A year ago, bar owner Kim Finch saw herself expanding into the restaurant business. A building, charming with years of history, had become available, and the sight of a patio full of people diving into Frito pie was easy to imagine.
Today, Thunderbird Station is in that former gas station, retrofitted and beautiful, operating as a bar serving food (it's 21 and older). Yet despite its spacious patios that provide ideal places for dining during the coronavirus pandemic, the chairs are frequently empty and staff members are struggling to make enough money to survive.
“My landlord here said, ’It just sucks you couldn’t get open before COVID. You had no time to build up your following. You had no regulars. It’s just weird, everything’s just weird. It’s bizarro world,’” said Finch, who also owns Double Wide on the edge of Deep Ellum and Single Wide on Lowest Greenville. “It’s been so difficult. I can’t believe I haven’t jumped off a bridge yet. I’m struggling so hard to keep all three.”
Finch bought Double Wide in 2006, two years after it opened, and opened Single Wide nine years ago, right before the neighborhood was revamped by the city to become the entertainment district it is today. She’s seen neighborhoods change and evolve, and she said she’s never had the burden of debt to keep her businesses afloat.
That changed when she jumped into the food business just before the pandemic hit.
“In the beginning, the only way I thought this was a good idea was because Double Wide and Single Wide were doing so well,” she said. “[Thunderbird] was my first huge construction project undertaking, so that was a first for me, food was a first for me, so I took out a huge loan to do this, which I’ve never had to do before with Double Wide and Single Wide, so I thought, ‘Well, they’re doing so well. If this is a little slow taking off, those two can help this.'”
Those bars are doing fine, taking account of the pandemic. They’re long-standing businesses that fit well in their communities. As Finch said, both East Dallas and Deep Ellum customers will tell a business what they do and don’t want, and she’s made those bars reflect those desires.
“I’ve always been impressed with her as a business owner,” said Jon Hetzel of Madison Partners, the landlord for Single Wide. “I think she creates very well run, eclectic neighborhood establishments that are assets to the communities that she’s in. And I think she helps add character to the neighborhoods in which she operates, as well as culture, particularly when she does live music in places like Double Wide.”
Finch had closed the bars at the beginning of the pandemic. She received funding from the Paycheck Protection Program, which went to her employees while the bars stayed empty. She reopened after many meetings with staff — numerous because regulations kept changing — and regulars returned. Both bars have the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission’s food and beverage permit to stay open, selling food that comes out of Thunderbird Station.
Dave Allor has worked for Finch primarily at Single Wide. He’s spent eight years with her company because, “if you just go to work and do the right thing, it’s a great company to work for. … It’s a great spot, the regulars are great, the clientele is great.”
Finch said that when she doesn’t see her bar jam-packed, that’s fine — social distancing stays enforced, and she likes the fact that her customers are being safe and not cramming into bars.
Allor said that’s mostly the case, but not everyone follows the rules.
“We’re fortunate to be able to get back open, however. … It’s just a whip, basically. It’s been nine months and people still don’t get that you should wear a mask or have to,” he said. “So bartending was babysitting anyway, and now it’s babysitting smaller children, the constant reminding, ‘Hey, put your mask on.’ It’s a thing. It’s already a tough job to begin with, and now it’s just compounded.”
That’s one example of how employees’ roles have expanded. Another example is at all three of these businesses: The person taking your order may also be the one who’s constantly sanitizing.
When Finch sees her employees doing this and then notices a customer give a weak tip, it baffles her.
“It blows my mind that people still come out and stiff people on tips. And so I have employees that will walk with $30: Making $30 on a shift, you can’t do that, so I totally understand they have to go somewhere else for a job. They have rent and bills to pay,” Finch said in November. “If I could pay a big hourly, I would, but I can’t do that, I don’t have the money to pay the payroll as it is, so if nobody comes [to Thunderbird] ... it’s just kind of devastating to watch that.”
Last week, Finch noted business has gotten worse this month. It’s somehow slower, and that’s curious. These days, we’re told not to gather. If you go out, stay within your household and stay away from people. Dine outside. Wear a mask, we know all these things.
