Ron Joyce, Force Behind Tim Hortons Doughnut Shops, Dies at 88

Ron Joyce, a high school dropout and former police officer who helped make the Tim Hortons fast-food stores a ubiquitous part of Canada’s landscape, died on Jan. 31 at his home in Burlingon, Ontario. He was 88.

His son Steven confirmed the death.

Tim Hortons, which started as a doughnut and coffee shop but later expanded into other fare, dominates Canada’s fast-food business to an extraordinary degree. There is one Timmies, as the shops are popularly known, for every 9,800 Canadians. By contrast, McDonald’s restaurants in the United States number one per 23,100 people.

Politicians trailed by cameras as they buy a “double-double” coffee (two creams, two sugars) at a Tim Hortons are now an inevitable part of Canadian election campaigns. To its fans, the chain is something of a national symbol.

As he neared the end of his hockey career, which was spent mostly with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tim Horton founded the company that bears his name with Jim Charade, a Toronto businessman, in 1964. Mr. Charade left the company early on, and Mr. Joyce became Mr. Horton’s partner in 1966.

Mr. Horton, by then with the Buffalo Sabres, died in a car accident in early 1974 when the brand’s stores, like its doughnuts, were counted by the dozen. Mr. Joyce took full control of the company in 1975 by buying the half interest held by Lori Horton, Mr. Horton’s widow, for one million Canadian dollars and a Cadillac Eldorado. (Mrs. Horton, who died in 2000, unsuccessfully sued Mr. Joyce to recover that stake.)

He then led the expansion that eventually turned the chain into a national phenomenon, taking it from 40 stores to 3,665 in Canada and another 1,135 in the United States and other countries.

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Freshly baked doughnuts at a Tim Hortons shop in Oakville, Ontario, in 2007. The stores are popularly known as Timmies.CreditJim Ross for The New York Times

Ronald Vaughan Joyce was born on Oct. 19, 1930, in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia. His father, Willard, who struggled to find work in construction during the Great Depression, died in a road accident when Ron was 3. His mother, Grace (Jollymore) Joyce, often left Ron and his two siblings with relatives so she could take jobs to supplement her widow’s pension.

Mr. Joyce landed in Hamilton, Ontario, where, after a stint working in a tire factory, he became a police officer. He married Lynda Korolenchuk in 1949 and joined the Royal Canadian Navy, where he served for five years before the couple divorced in 1958.

In 1963 he married Theresa McEwan. The couple separated in 1975. According to his 2006 memoir, “Always Fresh,” written with Robert Thompson, Mr. Joyce had seven children between the two marriages. Complete information on survivors was not available.

To boost his income, Mr. Joyce purchased a Dairy Queen franchise the same year he remarried. Turned down by the company for a second franchise, he visited the first Tim Hortons doughnut shop, a converted service station in Hamilton.

He borrowed 10,000 Canadian dollars from a credit union and bought the store as a franchise. He quit the police force to run the store full time and worked with a baker who, Mr. Joyce said in his memoir, set the nightly production levels after consulting a Ouija board.

“I thought the whole thing was crazy, but I’d invested money and decided I’d wait to see how it worked out,” he wrote. “Not surprisingly, things didn’t immediately improve.”

But soon the business turned around and he and Mr. Horton became partners in the parent company, which began selling franchises in other locations in the Hamilton area.

In its early years under Mr. Joyce, the company focused on franchising in smaller communities, where competition from other fast-food chains was limited and relatively little money was needed for advertising.

That small-town focus, Mr. Joyce said in his book, gave the company a foothold that worked to its advantage when it finally moved to fill big-city Canada with its shops.

“People grew up with our coffee and donuts and when they moved to places like Toronto, they were looking for the familiar, which is what we offered,” he wrote.

Over time, Tim Hortons innovated. In 1975 it introduced bite-size Timbits, which remain a signature product. It was one of the first restaurants in Canada to confine smoking to sealed rooms and then to ban it altogether. It dropped “donuts” from its sign and added sandwiches, soups and yogurt to its menu. Despite Mr. Joyce’s initial hesitancy, the chain embraced drive-through sales.

As the company’s success grew, so did friction with some franchise owners over issues like the cost of supplies. Unions have also been critical of its record as an employer. Efforts to match the chain’s runaway Canadian success in the United States have been mostly disappointing.

At Tim Hortons, Mr. Joyce set up a foundation that operates camps for children from low-income families. He later established a family foundation focused on children’s health care and education.

In 1996 he sold the business to the American hamburger chain Wendy’s for about 600 million Canadian dollars in cash and stock. While Mr. Joyce became the largest shareholder in the combined company, he later said that he regretted the sale.

Tim Hortons became independent again 10 years later. In 2014 it was bought outright by the owners of Burger King, prompting something of an outcry from some Canadians.

On Wednesday, Tim Hortons resumed an annual promotion Mr. Joyce started in 1986, in which customers turn up the rim of special coffee cups to see if they’ve won prizes ranging from cars down to, more commonly, doughnuts. The reappearance of the promotion, “Rrroll Up the Rim to Win,” is greeted by many Canadians almost as much for marking the unofficial midpoint of winter as for the prizes it offers.

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