Skip navigation

Thursday August 13, 2009

The 'idea guy' behind Tim Hortons saw others get rich while he went bankrupt

Entrepreneur was the ill-fated hockey player's first partner in the little doughnut chain that grew

Special to The Globe and Mail

Jim Charade is an unknown visionary in the annals of Canadian business.

It's a shame he never got to savour the dizzying financial success of Tim Hortons, because he was the one who started the chain.

Yet few, if any, link him to the famous brand, which now comprises close to 3,000 outlets in Canada and nearly 500 in the United States.

People think of Tim Horton and Ron Joyce, but it was Mr. Charade who suggested to Mr. Horton that they start a doughnut and coffee chain.

"It wasn't Tim Horton. It wasn't Ron Joyce. It was Jim," Mr. Joyce said in an interview upon learning of Mr. Charade's death on July 23 in Jonquière, Que. "Jim was the gambit behind the concept. He doesn't get enough credit, but I have always acknowledged him. Without him, it would never have happened."

Mr. Charade, who was born in Montreal in 1934, moved to Toronto at 18 to pursue a career as a jazz drummer. But he soon discovered it wasn't a revenue-generating occupation.

Instead, he found employment in a factory before becoming a receiver and salesman in 1955 for Vachon, the Quebec snack-food company known for Jos. Louis chocolate cakes. Paul Vachon, one of the company's owners, had actually offered the job to Jim's brother Paul but Paul didn't want it, so he gave it to Jim.

In no time, Mr. Charade was making every attempt to coax Mr. Vachon into opening a chain of doughnut shops across Canada. But his idea went nowhere. The company's niche always had been supplying stores, caterers and restaurants with its products.

"Paul Vachon thought doughnut shops would hurt doughnut sales in supermarkets like Steinberg and Loblaws," Mr. Charade's brother's Pierre said.

Mr. Charade even travelled to Mister Donut's Boston headquarters in 1960 in the hope of securing a franchise north of the border, and also visited California to check out operations there.

"I was impressed with Mister Donuts and wanted a franchise, but on my way back to Toronto, I thought, 'Why do I want a franchise? I can do that myself,' " he told Douglas Hunter, author of Open Ice: The Tim Horton Story.

While still working for Vachon, Mr. Charade opened Your Do-Nut Shop on Lawrence Avenue in a strip mall in Scarborough in 1962.

Not long afterward, with the doughnut business not doing as well as he thought it would, he was in a nearby barbershop when he ran into a man with a Superman physique, a hockey player who had dropped by for his customary crewcut. His name was Tim Horton.

Later, Mr. Charade would buy a Pontiac from Mr. Horton, who sold vehicles at a Scarborough lot in the off-season to augment his NHL salary.

Eventually, Mr. Charade got the idea that a celebrity name could be a vital link for the doughnut business. There was only one problem: Mr. Horton wasn't gung-ho about the idea. He was more interested in hamburgers. But the two agreed to join forces in Timandjim Ltd.

They opened hamburger joints in North Bay and the Toronto area, but the business fizzled. Soon, Mr. Charade persuaded Mr. Horton to go for doughnuts, and the first Tim Hortons franchise was established in April, 1964, on Ottawa Street in Hamilton on the site of an old Esso gas station. Coffee cost 25 cents and doughnuts were 69 cents a dozen.

The franchise was a fantastic success.

So the marriage between Mr. Charade and Mr. Horton continued and several other franchises were set up, mostly under the guidance of Mr. Charade because Mr. Horton wasn't around much, especially during the hockey season.

Mr. Horton had also become a heavy drinker and his marriage to Lori Horton was far from amicable. When he returned from a cruise to South America at the end of the 1963-64 hockey season, he found the half dozen restaurants operated by him and Mr. Charade near bankruptcy.

It was a matter of not enough working capital.

Back to top