Register Monday | October 14 | 2019
Norm Core Illustration by Alexander McAskill.

Norm Core

Being basic can come with secret perks. Just ask people in London, Ontario.

It’s a humid summer afternoon and a packed minivan’s worth of children are hungry. Their father is at his wits’ end. There isn’t time to cook before tonight’s Timbits soccer game. He pulls into the McDonald’s drive-thru and places his order. The children whine; the vein on his left temple pulses. After eight minutes, he rolls down the window, and with a mumbled “sorry,” the teen worker hands him a family-sized pizza. This is London, Ontario, in the mid-nineties. 

The scene seems like the most normal thing in the world. But it was the opposite—kind of. No one else in North America had McDonald’s pizza then. The product was rolled out in London in the mid-eighties, spreading slowly across the continent from there. People loved them; they became legendary. But a pizza that took ten whole minutes to make didn’t fit with McDonald’s reputation for fast and easy food. Couple that with thousands of franchisees saddled with the cost of installing ovens and with drive-thru windows barely big enough to fit the take-out boxes, and the whole thing fizzled out, the brilliant dream over in a flash. Only two vestigial McDonald’s locations in North America still served pizza, at least until two years ago, in Ohio and West Virginia. 

The thing is, the man at the drive-thru didn’t know any of this. He was just looking for easy calories and the few welcome seconds of silence that come from filling kids’ mouths to the brim with pepperoni and cheese. He didn’t know that London was at the centre of a great experiment in North American consumer habits. Nor did he know that at least to some—shadowy figures watching from afar—he was, in fact, officially the most typical person in the country. 

Most residents of London go through life without knowing the part they play in a conspiracy stretching from the boardrooms of New York and Toronto to the fast-food palaces of southern Ontario. London is a major test market for new consumer products in Canada and even the US. Most large companies market-test just before the full release of some new product or service, to see how the public will receive it and adjust plans accordingly. 

The goods slide, discreetly, into plexiglass displays. And then people in those far-off cities watch. They count how many Krispy Kremes get eaten. Notice who opts for peach Pepsi. By the time the goods get to Toronto or Ottawa, they may feel new, but they’re not: they’ve been tried out by the citizens of London.

Companies love London because it is deeply, beautifully average. It’s a medium-sized city, just under half a million, not too big, not too small. Larger cities of over a million people tend to skew results and pose logistical problems. Smaller ones don’t have big enough pools to get an accurate reading. London is nestled between two larger centres, Detroit and Toronto, which are about equidistant in either direction along the 401. The city’s employment breakdown is a healthy mix of different occupations, industries and incomes. It’s home to two major post-secondary institutions, a large manufacturing sector, and plenty of service jobs.  London has an even spread of ethnicities, too. About one hundred languages are spoken there; immigrants make up about a quarter of the population. 

Kapil Lakhotia, the president of the London Economic Development Corporation, explains that it is the confluence of all these factors that make London such an irresistible test market. Other cities are located along the 401, others have diverse populations, still more have diverse labour profiles. But no other city has all of these factors together. You could even say that London is one-of-a-kind—at least for this purpose. 

(To be fair, some of the same factors—placement on the 401, medium population size, relative isolation from larger cities—also led London to a very un-average distinction: it was the per-capita serial killer capital of the world between 1959 and 1984. During this period, twenty-nine people were murdered and it is believed that there were six serial killers active among the population of two hundred thousand. Companies are less interested in that aspect.) 

Normally, London has a bit of a cautious, conservative disposition. But being unadventurous doesn’t have to be a bad thing, I’m sure: companies can be confident that if Londoners latch on to something, they must really like it. The city is content, after all, with not even having its own name. If you were from London, as I am, you would hear yourself sigh as you explain for the hundredth time, “No, the other London.” “We’re a bigger London than London, Kentucky,” I like to say.

I’ve always been dimly aware that, in London, we were guinea pigs. It’s the kind of urban legend you might hear from an eccentric teacher or a conspiracy-minded friend: someone is watching. After some research, I realized just how much this has actually happened. Here’s everything I feel fairly certain about. 

The first McDonald’s in eastern Canada was opened in London in 1968. It was a big hit, paving the way for full market penetration. The retro golden arches of that first location still rise above Oxford Street, a little piece of McDonaldiana. (To be fair, when it comes to the pizza saga, it certainly came to London early, but it’s hard to get hard dates. My father, Angelo, vividly describes buying it about five years before it hit the general market in the early nineties.)

