The Fall & Rise of Albert Tharin
Albert Tharin’s world was tumbling out of control.
One moment, the Florida native was driving down a leafy suburban avenue. The next, his white Ford Explorer was violently rolling side-over-side around him.
The crunch of metal and rattle of broken glass sounded to Tharin like someone shaking a child’s piggy bank. By the time it stopped, his side was on the concrete and his legs were pinned under the steering column.
It was July 30, and Tharin had been on his way to pick up food and supplies for his restaurant, Albert’s Grill, in Columbia Heights. The burger joint had been open a little over a year, and buzz was starting to build about its unusual menu item: alligator burgers.
Tharin wiggled his toes and heard someone shout: “There’s blood!”
In a few hours, his restaurant was supposed to host a wedding party’s rehearsal dinner. And the following morning he was scheduled to promote his business as a guest on a local television program.
Tharin should have been getting ready, but instead he was trapped and waiting for emergency responders to cut him out of his mangled SUV, which had been broadsided by an inattentive teenage driver at an uncontrolled intersection and was now starting to smoke.
It wasn’t the first time a force beyond his control had tipped his life upside down.
The financial crisis affected scores of Americans. Workers saving for retirement saw their investments dry up. Homebuyers and business owners found it more difficult to borrow money. And the broader economic fallout led to hundreds of thousands of layoffs.
For some, the impact was far more direct, and far more personal.
Albert Tharin had worked in the banking and financial services industry for nearly 30 years leading up to the crisis. He had just the right mix of drive, intensity and people skills to thrive in it. Before a big presentation, he used to buy all new clothes and pump himself up by blaring disco music in his office. On more than one occasion he closed deals that broke company records. At a subsidiary of American International Group (better known as AIG), Tharin rose to the level of regional vice president, overseeing a team of 100 salespeople covering seven Midwestern states.
Tharin’s career wasn’t a straight path, and there were bad breaks along with the good. There were positions that didn’t work out, and others that were eliminated in reorganizations. As the industry began to falter following the 9/11 terror attacks, Tharin saw his annual salary cut by $100,000. But the ultimate blow came in October 2008 as stocks crashed, credit froze and panic spread. After a long, successful career, Tharin found himself unemployed with no prospects of finding work in the only profession he knew.
“You’ve never met anyone like me,” said Tharin a few days before the accident, he’s sitting at the counter of his restaurant with a reporter in front of a spread of food laid out in paper trays.
It’s bingo night, and a dozen or so seniors seem to mostly fill the shoebox-shaped cafe. A wood-paneled wall opposite the counter is lined with red and black booths with green tabletops. A row of small tables fill in the blue-and-white-checkered floor in between. As for Tharin, he’s a stylish dresser. He’s wearing a charcoal pinstriped shirt, slacks and tan dress shoes. He has dark silver hair combed George Clooney-style. He talks with a slight Southern drawl, greets strangers with a touch on the shoulder and has the sort of unfiltered outgoingness that can make a stoic Scandinavian squirm.
Tharin was born on July 2, 1958, at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. His father ran a bill collection agency, and his mother helped out with the business. Tharin recalls an average, middle-class upbringing. In high school he joined the Key Club and worked a part-time job at a local pharmacy.
Jacksonville was the financial capital of Florida, but Tharin didn’t decide to go into banking until his senior year at the University of Georgia. Through family connections, he got into a management training program at Florida National Bank, and later took a credit analyst position with another bank. He networked his way to assistant vice president before he turned 30.
The most fateful break in Tharin’s early career, the one that would bring him to Minnesota, came a few years later while he was selling financial products for Variable Annuity Life Insurance Company (VALIC). Tharin sat on the board of a nonprofit that rewarded disadvantaged students with Jacksonville Jaguar football tickets. Through that board, Tharin got to know the human resources director for the Mayo Clinic’s Jacksonville satellite, and through that relationship he struck a deal putting his company in charge of retirement plans for the hospital’s employees. VALIC, which was later acquired by AIG, was seeking similar business from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and when a district manager position opened here in 1997, Tharin was offered the job.
Eventually the Tharins (Albert, his wife Judson, and their two kids) moved into a million-dollar home in the Country Club district of Edina. Before long Tharin was promoted to regional vice president of the onetime AIG subsidiary, a job that involved managing operations for seven states and a staff of more than 100 salespeople. He brokered the largest deal of its kind in company history when Children’s Hospitals made it its exclusive retirement plan provider. In 2005, he was recruited to take a position in the company’s Wall Street office.
