Sunday, January 20, 2008

Donut Semiotics

Out walking the other day with my wife, we had occasion to stop and rubber-neck at the new Tim Hortons Donuts going in around the corner from us. Already in the neighbourhood there are two Coffee Time donut shops, plus a Portuguese bakery that serves espresso.
Now, coffee and donut shops are thick as locusts in Southern Ontario. Nobody eats the sugary holes or drinks the bitter, black stimulant more than us it seems. Though it has to be said that the donut craze is not just about Ontario – Americans consume something like 10 billion donuts per year, or about 33 donuts per person – almost a donut per week. And given that there are those of us who never imbibe in the deep fried doughy circle, someone out there is eating a lot of donuts.
Canadians as a whole are no shirkers either, with 15 million of us spending $5 billion in coffee shops each and every year.
The omnipresence of the donut and coffee as a staple, not only of our diet, but of our culture got me thinking about the meaning of the donut and the coffee. I think we can all agree that The Donut exists on multiple levels of meaning – there’s the elegance of the crueller, the decadence of the jelly filled, the asceticism of the plain. Then there’s the hybrid donut semiotics, for instance the sprinkle covered old school hole; which I think of as the post-Vatican 2 Catholic donut.
But let us return to our neighbourhood Tim Hortons. I have to admit that my partner and I were both a little disappointed that what was coming into the neighbourhood was a Tim’s and not a Starbucks or a Second Cup. And yes, I feel shame at this; yes, I know Starbucks owner is a big-time supporter of Israel and America's War of Terror. We talked about this emotional response and realized that it all has to do with the meaning of Tim’s vs the meanings of Starbucks. The latter indicates a more upscale community, greater education levels, higher disposable income, more discriminating tastes. Starbucks goers don’t eat deep fried circles of dough – they consume oat and date squares or biscotti with their mochacino soy latte.
But neither is Tim’s at the level of Coffee Time, which are to cafes what crack houses are to wine bars. Universally dirty, it seems, they are on the corners of low-income neighbourhoods, gathering in the filthier elements in the neighbourhood. Used to be, before it was banned, that they were smoke filled and you could guarantee that jelly-filled, sugared donut you were about to scarf down would taste like stale tobacco. The tables are fixed to the floors and the chairs are attached to the tables – to keep people throwing them, I presume, or knocking them over. In any case, a February 2007 CBC article revealed that Coffee Time’s were receiving an inordinate number of health violations – something like 78 percent of inspections resulted in citations and 35 percent of Toronto outlets were on probation.
As an aside - just for the record, no, I don’t think that low-income people are dirtier than everybody else. Hell, I’m low income – as are most of the people I know. I think that corporate donut franchises want to maximize profits by minimizing quality, including health conditions, and low-income people often can’t afford any better. And it’s not like there’s publicly funded community centres on the main streets of our cities and towns. Places that people can drop into and engage in healthier activities than eating fat-drenched, sugary, carbohydrate heart-attack bombs. Donut shops are the community centres of the new, overweight millennium.
Looked at in light of all this, the arrival of Tim Hortons to our neighbourhood is a sign of things changing. Our coffee shops may not sell ten varieties of coffee, in 36 combinations from 22 countries. But, dammit, at least we now have those cute little Tim sandwiches and soup of the day.
We live in an area of Toronto’s west end where rising property values has put pressure on the local poor and on drug users, dealers and prostitutes in the neighbourhood. They are literally being forced out, though I often wonder where they are going – to the suburbs, I presume. We are not yet ready for the sophistication of a Second Cup/Starbucks – or even less a Lettieri – but we are definitely moving up from Coffee Time. The arrival of Tim Hortons – just like the Shoppers Drug Mart that opened down the street last year – are all signs that the demographics of our neighbourhood are changing fast.
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