"Do the right thing. Do the best you can. Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
- Warren Thompson (MBA ’83), president and chairman, Thompson Hospitality Corporation
Warren Thompson’s words reflect the guiding principles and practices that resonate throughout Thompson Hospitality — the nation’s largest minority-owned food service company and among the country’s largest retail food and facilities management firms. His eponymous organization operates nationally and internationally, serving Fortune 100 companies, universities and major medical centers as well as urban school districts. Its retail lineup features the Thompson-owned brands Austin Grill, American Tap Room, Be Right Burger (brb), Willie T’s Lobster Shack and its most recent portfolio addition, the themed restaurants of the Pheast Food Group.
Thompson Hospitality’s strong values-based culture draws on family tradition. Thompson’s father and forebears were towering role models whose influence helped shape his life as well as the organizational “life” of his company, where “second family” workplaces support a strong work ethic.
Thompson credits his father as being his first business partner. “We raised and marketed hogs together and sold produce from our Virginia farm, traveling together between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Tidewater area. He was my first mentor and taught me life lessons by example — the rigors and rewards of hard work, the value of saving money and the benefits of owning real estate. But even more than business partners, we were best friends.”
Early on, Thompson looked to entrepreneurship.
“I decided at the age of 12 that I wanted to be in the restaurant business. I was sitting with my parents in a Shoney’s one night in Portsmouth, Virginia — a big night out for us — and said, ‘I’d like to own one of these restaurants one day.’”
His parents counseled that Thompson could do anything he wanted, but only if he was willing to work hard. “And so, right there and then, I promised myself that I would own a restaurant, maybe even a restaurant company one day.”
A little over a decade later with his MBA from Darden in hand, Thompson accepted an offer from Marriott Corp. to join Dick Marriott’s highly-competitive, fast-track restaurant operations management program.
In contrast to other graduates intent on careers in finance or consulting, Thompson says, “[The Marriott program] was exactly what I wanted because it forced me to start as an assistant manager-trainee in a fast-food restaurant. So even though I was receiving an MBA-level salary, I began my career flipping burgers in a Roy Rogers. My friends from Darden would come by and tease me; I’d wait on them, joke around, and tell them, ‘One day you’ll come to me for a job!’
“You know,” he adds, laughing, “they have!”
Over a nine-year period, Thompson quickly rose at Marriott, capping his tenure by leading a team that literally “changed the way people eat in airports.” He revamped the dining experience by bringing in popular national brands, like Taco Bell and Burger King — a first in airports at the time. He overhauled liquor stock and tightened internal controls to drive significantly higher revenues and profitability. Despite his promotion to vice president of the corporation’s airport division, Thompson resolved it was time to make good on his entrepreneurship goal: “If I can do this for Marriott, it’s time to do it for myself.”
The timing of his decision coincided with a decision by Marriott to become a hotel-only operation and sell off its restaurants. Thompson saw it as an opportunity “to focus on structuring a framework to acquire some of Marriott’s restaurants and start Thompson Hospitality. Ultimately, I completed a leveraged buyout of 31 Big Boy’s in the Washington, D.C., market and then negotiated a deal with Shoney’s to convert them to its more profitable brand.”
Thompson looks back at his time with Marriott as a rich learning experience that allowed him to gain the industry knowledge and know-how to not only master his profession, but to lower the risks in striking out on his own.
“From my perspective,” Thompson said, “the earlier you make your decision as to what it is you want to do, the better. I would say to any aspiring entrepreneur: First go work for someone in the industry. Learn the ins-and-outs of the business. Make mistakes on their dime, as opposed to going out-of-business on yours.”
Thompson views his 4,000-plus Thompson associates as the oxygen that breathes life into his company, and he strives to maintain a high-performance, high-morale culture to neutralize the hospitality sector’s famously high turnover rates.
“One thing that has driven my company for the past 25 years is a strong entrepreneurial spirit,” Thompson said. “From the beginning, I knew I wanted associates who would use their power to think, to do, to act and to take care of customers. And the best way to harness that power is to make them feel invested in the business, much like company owners.