The story of Thatcher's Downtown: Laid-off heavy equipment operator/welder takes unconventional road as entrepreneur
JACKSON Ky. – Shawn Thatcher’s entrepreneurial spirit is a little bit unconventional.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Shawn and his wife, Crystal, are the proud owners of Thatcher’s Downtown, a new restaurant in the Breathitt County community of Jackson. The restaurant, a Blueprint Partner of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, Inc. (SOAR), is a mixture of a bakery, a coffee shop, and a barbeque joint rolled into one.
“If you can’t find something good to eat here, I’d question whether or not you had a stomach,” Shawn laughed. “We have a little bit of everything here because we cater to all people.”
Shawn’s road to being an entrepreneur has a familiar twist. He was laid off as a heavy equipment operator in the coal mining industry in July 2015.
“That was the first time in my life I wasn’t working,” said Shawn, who has spent more than two decades as a heavy equipment operator and welder. “I didn’t know what to do. They said we would be called back [to work] in a matter of weeks, and that turned into months, and the next thing I knew, my unemployment ran out.”
One door closed and another one opened.
Shawn’s first stint as an entrepreneur started when he was doing small welding jobs to make ends meet. He later decided to open Market 541, a small convenience store located eight miles from Jackson, the county seat of Breathitt County.
“The store paid the bills, but it took a lot of work,” Shawn recalled. “It was work around the clock. I learned people don’t get rich operating their own store.”
Shawn’s love for barbeque started in 2011 when he was asked by a friend to build a smoker. It was the first one he built, and his friend liked it. Shawn took some scrap metal from his shop and built his first smoker.
“I had $12 in it,” said Shawn. “I started looking up recipes and watching videos. I would smoke meat just about every day I had off. Crystal and I started traveling across the country to taste barbeque. We went to the Carolinas, St. Louis, Memphis, and Texas.”
At the market, Shawn and Crystal would often get asked if they had food available. That sparked a conversation that took Shawn’s love for barbeque and Crystal’s love for cooking down yet another unconventional path.
Enter a Facebook group.
Shawn and Crystal decided to make a meal each week. There would be 100 meals and they would communicate the meal items in a Facebook group throughout the week and have the meals ready on Friday. The first week, the meals were sold in less than an hour. The following week, the all 100 meals were sold by preorder.
“That’s when I knew we were on to something,” said Shawn. “We started looking for a place to open a restaurant.”
The search started with everyone chiming in with their opinion, Shawn recalled. “Everyone said I needed to be on Highway 15.” Highway 15 connects Hazard to Campton, and the road is frequented daily by those wishing to connect to the Mountain Parkway in Campton.
Shawn didn’t want to be on the main drag. He wanted, instead, to be a destination. He wanted to be located in downtown Jackson and be part of the town’s revitalization. His search was exhaustive. The Thatchers never gave up.
Opportunity knocked, again. Shawn and Crystal answered.
Shawn is a Member of the Breathitt Lodge 649 and they had a small building next to its meeting space. It was previously occupied by a barber shop and beauty shop. The tenants abruptly closed. Shawn waited several months and thought about it before inquiring. The wheels were shortly in motion and Thatcher’s Downtown became a reality.
Thatcher’s Downtown opened in August 2017. Shawn and Crystal ordered enough product to make around 700 doughnuts.
“Our business model was built around selling 300 a day to start out,” said Shawn. They sold more than 700 the first day and had to call their food supplier nearly two hours away to get more products. “On the first day, our first customer was at the door at 5:45 a.m. The next thing I know they were lined up around the building. It was just me and Crystal here, and I called my two children (who are 18 and 21) to come help.”
The donuts, which are made fresh to order, were – and still are – a hit. They sold 1,200 donuts on the third day and sold more than 1,000 donuts a day for the next three weeks.
While it has settled down some, Shawn and Crystal gradually introduced breakfast sandwiches, coffee (cappuccino, espresso, and other specialty drinks), sandwiches, soups, and, yes, barbeque.
Their sandwiches feature bread made in-house daily, and their soups, including Shawn’s famous brisket chili, are all made from scratch.
“We’ve come a long way from catering a friend’s wedding in 2011,” Shawn recalls. “Our barbeque is available every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and it is a Texas style barbeque. The meat makes the difference.”
Shawn looks at downtown Jackson as a diamond in the rough. He points across the road and remembers a grocery store that was once there.
“There were 3 grocery stores and 5-6 other department stores and specialty shops here when I was a kid,” Shawn said. “I want it to be that way again. It can be that way again, but it’s going to take the people of the region stepping up, taking a chance, and doing it.”
Shawn and Crystal said organizations such as SOAR provide hope and inspire the people of the region to take ownership in its future.
“This has given us a platform for ideas,” said Shawn. “It’s providing a plan and networking us with folks that are dealing with the same challenges and opportunities as we are.”
For more information on Thatcher’s Downtown, visit https://www.thatchersdowntown.com/. To learn more about SOAR’s Blueprint Partnership program and how you can join, visit www.soar-ky.org/partner. The program is open to businesses, organizations, and individuals who are committed to building a 21st Century Appalachia. Together.