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Nov. 3rd, 2003

Frozen doughnut scandal scares province to bits

LINWOOD BARCLAY

The new Liberal government at Queen's Park is moving forward on the Tim Hortons frozen doughnut scandal on a number of fronts.

First, there is the ongoing public inquiry, which began last week. A number of witnesses are expected to be called, from corporate executives to the folks who work the drive-through windows.

Second, a new Ministry of Pastries is expected to be announced any day now. When Premier McGuinty unveiled a cabinet consisting of fewer ministers than in the last government, some believed it was because there were a couple of other ministries in the works. The new minister of pastries, once appointed, will be responsible for ensuring that the integrity of the doughnut, deemed by many to be the province's, if not the country's, national food, is protected.

According to the Premier, "Ontario families want to know that when they go in to their local Tim Hortons, that they are getting a fresh doughnut, not a doughnut that was baked hundreds of miles away, frozen, shipped out, then reheated at the local franchise."

The federal Liberals are also said to be watching how this unfolds, given that Tim Hortons has outlets right across the country. Said one Ottawa insider: "It is an issue with national implications. Messing with the doughnut, it's like deciding to make hockey pucks square, or turn the beaver into a chicken. Well, certainly the hockey puck thing."

Third, the province will consider whether it has enough doughnut inspectors, and whether a cutback in doughnut inspecting staff is what allowed this change to slip through unnoticed. Tim Hortons did not, as most have noticed, build an advertising campaign around its change in production, figuring perhaps that its slogan, "Always Fresh," still worked better than "Always Frozen, Then Reheated."

Some of the questions that need answering: Are all the pastries being made and frozen in Brantford, or just some? Take the walnut crunch. It is not, strictly speaking, a doughnut, lacking the traditional round shape and hole in the middle. Is it, too, brought in frozen and reheated on the premises? And how about the muffins? Is there any truth to the rumour that the Nanaimo bars sold at some outlets do not actually come from British Columbia?

And just how long will Brantford be the production centre? As the corporation moves to trim costs, will it move doughnut production to Mexico, or possibly overseas? And is it true that doughnuts built on a Monday have more quality problems?

Not surprisingly, things got a bit testy the other day at the public inquiry, which is being presided over by retired Justice William Cruller, who is holding the hearings across the province in Tim Hortons outlets, except for those little tiny ones, like the ones they put in gas station convenience stores, where there are no tables or chairs.

Justice Cruller had just ordered a decaf with double cream and two sweeteners and taken his seat by the window, tucking his robes under his butt so they wouldn't drag on the tile floor, when the lawyer for the first witness, a Tim Hortons vice-president, demanded a change of venue because someone from Krispy Kreme was in the parking lot handing out free samples.

An independent expert in doughnutology testified that the doughnut industry is steeped in myth.

For example, when he mentioned, offhandedly, that Timbits are not actually punched out of the centre of other doughnuts (if they were, they would not have such a perfect, rounded shape, and would be more like a film canister), there was an audible gasp in the restaurant/courtroom. Reporters ran from the room to phone their editors immediately.

The Premier has promised to implement the inquiry's recommendations as soon as they are made. "I will be picking them up from the drive-through window personally," he promised.

Reach Linwood Barclay by e-mail at lbarclay@thestar.ca.






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