This is easy to do at Thunderbird — there’s an enormous patio where diners can sit and not feel anxious.
Thunderbird is not a duplication of either neighborhood bar — but what works in those works here. There are a comfortable, approachable atmosphere, funky drinks and friendly staff. The food menu is Finch’s creation, with bologna sandwiches (hot or cold), a Frito pie we’ve verified is wonderful and crispy pork rinds among the list of diet-busting meals.
“I love everything on the menu. It’s just nostalgic food for me, it’s food from growing up, everything on there I get excited about,” Finch says. “I could never go somewhere and get a Frito pie because I don’t like shredded cheese, I like gooey cheese.”
Eating one of those pies on that patio alongside a beer poured into a frosted mug is a fine night even in pre-pandemic times, but it’s ideal these days. Yet the place stays quiet.
Thunderbird was supposed to open last January and finally did so in September.
“The first week was great. It was so busy, and we were like, ‘Yes,’ and then it like instantly dropped off. … We thought that first week or two, it was going to stay consistent, the weather stayed great,” she said. “We got so many good reviews. People said they loved it. It was so weird.”
The business remains in a precarious position, one that’s not sustainable, Finch said. She talked of wanting to run away, knowing she couldn’t. When asked why not, she had a simple answer: her employees.
“I can’t give up because of them,” she said. “It’s a lot on my shoulders, and I feel like I have a lot of people that depend on me, and I can’t give up for them. They’re like my family.”
John Hernandez met Finch about 20 years ago when the two were working at The Old Monk on North Henderson Avenue. He then worked at Double Wide before she bought it, worked elsewhere and has spent the last 10 years working with her.
“She’s great. For one thing, she takes care of her employees; it’s mom-and-pop, of course,” he said. “She doesn’t want to see anybody fail, and she takes good care of us. She carries a big stick also. It’s definitely a privilege to work for her, and you just have to do her right and, in turn, she does the same thing.”
Finch is trying to further pivot her businesses to fit COVID: In East Dallas, she’s trying to put a parklet outside of Single Wide, something that’s proving difficult as neighboring businesses aren’t supportive because they fear what could possibly happen if the walkable neighborhood loses one parking space.
She has ionizers at her properties aimed at killing germs in the air, has installed heating on the patio of Thunderbird to keep outdoor diners warm and has upped disinfecting measures even more. The whole process has cost Finch more dollars while business remains slow.
That’s where the Deep Ellum Foundation was able to help. The foundation — the nonprofit that manages public and private funds from the neighborhood’s public improvement district — has had two rounds of grants for small businesses during the pandemic. One was after the protests/demonstrations/riots that went through the neighborhood and a more recent one was directed toward improvements to help businesses pivot to serve through the pandemic.
“Kim has been the leader on that. She has been way out front, A/C system, she literally fogs for the virus every single day in her spaces, added a large garage door at Double Wide to allow open access,” says Stephanie Keller Hudiburg, executive director of the Deep Ellum Foundation. “She’s been at the forefront of how do you pivot to benefit your customers and employees.”
“I can’t think of anyone else who had done more than she’s done to make her places safe and welcoming.”
For Finch, she knew nearly 20 years ago that she was getting into a riskier industry. Of course, no one knew that those risks would be compounded by a pandemic.
“It’s always going to be a roller-coaster, but that roller-coaster I enjoyed; this roller-coaster I want off ASAP, I hate it,” she says. “I tried to always evolve. I never wanted to stay stagnate, so back then it was fun to create and come up with new things that would bring people to the bars. … That was fun to me. This one is just devastation after devastation. You’re just running out of money, running out of money, running out of money. You’re losing employees. You want to do the best for your employees. I’m just waiting for one good thing to come out of it, and I really hate to be negative, I try to be positive for my staff.”
It’s easy to feel positive at Thunderbird, though. Finch has a solid playlist at her spots, the menu is a decadent delight and the beer is cold. Plus there’s also the feeling of not being in a crowded space where the coronavirus is going to ruin your life.
“Just seeing people love it reminds me I’m doing the right thing,” Finch says. “I’m providing a space where people feel safe and can blow off some steam, so that makes my heart happy.”