“Walking down Wall Street, I thought: Albert, you have arrived.”
These were still years of excess for the financial industry. Tharin’s offices were beautiful and sprawling, with huge desks, big round tables, couches, refrigerators, and buttons that would close doors after a visitor entered. He could afford nice cars and nice clothes. Yet Tharin could also sense changes on the horizon. The pay and perks started to decline after Sept. 11, and in 2005, while he was working on Wall Street, trouble became more apparent. New York’s attorney general Eliot Spitzer accused AIG’s CEO of manipulating financial statements to mislead investors and regulators. The scandal made it next to impossible to sell retirement plans, and on Christmas Eve of that year Tharin quit and returned to his family in Minnesota. (Tharin still strongly defends AIG’s CEO Hank Greenberg, who resigned and last year settled fraud allegations with the Securities and Exchange Commission.)
At home, financial stress had already started to set in. Tharin and his wife took on their $6,000-a-month mortgage based on his pre-9/11 salary. His wife started working to supplement their income. Tharin was working for Nicollet Investment Management in Edina when the financial crisis peaked in the fall of 2008.
“I can remember the owner—a wonderful man—said, ‘Albert, I’m so very, very sorry, but we’re going to have to let you go,’” says Tharin.
Tharin had lost jobs in the past, but this time was different. After months of applying for jobs and even interviewing for some—often with people far younger than himself for positions he was overqualified for—by January he decided it was futile.
The stress mounted. After their oldest son went away to college, they sold their Edina home and downsized to a condo. Meanwhile, the strain was taking a toll on their marriage. Tharin says the stress of his unemployment and job hunt caused him to lose track of his role as a husband, and on January 3, 2009, he showed up on a friend’s doorstep.
“I told them my wife and I have agreed to separate, and I’ve left,” says Tharin, “and I have nothing.”
He spent the next several months sleeping on a mattress in his friend’s basement.
“I didn’t know who I was,” say Tharin. “I had no sense of identity. I had no sense of where I was going to be going.”
Jobless, homeless, and grieving his lost marriage, Tharin still had two qualities that have defined him as long as his friends can remember: He’s giving, and he never gives up.
“He’s got this huge giving side,” says Boyd Huppert, a television news reporter who’s known Tharin since their kids played youth hockey together in the late ’90s. He recalls sharing some tomatoes from their garden with Tharin one summer. “Two or three hours later he’s back in my driveway giving me a dish that he prepared with the tomatoes, and that’s so typical Albert.” Huppert worries his friend can be too generous, like the time last year when he bought an expensive keyboard for a musician he met on a bus trip back from Chicago.
But it was giving that eventually led Tharin to a path out of his despair.
One day Tharin learned that his friend’s father had always dreamed of owning an ice cream shop. He wanted to help the family that had helped him at his lowest point. He noticed an ice cream shop for sale near their home. He set up a viewing and asked his friend’s father to come along. Tharin’s mother in Florida agreed to loan them $60,000 to buy the place. As they tried to close the deal, however, they learned that large tax liens prevented the property from being sold. That’s when Tharin walked into a nearby bar, which also happened to be for sale, and asked: How much?
So began Albert’s Grill.
Tharin’s mother helped him buy Dick’s Tavern, a dark, windowless watering hole across the street from Columbia Heights City Hall. Changes came slowly but surely. Tharin says he made enough money day trading with some of his mother’s loan that he was able to tear off the front wall and replace it with a new entry and large picture windows that let light into the space. He swapped out the old neon beer signs for paintings and other artwork from his former home.
Meanwhile, he spent countless hours experimenting with recipes and brainstorming new menu items. He didn’t have any experience in the restaurant world, but he was always the one who cooked at home. He knew he needed something besides good burgers to make his establishment a destination, and one day it came to him: alligator.
Growing up along the St. John’s River in Jacksonville, alligators were always around. An alligator skull that used to sit in his parent’s house now sits in the restaurant. Gator was never a part of Tharin’s regular diet, but he says the meat made sense. It’s unique, but also healthy, packing a lot more protein per calorie than other meats. “There is a market for lean, low-cal, good-for-you meat,” he says. “I believe it’s the tofu of tomorrow.”
