Legacy Spotlight: The Tinsley Family
Updated: Apr 24
By Michael Dunphy, Ten Thirty Media
This series aims to capture a moment in time, talking to airport concessionaires about how their lives and businesses are being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Tinsley family is no stranger to conflagration and catastrophe. The night in April 1991 that their KFC restaurant in Winter Haven, Florida burned down, George Tinsley II was just a boy. “I can recall my father waking my sister and me and explaining to us that the store burned down,” he remembers, along with tales of 15 foot flames leaping above the building. “As a child, you can’t fully grasp what the implications of something like that may be.”
Even more important, however, was the lesson of his parents’ strength and determination in the face of adversity. “What I recall the most is that my parents reacted swiftly to lease a catering style van called “KFC on Wheels.” The Tinsleys even parked it on the site of the store’s charred remains and subsequent scaffolding, displaying a clear message to the community that they had every intention of reopening.
Just 65 days later, they did—and prospered.
Nearly three decades later, the Tinsleys manage 40 concession locations in the Miami, Louisville, and Tampa International Airports, including KFC, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, TGI Fridays, Chili’s Too, Quiznos, Nathan’s Hot Dogs, among others. Clues to their success can be found in the words of the company mission: “to make the dining and travel experience more comfortable, more convenient, more enjoyable and more rewarding.”
It also comes from the qualities of excellence demonstrated in the Tinsley family history. George Tinsley I played small forward on the Kentucky Wesleyan College teams that won the NCAA Men’s Division II Basketball Championship in 1966, 1968, and 1969. Named Most Outstanding Player in the last tournament and a two-time All American, Tinsley was inducted into the Kentucky Wesleyan College Alumni Hall of Fame.
George II’s mother, Seretha Tinsley offers yet more inspiration. She was the first African American woman to graduate from Wesleyan College. In the 1980s, she became one of the first black female general managers in radio. In 2008, she became the first African American president of the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce. Such accomplishments even won Congressional recognition, when Darren Soto, U.S. Representative for Florida’s 9th district, praised her as an “entrepreneur, civic leader, trailblazer and overachiever.”
All of these examples of leadership are needed more than ever in the face of the Coronavirus, as the family business has suffered immensely, with traffic down 70–90 percent at their airport restaurants. As a result, they’ve had to lay off 120 workers directly and as many as 250 through their joint ventures, totaling 31 concession outlets.
While appreciative of the government for the support under the Cares Act PPP program, the question remains as to what happens after the eight-week period of the program finishes? That’s the major fear gnawing at the foundations of the Tinsley’s businesses.
“You have to understand that the majority of our businesses operate in airports,” George II emphasizes. As an Airport Concessions Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (ACDBE) organization, we have additional struggles to consider. Our contracts have investment requirements and minimum guaranteed rent amounts that we budget for based on a specific term limit and forecasted passenger counts.” Owing to the pandemic, those forecasts have completely collapsed, leaving the Tinsley business without the income to pay workers or provide them hours.
Now, the Tinsleys join many in the airport concessions community in their ask to Congress to honor the intent and spirit of the $10 billion relief package and grant an immediate 12-month rent abatement to airport concessionaires, whether styled as a percentage rent or minimum annual guarantee. “This will help preserve jobs and prevent the collapse of many industry participants so we can all quickly resume services as air traffic returns to normal,” explains George II.”
The year-long abatement also reflects the outlook of the travel industry shared by many airport concessionaires. “The point I’m trying to make,” explains George II is that the impact to the airline industry could last for much longer than when bans are lifted. When these bans are lifted, will travelers get right back on planes and start flying again? Probably not.” This help cannot come quickly enough for the Tinsleys. “We are in a struggle for our livelihood,” George II stresses. “We can literally fall off the edge within a month. If we don’t get relief, we could lose it all.”
As devastating for the Tinsleys that would be, the result would ripple even more through the Florida community. “We pride ourselves in giving back to the communities that we do business in. Those whom we employ depend upon having an opportunity to make a living for themselves and others.”
About the Author
Michael Dunphy, Managing Editor of Fly Washington, Air Chicago and LAX magazines / Instructor at Gotham Writers Workshop