Tim Harris started a restaurant in Albuquerque called Tim’s Place in 2010, after dreaming about it for more than a decade. Just two years after opening, it was already seeing $700,000 in annual revenues, and now has plans for additional locations.
What makes this entrepreneurial success story remarkable beyond its quick growth is that the main man behind the business is a 27-year-old with Down Syndrome whose key ingredient is a hug to everyone who walks in.
“We serve breakfast and lunch, and I give out free hugs,” Tim says. The hugs are even part of the menu, which otherwise is comprised of a mix of traditional Mexican and American fare. “I go around to tables to the people and tell them, ‘Hi, how are you doing today and how’s your food today?’
“I decided to run a restaurant ever since I was a kid,” he says. “And I wanted my dad to help me create my own life and live near where I work.”
Tim’s father, Keith Harris, says his son started talking about wanting to have his own restaurant when he was in his early teens. During high school, Tim worked as a host at Red Robin restaurant in Albuquerque. It was there that he learned how to greet people and developed a loyal following.
In 2004,he attended Eastern New Mexico University in Roswell, where he lived in a dorm and earned certificates in food service and office skills. He also worked at a variety of restaurants, including CiCi’s Pizza, Golden Corral, IHop, and Peppers Bar and Grill.
Upon Tim’s graduation in 2008, his father says, “We were looking as a family at trying to help Tim create an all-encompassing plan for his life in which he could support himself with employment as well as having a lifestyle in which all was in close proximity with each other. Tim does not drive a car.”
So Keith and his wife, who had experience starting companies and who in the 1980s began Kemtah Group, which provides computer support for large organizations, decided to put together a business plan for the restaurant. (Albuquerque-based Kemtah has 350 employees and operates in 22 states, with 350 employees, of which about 100 are local.)
“As we started putting together the business plan for the restaurant, we looked at locations where everything he needed would be close by,” Keith Harris said, describing how Tim’s Place is within walking distance of a grocery store, hair salon, a school in which he participates in Special Olympics, a pizza place and a gym where he has a membership.
“He has a self-contained world in that little neighborhood,” says his father. “This was fulfillment of a bigger picture plan that was more than just a business but a lifestyle that would work for him.”
Keith says the family financed the restaurant and were not very concerned about it being a success, even with the weakened economy: “From the beginning, we had a broad appeal to the community, so I wasn’t as worried about the appeal to the community as I would have been with another restaurant.
We have a very unique concept in terms of the restaurant being owned and operated by someone with a significant developmental disability,” Keith said, adding that he believes the Albuquerque metro area to be more open-minded and less prejudiced than other parts of the country where people tend not to give others the benefit of the doubt so easily.
In fact, he says that with all of their family businesses, they have found New Mexico and particularly Albuquerque to have a solid employee base and a favorable business climate. “The attitude of government about business is positive, and I’ve always felt pretty supported by government agencies that we interact with,” he says.
Even so, it is of course, the customers who keep Tim’s Place, and Tim, in business. And there is little he likes better than to be working the restaurant six days a week. He says he takes Tuesdays off so he can “relax his big hugging machine.”
But Tim’s work and renowned is stretching far beyond the single eatery. In January 2013, he had a “hug-a-thon“ to celebrate his birthday and raise money for a local charity. He brought in $6,500 in three days.
And don’t be surprised if you see Tim on both the big and small screens in the near future. Keith says the family is in negotiations with a few groups in Hollywood . One is interested in producing a feature film that would be an inspirational story about Tim’s life and released in movie theaters nationwide, and he is already under contract with a company that wants to create a reality TV show based around Tim’s life and his plans to expand the restaurant.
Emerging plans include a second location to open by the end of 2013 in the Albuquerque metro area, with up to five local restaurants eventually and possibly even a regional chain.
“Tim has been interested in expansion before we even opened the doors on the first place,” Keith said.
And since Tim cannot be in more than one place at a time, the family plans to hire local young people with Down Syndrome and a similar outgoing personality as Tim to greet customers. Most locations will also have free hugs on the menu.
As for Tim, he is not surprised about his success: “I knew that I can do it. Dreams come true. I have a quote: ‘ If you can dream it, you can do it.’ I made that dream come true.’”
When asked if he has another dream not that this one has been fulfilled, he says without hesitation: “Yes, I do have a dream. I want to be married. Right now I am dating someone special, and she’s awesome.”
To learn more, visit Tim's Place website.