Building a Business on Being Awesome: Tim's Place
A few hours after Tim Harris was born, doctors told his parents the news: he had Down Syndrome. Friends gave the family their condolences, expecting a tough life.
What they didn't realize is that Harris's values would not include worry, self-pity, or giving up. That he would be imbued with the most vibrant of spirits. That he would believe primarily in being awesome. Or that Harris, now 29, would own a popular restaurant, run a nonprofit to aid entrepreneurs with intellectual disabilities and inspire people the world over as a stirring public speaker.
“I guess they just didn't know how totally awesome I would turn out to be," Harris quips.
Though his family didn't know it yet, January 21, 1986, also marked the inception of National Hug Day, a fortuitous coincidence that would turn out to play a dominant role in Harris's life.
By the time he was 13, well before his hugs would become famous, Harris had decided his life's trajectory.
“I wanted to own a restaurant to be around people," he says. “It means the world to me."
Getting a Start in the Business
Harris's love for people paid off. When he was a senior at Eldorado High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he was elected homecoming king. Harris and his best friend convinced the local Red Robin to hire him as a host. He was an immediate hit, flexing his muscles, smiling big, bringing joy. Business mushroomed during his shifts.
“Everybody wanted to come to the lobby because of me," Harris remembers. “I have thousands of friends."
In 2010, after studying food service at Eastern New Mexico University, Harris opened Tim's Place, touted as “the world's friendliest restaurant," back in Albuquerque. His trademark hugs are perhaps more important to the menu than its southwest cuisine.
Word spread, and scores of fans around the world began sending Harris emails telling their own stories, expressing gratitude for inspiration. Thousands came to Tim's Place looking for a good hug.
Giving Others a Hand Up
Last year, Harris fulfilled a second dream and founded Tim's Big Heart Foundation (TBHF), which helps people with intellectual disabilities start their own businesses and aims to generate awareness of what these individuals can achieve.
Harris' speaking schedule has taken him across the United States and Canada on some two dozen stages in 18 months. He says he has hugged President Obama and more than 70,000 others to date, raising thousands for his nonprofit at annual birthday hug-a-thons. He recently introduced Michelle Obama at the Special Olympics World Games opening ceremony. He's slated for an upcoming TEDx talk in Jacksonville.
Through these events, Harris met other remarkable folks like Joe Steffy, who has Down Syndrome and autism and is sole proprietor of Poppin' Joe's Gourmet Kettle Corn in Kansas. Then there was Matt Cottle, a 25-year-old baker with autism in Phoenix, who became TBHF's first project.
Cottle struggled to find employment and dreamt of running a stand-alone bakery. TBHF stepped in to provide financial assistance, a marketing package and business plan, website upgrades, and ongoing bookkeeping and accounting support to scale up Cottle's business. It also connected Cottle with an expert local baker to mentor him.
Making Meaningful Connections
"There are so many people out there dying to be a part of the world in a meaningful way," says Sabrina Torreblanca, TBHF's manager. “We connect families with those people and other business owners around the country."
Slowly, Harris, his restaurant, and his foundation are making headway.
“We're this beacon where we get all different kinds of people," says Zac Perez, manager of Tim's Place, “and through Tim's outreach and awareness and a little bit of time, [acceptance of people with disabilities] is becoming more common."
For Harris's part, he says he's happy doing what he loves: making others happy. He walks onto a stage the same way he walks into work every morning.
“I break down and dance hard," he says with a huge smile. “People get excited."
That, ultimately, is Harris's secret, his gift to the world.
“I love living and try to show it in everything I do," Harris explained in a speech at this year's Welcome Conference, a symposium for the restaurant industry. “The world can be a scary place, and some people just want to be scared. Not me. I want to make the world totally awesome!"
Nick Davidson is a freelance writer, editor, and fact-checker, a martial artist and musician, and a world traveler. His work has appeared in Outside, Popular Science, and VICE Sports.