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Restaurateur with Down syndrome serves up tasty grub — and hugs

March 18, 2013 at 9:35 AM ET

Video: Thanks to rave reviews, the restaurant of the moment in Albuquerque is Tim’s Place, named after owner Tim Harris, who may be the first restaurateur with Down Syndrome. He talks to NBC’s Janet Shamlian about serving food, drinks, and “the best part”: hugs.

Like many kids, Tim Harris worked his share of restaurant jobs in high school and college — IHOP, Golden Corral, CiCi’s Pizza, Red Robin. As a host, Harris learned how to greet customers and made them feel so welcome, he soon developed a loyal following — quite a feat for any high schooler, let alone a teen with Down syndrome.

It became obvious that the restaurant business was Harris’ calling, so after he earned certificates in Food Service and Office Skills from Eastern New Mexico University, his dad gave him the seed to money to launch the Albuquerque spot Tim’s Place, likely the country’s first restaurant owned and operated by a person with Down syndrome.

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” Harris, 27, told TODAY’S Janet Shamlian during her recent visit there.

Harris — who was elected homecoming king in high school — runs the front-of-house, greeting customers with his magnetic charm and trademark hugs. The hugs are literally on the menu, and they’re free — too bad for Harris, as he has given out thousands of them and keeps track of them with a counter.

One of Harris’ brothers also works at the breakfast-and-lunch spot, which maintains a solid four-star rating on Yelp. Aside from hugs, Tim’s serves up lots of New Mexican fare — carne adovada enchiladas, green chile cheese grits, and onion rings dusted with red chile powder and and a green chile ranch sauce.

“Excellent!” one Yelp reviewer raved about her sandwich and onion rings. “My friend had the enchiladas and almost licked her plate clean. Tim was there to greet us and spent some time chatting with us, too, as did a couple of the servers. We will definitely be back!”

Even with all the hearty dishes, more than one customer said that it’s the hugs that keep bringing them in the door.

“I see him touch someone’s life genuinely every single day,” Harris’ brother Dan told TODAY. “It’s pretty great.”

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