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The ongoing experiment
It’s a humid summer afternoon and a minivan is packed with hungry children. There isn’t time to cook before tonight’s soccer game, so their father pulls into the McDonald’s drive-thru and places his order. The children whine; the vein on his left temple pulses. After a long eight minutes, he rolls down the window, and with a mumbled “sorry,” a teen hands him a family-size pizza. This is London, Ont., in the mid-eighties.
This seemingly normal scenario, which likely occurred hundreds of times, is actually not at all normal in one noteworthy way: few communities in North America had McDonald’s pizza then. London was among the first to get it before it spread slowly across the continent. People loved the pizzas; they became legendary. But a dish that took nearly 10 minutes to make wasn’t exactly “fast food.” Couple that with thousands of franchisees saddled with the cost of installing new ovens and the whole idea eventually fizzled out.
The thing is, the hypothetical father at the drive-thru didn’t know any of this. He was just looking for the welcome silence that comes from filling kids’ mouths with pepperoni and cheese. He didn’t know that London was at the centre of an ongoing experiment in North American consumer habits. And he didn’t know that, to some shadowy figures watching from afar, he and his family were considered the most typical, representative people in the country.
Most residents of London go through life unaware of the part they play in a conspiracy stretching from corporate boardrooms in New York and Toronto to the fast-food restaurants of southern Ontario. London is, in fact, a principal test market for new consumer products in Canada—and even for the United States.
Newly invented goods slide discreetly into their displays. And then market researchers in the big cities watch. They count how many Krispy Kremes get eaten and notice who opts for peach Pepsi. By the time the goods make it to Toronto or Ottawa, they may feel new, but they’re not: they’ve been tried by the citizens of London.
Companies love London because it is deeply, beautifully average. It’s a medium-size city, just under half a million people living in its broader metropolitan area. Larger cities pose the logistical problem of testing evenly across the populace while smaller ones don’t have big-enough consumer pools to get an accurate reading.
London’s employment breakdown is a diverse mix of occupations, industries and incomes. It’s home to two major post-secondary institutions, a large manufacturing sector and plenty of service jobs. London has a wide range of ethnicities, too. About 140 languages are spoken there; immigrants make up about a fifth of the population.
Kapil Lakhotia, president and CEO of the London Economic Development Corporation, explains that it is the confluence of all these factors that makes London such an irresistible place for companies to float new products. Other cities may have some of these criteria, but not all of them together. You could even say that London is one-of-a-kind—at least for the purpose of market research.
London also has a bit of a cautious, conservative disposition. But unadventurousness is actually a good thing for a test market: 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 often hear yourself sigh as you explained for the hundredth time, “No, the other London.”
“We’re bigger than London, Kentucky,” I sometimes like to add.
I’d always been dimly aware that, in London, we were guinea pigs. And after some research, I’ve realized just how much this was true.
McDonald’s, Tim Hortons and IKEA
The first McDonald’s in eastern Canada was opened in London in 1968. It was a big hit, paving the way for a national rollout. The retro golden arches of that first location still rise above Oxford Street. (When it comes to their pizza saga, it definitely came to London early, but it’s difficult to get a hard date; my father recalls buying them in the early nineties, about five years before they hit the general market.)
The Tim Hortons Iced Capp, that mix of sickly sweet coffee syrup and ice mush that powers Canadians through the summer months, is said to have first appeared in London. The Beer Store introduced drive-thru pickup there (along with a couple other locations nearby). It’s pretty convenient—you roll up and get handed a two-four through the window. Despite some concerns initially that it would encourage drunk driving, it 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 an hour and a half to Burlington for their unassembled Swedish furniture. Now, not only were they able to order products and pick them up on Wonderland Road, they were the only ones in Canada who had that luxury.
In the early 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 Canada as a promotional scheme before the bank switched to the normal, Johnny-less version.
In terms of sheer scale, the most significant product tested in London is probably the McDonald’s Chicken McNugget. In 1983 those little chunks of assembly-line meat hit the city—and Londoners must’ve liked them, since the rest is caloric history.
A meaningful absence
I quickly learned during this investigation, though, that getting definitive facts is tough. Test-marketing is a highly secretive process. My attempts to contact the companies for confirmation 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.
For the longest time, there was one thing I remembered growing up that I could not confirm outside of my own memory—that McDonald’s made a veggie burger in the early 2000s. I knew this because I most certainly ate them. This was before any other major fast-food outlets had them on their menus, and I can still vividly remember how it looked—a greasy brown puck that didn’t make any false promises. It was a thrill to a young vegetarian, but then it disappeared. I didn’t know it was a test at the time, a soy-based mirage. I only finally verified its existence when I came across a report last September that made reference to this McVeggie Deluxe, almost two decades later, while announcing that McDonald’s was testing a new plant-based burger—called the PLT—in, of course, London.
Many Londoners must have similar memories that aren’t ever substantiated like mine was, and wonder if they’re just imagining them. Among my friends and family, a few people can remember getting McDonald’s delivery in the nineties, like I do. Many more, however, have no idea what I’m talking about.
Growing up in London, you’re often aware of an absence. There isn’t an easily identifiable culture like the ones my friends had who grew up in bigger Canadian cities. But maybe there’s meaning in this contribution our populace has made to the country. Every time you enjoy Chicken McNuggets or an Iced Capp, thank the average citizens of London for trying them first—and liking them.
Next, find out why Newfoundland is the kindest province.
© 2019, Nicholas D’Ascanio. From ‘’Norm Core,” by Nicholas D’Ascanio, published in Maisonneuve (September 27, 2019), Maisonneuve.org.