When he was 13 years old, Tim Harris told people that one day he would own and operate a restaurant.
And for the past three years, he has: Tim’s Place, of Albuquerque, N.M.
This is a big deal, because Harris, now 27, has Down Syndrome. Running a restaurant–or any business, for that matter–was never something that was expected of him. But after he expressed interest in the restaurant business, his parents, Keith and Jeannie Harris, who co-own a technology company, figured out a way to make his dream a reality.
“When you have a kid with substantial disabilities you have to think a lot about their future,” his father, Keith Harris, told ABC News. “We were very motivated for Tim to have as normal as life as possible. Our philosophy as a family was to push the envelope as much as we could toward independence, so that one day when my wife and I are no longer in the picture, Tim will be settled and have his own life.”
From the start, it was clear that Tim’s Place was something special. In addition to standard American and Mexican breakfasts and lunches, Harris serves hugs, and lots of them. So far, he’s doled out up to 32,4750, according to a “hug counter” on the eatery’s website.
Giving hugs “is my favorite part of the day,” said Harris, who arrives at work every morning between 7 and 7:30 and leaves around 2 pm every day except Tuesdays, his day off. “I come to work and I have my shirt untucked. I get my breakfast, and when I’m done, I’ll tuck in my shirt and get into work mode.”
Opening the restaurant, which is technically owned by Keith and Jeannie but will be transferred to a trust in his name, was part of a long-range plan his parents had as a way of insuring their sons’ independence. Knowing that Tim is taken care of is “kind of a comforting feeling as a parent,” said Keith Harris.
But Harris was never treated differently from his three brothers. He attended a mainstream high school–where he was voted homecoming king–and earned certificates in Food Service and in Office Skills at Eastern New Mexico University. He lived in a college dorm, and graduated in the summer of 2008. He’s had a girlfriend, Whitney, for the past 10 months.
Throughout high school and college, he worked as a host at places including Applebee’s and Red Robin, and, his father said, the restaurants did better when he was on duty. “People liked coming in to see him,” he said. That’s when his parents had a “little light bulb moment” and thought: “Why can’t we harness that effect to Tim’s own benefit economically?”
In May of 2010, the Harris’s signed a lease for a restaurant, and the doors opened in October of that year. Today, there’s a chef and manager, but Tim, who lives alone in an apartment next to the restaurant, “Works the room like a gifted politician and visits every table,” his father said.
Harris, who has won several gold medals in the Special Olympics, is also a motivational speaker. His top message? “I tell people with disabilities to stay in school, so they can follow their dreams.”