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Tim Hortons launches pizza nationally to 'stretch the brand' to afternoon, night

Tim Hortons new flatbread pizza products (clockwise from top left) Bacon Everything, Simply Cheese, Pepperoni, and Chicken Parmesan are photographed at the Tim Hortons test kitchen in Toronto on Thursday, April 4, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young Tim Hortons new flatbread pizza products (clockwise from top left) Bacon Everything, Simply Cheese, Pepperoni, and Chicken Parmesan are photographed at the Tim Hortons test kitchen in Toronto on Thursday, April 4, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Tim Hortons executives and chefs have collectively eaten thousands of flatbread pizzas over the last several years.

There were versions that were spicy, others that begged for flavoured oil to be added to the base and a slew designed to figure out which combination of cheeses would nail the “ooey gooey factor.”

The fast-food chain's aim was to craft a slate of flatbread pizzas hitting restaurants this week that would satisfy their youngest and oldest customers alike, but there was also a deeper mission: get diners in the door beyond breakfast.

“We are really strong in the morning ... but we saw that opportunity existed in the afternoon,” said Tims' chief marketing officer Hope Bagozzi, sitting in the chain's Toronto test kitchen on a recent evening.

“With single-digit market share for a player of our size, that's really not tapping into the potential in the afternoon.”

Tim Hortons is hoping to turn that around when it follows up a two-year flatbread pizza pilot with the national launch of cheese, pepperoni, “bacon everything” and chicken Parmesan varieties Wednesday, a month before its sixtieth anniversary.

The release marks Tims' entry into a crowded but quintessential corner of the fast-food market. Restaurants Canada named pizza, along with panzerottis and calzones, as the country's sixth-most ordered items last year, figuring into 4.5 per cent of restaurant receipts.

Much of it is sold in the afternoon or evening, a period when research firm Circana estimates one quarter of all quick-serve restaurant visits are made.

“There's only so many people they can serve in the morning, but there is operational capacity and some efficiency to be had by getting people in at the other times of day,” Circana food industry analyst Vince Sgabellone, said ahead of Tims' announcement.

“Every operator, regardless of whether it's Tims or something else, has their peaks and they're trying to fill other times of day.”

Tims' road to filling the gap with flatbread pizza began years ago, on the heels of a succession of small but mighty changes designed to boost its breakfast offerings, said Axel Schwan, Tim Hortons' president, sitting beside Bagozzi.

Fresh eggs were launched, Boston creme doughnuts got more Venetian cream and apple fritters more fruit. Coffee cup lids were even redesigned to reduce spillage and boost sustainability.

Schwan considers these “step one” on a journey that has the company “chasing new opportunities.”

The second step emerged when Tims started looking for “white space opportunities” that exist in its expansive menu of baked goods, beverages and sandwiches, Bagozzi said.

“We started mapping out where should we go over many years, so not to rush it, but to really think about where we can stretch the brand a little in the afternoon beyond what people expect of Tims today.”

Executives always saw flatbread pizza as an eventual menu item but took a long-term approach, launching wraps and bowls first.

When the bowls and wraps attracted customers during weekday lunches, Tims decided it was ready to court more afternoon and dinner diners with flatbread pizza, which it also sees as weekend- and family-friendly.

It tested potential flatbread pizzas for two years - one of its longest pilot periods in recent history - in markets like Winnipeg, Calgary and Mississauga, Ont., and learned a lot.

“I love spice. I thought it was going to be a home run and it wasn't really,” Bagozzi recalled.

“We took that back and said ... 'Maybe having spice right off the bat isn't the right way to launch.”'

There were also logistical complications. Tims staff assemble sandwiches but don't knead dough, and with space constantly at a premium in the quick-serve industry, adding a new station beyond the counter can be costly.

Tims will solve for these challenges by shipping flatbread bases to stores and equipping its sandwich stations with squeeze bottles of sauces and containers of shredded cheese and other toppings so they can be made to order.

And then there's convincing people to open their wallets. After all, Canadians aren't starved for choices when it comes to pizza, lunch or dinner.

“I think anybody who is in the food space is obviously competing with us for a visit from a guest for sure,” Bagozzi said.

But in some respects, Tims has an edge. It's built into routines - people visit on their commutes and see it as a handy place to feed kids headed to extracurriculars - and it has a vast network of restaurants, meaning Canadians won't have to go far for a flatbread.

“Whether you're popping in for lunch or dinner or on the weekend, I think we're well-situated,” Bagozzi said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2024. Top Stories

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