The meat mostly comes from the tail, and it’s prepared in two ways. One sandwich has the consistency of pulled pork, with a barbecue, Thai or Indian sauce. He also found a company that could produce patties from the meat. They look like chicken but have a texture that’s more like seafood.
Friend Sue Slocum admits she was skeptical at first. “I saw that bar, and it was kind of dingy, and I thought: Oh, Albert,” says Slocum. She now sees, however, how Tharin is using his skills to put his stamp on the establishment. He has a way with people and an incredible sense of business opportunity, she says.
Along those lines, Tharin was busily recruiting partners this summer to help launch a retail merchandise arm of Albert’s Grill. He was preparing a line of in-store sauces and mustards, along with an alligator-meat product. When a KARE 11 producer called to invite Tharin on a weekend morning program, he jumped at the opportunity to continue building buzz about the grill and plug the upcoming in-store products.
The afternoon before his scheduled TV appearance, instead of preparing, Tharin lay on 42nd Avenue in a mess of metal and blood and broken glass. He wiggled his toes, but he still wasn’t sure he would be able to walk once emergency crews got him out. He’d heard about accidents where victims were in so much shock, they didn’t feel the pain of broken limbs until it wore off. Blood was pulsing from a cut on his arm. Someone covered him with a blanket to protect him from debris as a large power tool cut through the front of the vehicle.
When he was finally free, about 45 minutes later, he stood up, rolled his neck and stretched his limbs. He was fine, except for that cut on his arm, which a paramedic swabbed and bandaged up.
Instead of going to a hospital to confirm his diagnosis, Tharin hopped in a car with his cook and drove to the grocery store. There wasn’t time to make it to the wholesaler and back in time for the dinner, so they drove to Edina and the store where Tharin used to shop and raced through the aisles. Then he stayed up all night preparing food and props for the television shoot the next morning.
Viewers wouldn’t have guessed what Tharin had been through.
There are little clues, however, that point to Tharin’s unconventional path. He jokes that he’s the best-dressed fry cook in the Twin Cities—there are days when he’s serving up burgers and fries looking like he just stepped out of a GQ ad. He acquired a large, expensive wardrobe during his days in finance, and he quips that he’s too poor to buy a whole new one. (That’s not entirely true. He still buys nice, name-brand clothes, but he prides himself in knowing how to find a bargain.)
And then there are surprises that remind Tharin of his past. This summer he was contacted by the attorney of a very wealthy former client. The woman had passed away and Tharin was listed in her will. “For 24 hours I was a millionaire,” say Tharin of his mindset. When details arrived the next day, he learned he was only getting a painting.
A couple who had seen Tharin on TV two days previously were eating an early lunch at the restaurant when the six-foot-wide box containing the painting arrived. Green packaging peanuts scattered across the tile floor as Tharin used a kitchen knife to cut open layers of bubble wrap. It was a scene around a newborn Jesus. Tharin propped the piece of art up behind the counter. (He later learned from an art dealer in Des Moines that the painting is likely from the Renaissance.)
Tharin’s business doubled in the days following his TV appearance. His line of in-store products was getting closer to reality, and word of mouth and online reviews continue to spread. Meanwhile, he was planning a visit to the gator farm in Louisiana where his meat is produced.
“Since the accident, everything is coming together,” says Tharin.
He now sees a potential market that’s as wide open as a gator’s mouth. If he can get Americans to try gator meat, and explain the health and nutrition qualities to them, he believes they’ll snap it up. He now envisions Albert’s Grill as a test market for new products before trying to launch them in grocery stores.
He routinely works 18-hour days, much of them standing in front of a hot fryer, but at this point he says he would never go back to his former profession. Albert’s Grill may have started as a parachute for his own livelihood, but now that he has employees and partners, many of whom have also been affected by the economy, he tears up when talking about his responsibility to succeed for their benefit as well.
He can’t explain it, but he’s fully aware that he wouldn’t have arrived where he is today if it weren’t for a series of personal setbacks. He can’t explain why he walked into Dick’s Tavern last year any better than he can explain how he walked away from a rollover collision with barely a scratch.
“Everything has happened for a reason. I can’t tell you why,” says Tharin. "It’s incredibly bittersweet to have such an enormous loss give birth to something that has so much potential."