of sorts, held by Tim Horton's, a Canadian donut franchise, which begins every year around mid February (the contest, not the franchise).  It's affectionately known as "Rrrroll Up the Rrrrim", owing to a long-running advertising campaign in which some guy with a really bad fake Scottish accent makes a point of really rrrolling those "Rrrrr's" every time he says the contest name, although neither the contest, Tim Horton's nor Canada itself (excepting the province of Nova Scotia) are in any way Scot-related.

Roll Up the Rim gets its name from the paper cups in which Tim Horton's coffee is served.  Their rims are rolled up into a rounded lip.  During Roll Up the Rim, Tim Horton's patrons are given special cups which may or may not have a prize hidden under that rolled-up paper lip.  Roll Up the Rim cups are marked with a brightly-coloured arrow that indicates roughly what part of the paper lip the alleged prize may or may not be hiding under although, in my experience, the arrow is a wide approximation at best.  The contest runs until the end of April, or until the prize cups run out; whichever comes first.  In fact, around mid April, Canadians are known to drive hundreds of miles out of their way, looking for those last few Tim Horton's restaurants that still have Roll Up the Rim cups.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of eager Canadians, having finished their coffees or teas, eagerly roll up the paper rim of their cups in the place indicated by the arrow, hoping to find one of several fabulous prizes which could include an SUV, a gas grille, a laptop computer, money, Tim Horton's gift cards or, more likely, maybe a free coffee or donut or, the most prolific of the prizes, the ubiquitous "Please Play Again" (or, for those who didn't quite interpret the yellow arrow correctly, "...ay Again").  Just how Tim Horton's manages to hide an entire SUV inside a rolled-up paper rim is a carefully-guarded technology secret, right up there with how Cadbury gets the caramel inside their Caramilk bars.

Non-Canadians may understandably wonder why all the fuss over a silly contest.  To tell you the truth, I've often wondered myself.  I personally have never known anyone, even indirectly, who has won a prize of any significance and the paper rims aren't exactly easy to roll up with your thumbs.  A lot of people use their teeth and it's for this reason that Tim Horton's employees aren't even allowed to handle the prize-winning rims when customers redeems them.  Instead, they present a plastic container for the customer to drop (or possibly spit) the paper fragment into.

But I don't exaggerate when I say that Roll Up the Rim has become a cultural phenomenon.  Sure, lots of franchises have lots of different contests, offering lots of different prizes, but Roll Up the Rim is the only one I've seen that has people comparing their winnings around the office water cooler on a daily basis, and even has radio DJ's publicly keeping score on the air of who among them has won the most free coffees so far. The elated reactions I've seen coming from people who have managed to win a free coffee or donut are hardly justified by the prize.  The only comparable phenomenon that I can think of is the jubilation of lottery ticket purchasers who win nothing more than a free ticket; in other words, second opportunity not to win anything.

The Roll Up the Rim phenomenon seems to me an extension of that of the Tim Horton's franchise, which is a Canadian cultural icon in itself.  As a franchise, "Timmy's" enjoys a love affair with Canadians that simply can't be explained logically.  They make a good cup of coffee, although some of their competitors are offering serious contenders in the java department.  Their prices are more or less the same as those of their competitors, except for maybe Starbuck's which appears to cater to those who just don't feel right if they pay less than five bucks for a cup of coffee (Williams is the Canadian answer to that particular franchise). Tim Hortons' flat, plastic coffee lids have been criticized as being loose-fitting and prone to spills, yet they (Tim Horton's) steadfastly refuse to adopt a more spill-proof design.  Although the franchise has tried to expand into the United States, they've never been able to attract the kind of customer loyalty that they see in Canada even though the American franchises offer exactly the same product that the Canadian ones do, all of which reinforces my opinion that Canadians' loyalty to Tim Horton's is culturally driven.

Some years back, when the American donut franchise, Dunkin' Donuts, expanded into Canada, Tim Horton's actually worried enough about the new competition to adopt their box format. The low, wide Dunkin' Donuts box plagiarism that serves as the standard Tim Horton's twelve-donut container today was preceded by a shorter, deeper, shoe-box shaped compartment in which the donuts were lined up on their sides in two rows of six.  They needn't have worried.  The astoundingly apathetic Canadian reaction to the Dunkin' Donuts "invasion" resulted in most of the franchises being torn down as quickly as they were erected. I haven't seen that kind of American butt-kicking by Canadians since we went down there and set the White House on fire back in 1814.  It would be enough to bring a patriotic tear to my eye, if it weren't for the fact that, like most "Canadian" icons, the Tim Horton's franchise is owned by Americans anyway.  But let's not split hairs, eh?