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.

Always fresh ... (© Photo: Annette McLeod)

Always fresh ...

And always, there’s that chime in your ear. Another car, another commuter, another double double. Here’s a taste of their day:


“Welcome to Tim Hortons. Would you like to try one of our new grilled panini?”

If the client says yes, the sandwich-getter springs into action. The order-taker continues to punch in the rest of the order; anything relevant shows up on a digital screen suspended above the sandwich station; drink and donut orders appear on a screen in front of the order taker, visible over her shoulder to the rest of the crew.

And the orders roll in ... (© Photo: Annette McLeod)

And the orders roll in ...

The runner may bolt for an iced cap while the order-taker brews a new pot of coffee, then writes the time on the pot with a grease pencil. She pours coffee, pours a tea, and takes the time to run the string with the wee tag attached down the seam of the cup and put the lid on so the opening is at the front — so you won’t have to take the lid off and take the bag out to sip your tea in the car.

By then, the driver is at the window, and the order-taker starts passing him his drinks and the sandwich just thrust into her hand by the runner, while simultaneously taking the order of the latest person who just pulled up at the speaker.

As she takes the order, she is constantly asking questions prompted on her order screen: with cheese? What kind? White bread? Toasted? Is that a combo? With a donut? What kind? And so on.

With a new customer at the speaker yet again, the crew listens, rapt, for a sandwich order before grabbing donuts, pouring yet more coffee, lining up drinks on either side of the red partitions while the sandwiches are grilling, the wraps wrapping or the chili chillin’. They fire bagels into an industrial-strength cutter like Olympic discus-throwers, grab them from the bottom of the chute and have them across the aisle, on the cutting board, ready to be cream cheesed before you can say “and 10 Timbits, please.” It’s a non-stop mad-house.

How it's all kept neat and organized. (© Photo: Annette McLeod)

Keep it all organized, folks.

Let’s face it – they get your order right more often than they get it wrong. But, like Dr. Phil says, it takes just one “bad boy” to erase a hundred “atta boys” — it’s always the time they put cream instead of milk or forget to stir our coffee that we remember. (At least at this establishment, such things are scarcely tolerated. All team members are trained to pour the coffee with their off-hand, so if there’s sugar involved, they can be simultaneously stirring with their dominant hand.)

In spite of the lack of space, number of players, and busy-ness of the speaker box, they don’t ever seem to drop anything or bump into each other. Seriously, it’s like Cirque du Soleil with donuts.

And yet, they could not have been nicer. They smile a lot. They enjoy joking with one another. I realize that I may be borderline naïve sometimes, but it all seems genuine — there’s no way the best actors outside of Hollywood happen to be working the window at the same Tim Hortons on that day.

By the time my two-hour (treated-like-a-VIP, easy-peasy) shift was over, my brain hurt. Talk about multi-tasking. I have never been more grateful to go back to being a writer.

The moral of the story? The next time you’re at the drive-through, remember that the person taking the order is only human, and just one cog in a pretty complex machine. Remember that she never, ever stops for her entire shift, she makes a lot less money than you, and she still manages to keep smiling.

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