The Tim Hortons “Iced Capp,” that mix of sickly sweet coffee syrup and granular ice mush that powers so many through the summer (and sometimes winter) months, first saw the light of day in the Forest City. The Beer Store slowly introduced drive-thru pickup starting in London (and a couple of locations nearby). It’s pretty convenient—you roll up and get handed a two-four through the window. Despite some concerns, that experiment has lasted to the present day. 

A few years back, IKEA brought furniture pickup points to Canada, starting in London. For years, Londoners had to schlep to Burlington for their unassembled Swedish furniture. Now, not only were they able to order things and pick them up down Wonderland Road, they were the only ones in Canada who had that luxury. 

In the late 1980s, Canada Trust Bank—now TD Bank—introduced its first-ever ATMs in London, at least according to oral history. They weren’t called that; they were dubbed “Johnny Cash Machines.” Another fun fact about London: it claims Johnny Cash as part of local lore, since he proposed to June Carter on stage there in 1968. The Cash-themed cash machines were later rolled out across Ontario as a promotional scheme before the bank switched to the normal, Johnny-less version.

But in terms of sheer scale, the most important product tested in London is probably the McDonald’s Chicken McNugget. In 1983 those little chunks of assembly-line chicken, lovingly battered in a complex formula of enriched flour and salt and then deep fried, hit London stores. The rest is caloric history. The next time you open that cardboard container housing a hopefully-still-warm six-piece of McNuggets, think of London. 

I quickly learned in this investigation, though, that getting definitive facts is tough. Test-marketing is a highly secretive process. Sometimes the secret gets out, especially if the new product is conspicuous. Competing companies have even been known to try and jam each other’s market tests to give false readings, says Michael Pearce, an emeritus professor of marketing at Western University’s Ivey Business School. 

But there’s another reason for the secrecy, he adds: since market tests are essentially experiments, they work best when following the scientific method. That means trying to reduce as many biases as possible to get an accurate reading.

That must be why there are things I remember from my own life that cannot be explained or confirmed anywhere in the written record. McDonald’s, for example, made a veggie burger in the early 2000s. I know this because I have a distinct memory of it. For reasons that will lead a therapist to charge me a lot of money one day, I became a vegetarian shortly after my parents divorced. I struggled to find non-meat options at fast food restaurants. It spoiled the fun for me—until my luck turned. 

For one shining moment, McDonald’s offered a veggie burger in London. This was before other major fast food outlets had veggie burgers on their menus, and I can still remember the taste. It tried less to look like meat than today’s veggie burgers; it was a greasy brown puck that never made false promises. The taste of that McDonald’s veggie burger was a thrill to a young vegetarian boy, until it was discontinued soon after. I didn’t know it was a test at the time. It was like a soy-based mirage.

Many Londoners must have had similarly disconcerting moments, must be haunted by memories they wonder if they’re imagining. Kapil Lakhotia recounts how, when Tim Hortons introduced their dark roast in London, he became a big fan. On a trip down the 401, he stopped at Ingersoll, the next town over, to get a coffee at the ONroute, a highway rest area. He tried to order, only to be met with total confusion—the staff at that Tim Hortons had never even heard of the dark roast, while just thirty kilometres away, people had been guzzling it down for months. 

The more I dug, the more I found it hard to pin down concrete facts about products that had been tested. Among my friends and family, a few people could remember McDonald’s delivery in the nineties, like I do. Many more, however, had no idea what I was talking about. Talking to the companies proved fruitless—it turns out that Tim Hortons, for example, doesn’t like to talk about products it tests, especially if they aren’t popular. My emails were rebuffed, some ignored. Lakhotia tells me this is standard operating procedure. 

Maybe it’s better for these companies not to be seen as having tried and failed. Fast food can be a ruthless world. 

Growing up in London, you’re conscious of a great absence, a search for meaning. There isn’t an easily identifiable city culture, like the ones my friends had who grew up in Toronto or Montreal, or even Ottawa. That can inspire people to leave. On the other hand, trying to fill that absence has inspired great artists, like Jack Chambers, who painted beautiful scenes of the southwestern Ontario countryside. 

But maybe there’s another major contribution we’ve made to this country, an art form of our own. If you’ve enjoyed chicken McNuggets or an Iced Capp, you know what I mean. And think of all those delicious products that didn’t make it, despite our best efforts. They are lost artefacts of our shared civilization, a world of towering plastic Play-places and Formica tabletops. A Library of Alexandria of snacks and goodies. Only some Londoners remember and keep their dream alive. 

I always thought the joke was that London was boring. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that London’s banality is, well, just fine. It’s summer camps and soccer and  grandparents’ backyards, but it’s also swapping urban legends in fast-food parking lots.