From pursuing a medical career to producing cannabis to opening four eateries and then going back to medicine, it’s been a wild ride over the past eight years for Michael Thompson.
His plan was to be a surgeon. So how does it happen that, before age 40, he and his wife, Crystal, are the proprietors of four successful eateries and a downtown lounge in Colorado Springs?
You likely have heard of them: T-Byrd’s Tacos and Tequila (the first, which opened in 2016), Dirty Byrd Whiskey and Wings, Mood Tapas Bar, Bird Tree Café and District Elleven lounge. A second location of T-Byrd’s is scheduled to open in November.
“In 2013, I was in graduate school at the University of North Texas Health Science Center when I went on vacation visiting a friend from high school in Colorado,” he said. “I met some people who needed a medical director for their future cannabis company as well as someone who could run production.”
Thompson did some research and weighed the pros and cons of dropping out of school.
“I loved school, still do, but I felt that this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to jump on board of something as large as cannabis legalization. I knew it would be huge,” he said. “And I always said that I would go back to school. Of course, I had to talk Crystal into it, but she was surprisingly open to the idea.”
Thompson joined the team of what would become Emerald Fields — A Cannaboutique, and embraced the challenge of understanding the cannabis plant’s growing process.
“I had to learn about agriculture because we planned to build a large growing facility,” he said. “I had the chemistry covered from classes I had taken in college and grad school so I understood the science of making infusions and extracts.”
When he eventually became an owner of the business, his role shifted to much less hands-on, which freed him up to pursue a new interest: opening a small taco bar.
“We were doing OK,” he said. “We were living comfortably. Crystal was an area account executive with Christian Dior, we were renting a small house and our cars were paid for. We decided to take a chance on starting a food business.”
They leased a small space that was part of the former Hunan Springs restaurant downtown and got started.
“We were literally out of money by the time that we opened the doors,” Thompson said. “We ate a lot of tacos for the next five weeks. We opened with $88.27 from a piggy bank.”
They continued with their day jobs as well, putting all their money back into the taco bar so they didn’t have to take out a loan.
“My philosophy is don’t give up,” Thompson said. “That’s when people fail; 90% percent of owners who fail lost their confidence. Once that’s lost, it’s hard to come back.”
Since all of their restaurant experience had been as a waitress and a bartender during college, they hired a relative to run the kitchen.
Their determination has paid off. Thompson projects that the taco bar will make more than $2 million this year.
“Cost control is the most important thing,” he said. “I run a spreadsheet every day on each restaurant to be sure the right decisions are being made.”
Despite finding success, Thompson decided he wasn’t done with his original career choice.
“I was liking what I was doing,” he said, “but what I reallydwanted to do was be a doctor.”
His biggest hurdle to going back to school would have been taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Because of COVID-19, however, the testing centers were closed and schools began to evaluate candidates without requiring an MCAT.
“I said, ‘This is it, the sign.’ It was time,” he said.
Rather than go back to Texas or apply in Colorado, Crystal remembered him talking about offshore medical schools. They liked that idea and, in 2019, Michael was accepted at Ross University School of Medicine in Florida.
“We get to spend one year out of four on an island, which is what Crystal liked,” he said.
Michael finished his first year of med school online and the couple welcomed a baby girl, Sunny Byrd Thompson, in May. The family will move to Barbados in January so that Michael can complete his second year.
He remains a partner in the cannabis business and has built his restaurant team with top professionals who he and Crystal can depend on to run the businesses.
“Because we have employees we trust completely, we can leave them in charge while we are away,” he said. “We moved to Boston for 13 months a couple years ago and they proved to us that they could step up to the occasion.”
For some parents, having a child drop out of graduate school to get into the cannabis business would be unthinkable. Not Mary Wright, Thompson’s mother.
“I didn’t have any misgivings about his decision,” she said. “That was a wise decision for Michael at that time. He has always been relentless about pursuing his passions.”
As for the success of his restaurants, Wright calls it “amazing.”
“Both he and his wife, Crystal, have worked exceedingly hard to make the restaurants special, distinct experiences,” she said. “His own success has built his optimism. He now knows it can be done.”
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