HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) Toybox Bistro is one of the most fun places to eat in Alabama. True to its name, the restaurant celebrates what everyone loves about childhood: playing with toys. Everywhere you look, you see trading cards under the glass table tops, Pez dispensers lined up on shelves, buckets of Legos to play with while you wait for your food to arrive.
And adults love it just as much or more than the kids do.
"There's no demographic to our customers," says co-owner Michelle Timon. She sees a mix of "nerds," families and, inexplicably, she says, older folks. "Anyone can find something they identify with."
Every inch of space is taken up by games, superheroes, robots, dinosaurs and much more all collected by Michelle's late husband, Steve. The two of them were high school sweethearts in central Florida. After they married, she helped put him through engineering school. He started collecting Star Wars and Transformers memorabilia, "anything that caught his eye," she says.
Eventually, he had amassed 10,000 pieces in his collection when he died of cancer eight years ago. Just a fraction of the total approximately 500 items decorate the Toybox Bistro, which opened two-and-a-half years ago. She has so much stuff that she can occasionally change things out.
When their son, Andrew Hill, now 29 and living in Pelham, saw the restaurant for the first time, he told her that he remembered being with his dad when he bought about 80 percent of the items on display.
Michelle started out her career as a professional photographer. She then earned a master's degree in psychology at age 34 and worked as a mental health counselor until about 10 years ago, when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. She became his caregiver.
Meanwhile, her son and his friends were huge fans of anime, a Japanese style of TV and film animation. They convinced her to attend a convention as a vendor, selling collectibles, and was pleasantly surprised by how much money she made. A few years later, in 2009, she and her son's friends decided to start their own anime convention, Hamacon, short for Huntsville and Madison Anime Convention.
The first Hamacon took place in 2010, with 300 people attending. Held in June every year since, this past summer the convention drew 3,300 attendees. In addition to the three-day June event at the Von Braun Center, there's also a single-day "minicon" event every November, on Nov. 10. this year. She estimates that the convention has a $2 million annual impact on Huntsville.
Hamacon gave Michelle "an amazing surrogate family" during a sad time in her life, she says her husband died the same year the first convention was held. As chair of the event, she describes herself as something of a "cat-herder" who depends on about 140 volunteers working to make the event go smoothly. "It's a really cool community," she says.
A few years ago, she decided she "wanted a new challenge" in life. She thought it would be fun to take some of her husband's collection and start a restaurant with nerdiness as its focal point. And what better place to do it than the home of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center? "Huntsville is the land of nerd-dom," she says fondly. "Everyone has a connection to high-tech industry here. They're proud of being nerdy and geeky."
She knew the perfect business partner would be Bill Bridgmon, her best friend since high school. Bill, who was living in New Hampshire at the time, was a trained chef who had worked in restaurants all his life. "He's a force of nature," she says of Bill. "Brilliant, quick-witted, crazy, always on."
At first, Bill told her, "Hell no. You're not the right kind of crazy to run a restaurant." But Michelle wore him down. Finally, he told her she might be on to something. Maybe she was just the right kind of crazy.
They found the perfect central location for the Toybox, in "a strange little janky building" that's still owned by Stan Steadman, the son of the original owner who bought the corner spot in 1945. "There's been a restaurant on that corner for 70 years," says Michelle. "In the 1960s, Wernher von Braun ate breakfast here."
Toybox Bistro opened in March of 2016 and has been going strong ever since. Michelle and Bill are pretty much always there, putting in 80 to 90 hours a week but it's a labor of love. "I turned my life upside-down," she says of the decision to open the restaurant.
Her late husband's collection makes the decor interesting and brings customers in the door, but it's the kitchen's creations that keep them coming back, she says. Many of the menu items are big and over-the-top, like half-pound, all-beef hot dogs, a "Huntsvegas" hot chicken sandwich with Carolina mustard sauce, chicken-and-waffle sliders and "some of the best burgers in town."
In both of her endeavors Hamacon and the Toybox Michelle has found faithful, loyal people who take the success of the convention and the restaurant personally. At the restaurant, the kitchen staff offers two daily specials that aren't on the menu. Giving them freedom to create new items "gives them ownership in who the Toybox is," she says. "I've got people here who have been here since the day we opened. They're like family to us."
The restaurant is always hosting events, from an all-you-can-eat wings night once a month to "tin foil hat night," where every customer sported a hat fashioned from aluminum foil in honor of the solar eclipse last August.
"The coolest thing about owning your own place is making your own rules," Michelle says.
Surely, Steve would be proud of the way his wife reinvented herself in his absence. "My husband was a big nerd," she says. "He would have loved Toybox. It speaks to everyone's inner nerd."
Surrounded by his collection that represents all things nerdy, in the heart of a nerdy town, Michelle fits right in. "I'm kind of a nerd, too."