February 14, 2013 12:45 AM | By Annette McLeod for MSN Autos

The other side of the speaker

Annette gives a hand a making double doubles and serving Timbits (© Photo: Annette McLeod)

Annette and her fellow teammates at Tim Hortons

Annette McLeod

Annette McLeod — Driving Miss Crazy

In my town, there are just over 120,000 people, and 14 Tim Hortons, about one for every 8,500 residents. The nearest one to my house is 1.3 km away, and so is the second-nearest one — they’re across the street from one another. At the foot of the nearby main drag that leads to the big ol’ Hwy. 401 (an artery that, in case you’re not from these parts, lays waste to the northern edge of Toronto) there are two: one on the southwest corner (for your morning joe) and one on the southeast corner (for your “I survived another commute” tea and cruller).

Although its red and brown logo is as much a part of the Canadian landscape as evergreens and beavers, I never really thought of them as “restaurants” so much as drive-throughs with some sort of magic, donut-providing kitchen attached. I don’t know what they put in the coffee, but a Tim’s drive-through without a lineup is a rarer site than one with.

To commuters, the drive-through is sanctuary, and those of us who worship at the Tim’s squawk box all have tales of order-taker misdeeds. I once ordered three coffees and they got all three wrong. But how many of us ever take a moment to think about what it’s like to work the other side? It’s easy to judge from the comfort of your car, where the stereo plays what you want it to, if somebody’s in a bad mood you can kick them out or yell at them, and you have just one food and beverage order to worry about — yours.

It's more than just a place to get coffee, it's a well-oiled service machine. (© Photo: Annette McLeod)

It's more than just a place to get coffee, it's a well-oiled service machine.

I recently visited gracious owners Ambrish and Chhaya Thakkar at their Tim Hortons franchise at Yonge and Steeles in North Toronto; they had agreed to give me a shot on the other side of the speaker. True advocates, the Thakkars own seven franchises, and the ardour with which they speak of the company makes it clear why my corporate contact put me behind the counter at this particular store. They call their customers “guests” and their employees “team members,” a Tim’s tradition, but you can tell they actually mean it. A nicer or more genuine couple of spokespeople, you couldn’t ask for.

Behind the counter, a team of nearly a dozen employees serve an endless stream of customers, and I begin to suspect this might not be quite the cake-walk I thought it was going to be, especially when Ambrish tells me the mandatory training boot camp required by corporate left him “sweating and practically crying.” How hard can it be, though? I mean, writing is hard. Pouring coffee should be duck soup. Oh, ha ha ha — famous last thoughts.

The Thakkars suit me up in some seriously flattering polyester, hair net and visor, and leave me in the seemingly capable hands of manager Shraddha, a cordial young woman with a reassuring air of professionalism.

Encouraging me and gently correcting me as we go, she shows me the order window, the sandwich station, and the secondary donut rack placed within easy reach of the drive-through window. (Didn’t know there was one of those, did you?) She shows me how and how long to properly wash my hands, how to wash the knife used for cutting sandwiches in half, how to use the iced cappuccino machine, and approximately 1,100 other things, all while my head spins.

Then she takes off her headphones and puts them on me; connected to them is a little black plastic box with a button on it, which she clips to my waistband. There’s a chime in my ear. She points at the button. I click it, and I’m on. “Welcome to Tim Hortons,” I say. “Would you like to try our new panini?” You might think that such a question is merely an exercise in up-selling, but here it has practical applications too.

The rest of the drive-through team (there is an entire other bustling universe of service going on at the walk-in counter) is on high alert with every chime, waiting to hear a sandwich order, even as they’re pouring coffee, brewing tea, or refilling supplies (mise en place in a high-end bistro couldn’t be any better). The panini machine, I learn, is set for two minutes. Two minutes, when you’re sitting in your car, feels like a small eternity. It makes sense, then, for them to ask about the panini first.

Everything in its right place. Except Annette. (© Photo: Annette McLeod)

Everything in its right place. Except Annette.

When a sandwich order comes, Shraddha scampers for the sandwich station, while another girl pours coffee or blends ice caps, and another takes yet another order and makes change for the last guy, who has now arrived at the window. Working the window at any given time there is at least an order taker/coffee pourer, a sandwich getter and a runner (here, it’s often the amazing Shraddha, who pitches in behind the walk-in counter when needed too).

While these ladies are compiling orders on a side counter, they use little red plastic bars, like the ones that separate your groceries from the next guy’s on the conveyor belt at the grocery check-out, to keep the orders straight.

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