Warren Thompson, President and Chairman of Thompson Hospitality
Warren Thompson is the President and Chairman of Thompson Hospitality, the largest minority-owned food and facilities management company in the United States. In 1997 Thompson Hospitality and Compass Group USA formed a strategic partnership, making history as the first deal between a major food service company and a minority firm. Today Thompson Hospitality serves more than 30 of the Fortune 100 companies, large colleges and universities, urban school districts, and major hospital centers. The company also owns a host of restaurant chains like American Tap Room, Willie T’s Lobster Shack, Hen Quarter, Austin Grill, Maker’s Union, BRB, The Rub Chicken & Beer, YOT Matchbox, Big Buns and Milk & Honey.
We visited with Thompson during Black History Month in 2021, when a national reckoning with race in America was coming to the forefront. His position as an American history-maker made his story an important one to tell, but his lifelong commitment to building up Black communities through education, charitable giving and employment opportunities through his strategic partnership with Compass Group doesn’t happen just once a year. It is his life’s work.
We checked in with our friend Warren again in 2022 in advance of the 25th anniversary of the partnership between Compass Group and Thompson Hospitality to ask about his hopes for the future of Thompson Hospitality and its Compass Group partnership. This story has been updated to reflect the ways in which he believes the partnership is doing well, while doing good.
Warren Thompson is a storyteller.
There’s the story he tells with pride about his great-great grandfather, a respected blacksmith in Afton, Virginia, who was once enslaved.
There’s the story of his first business venture… buying the family hog farm in Windsor, Virginia, when he was just 16 years old.
There’s the story of the day Warren was eating lunch with his parents at a Shoney’s in Portsmouth, Virginia, and declared he wanted to own a restaurant. He was 12 years old.
There’s the story of the night the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross near his grandparents’ home. Five-year-old Warren and his brother hid under the bed while his parents went to protect the elderly couple.
Warren shares these stories openly, believing the personal stories of achievement, legacy, struggle and victory are the key to fully understanding the history that has shaped the African American experience.
“Black History Month gives me the opportunity to be able to reflect on the past,” he says, from slavery to Jim Crow Laws to housing disparity and inequity. “However, Black History Month also provides an opportunity to educate our country on major contributions made by African Americans. It is evident we need this now more than ever.”
As the CEO of Thompson Hospitality, and a Compass Group strategic partner, Thompson has made it his mission to help African Americans, small, minority-owned businesses, and Black communities write their own stories of hope and success. And as the son of educators, he believes education is vitally important.
“My first and most influential mentor was my father, Fred D. Thompson Sr.,” said Thompson. “My father taught me the importance of working hard, establishing goals, and treating others the way I’d like to be treated.”
After finishing his M.B.A at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in 1983, Thompson joined the Marriott Corporation. “Dick Marriott, Vice Chairman of Marriott Corporation, taught me how to develop and build a family business.” Owning a family business was a promise he made to his father. Both his sister and brother now work alongside him at Thompson Hospitality.
For Thompson, mentoring is a chance to give young people exposure to the industry he has loved since working the concession stand at a local park while in college.
“We’ve had several interns graduate and join Thompson Hospitality,” he said, “Some are in our manager ranks in operations and some have moved into our corporate office.”
The program has helped 300 students over the years, including Brandon Billups (pictured below with Thompson), who was part of the program in 2010 as a senior at Savannah State University.
“It’s been a blessing,” Billups says of the experience. “It gave me, as a young African American man, a resource I could talk to and get feedback. It was invaluable.”
Of Thompson, he says: “He is my number one inspiration.”
Thompson believes it’s important for leaders to take the time to mentor. “We fail to realize the impact we can have on young people,” he said.
But that’s not the only way the company is making an impact.
Thompson Hospitality regularly ranks near the top of Black Enterprise magazine’s annual list of the nation’s largest African American companies.
“Through the partnership with Compass Group, we’ve been able to promote diverse suppliers,” said Thompson.
His approach for Thompson Hospitality was something he learned from mentor and Former CEO of PepsiCo Steve Reinemund. “Reinemund taught me how to build an organization and the importance of diversity and inclusion,” Thompson said.
Thompson Hospitality has developed a specialty niche in providing foodservice to many of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (“HBCUs”).
Thompson Hospitality has continued to grow since its founding in 1992. The Company now operates in 45 states and six foreign countries, providing a wide range of services.
Just as mentors and others have helped pave the way for Thompson’s own success, he has made it a mission of the company to do the same for associates through a scholarship program. “There’s a tremendous need that has continued to increase over the years,” according to Thompson.
Over the last 29 years, Thompson Hospitality has awarded more than $50 million dollars. The scholarships come in the form of cash and/or meal plans for associates or their children at the colleges and universities served by Thompson Hospitality.
“Companies who do business with schools, and in particular HBCUs, should feel a responsibility to give back to the community,” said Thompson. “We are proud of the fact that we have been able to step up, and we’ve also caused our competitors to follow suit.”
In 2021, the UVA Alum and Compass Group Board member paid tribute to the Black history in his community by opening a new restaurant –The Ridley – which is an homage to Dr. Walter N. Ridley.
“It was a momentous occasion to be able to open a restaurant while paying tribute to the first African American to graduate from the University of Virginia, a place where my father was denied admission because of race,” said Thompson.
The Ridley is an upscale-casual restaurant specializing in fresh seafood and a sophisticated take on southern-style food. It will open in The Draftsmen, an Autograph Collection hotel by Marriott, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Ridley is committing to giving back to students with an interest in diversity and inclusion through The Walter N. Ridley Scholarship Fund at The University of Virginia (UVA) in an effort to support academic journeys and career development.
“This is my way of trying to move us forward and making a difference in Charlottesville.”
25 Years of Compass Partnership
When Thompson reflects on how he has been able to create so many opportunities for young people as well as grow his own business to support the needs of clients in his community, he says it’s Thompson Hospitality’s partnership with Compass Group that has contributed to the size of each business now.
“When we came together 25 years ago,” said Thompson, “Compass Group was fresh across the pond and Thompson Hospitality had three contract accounts and a few restaurants.”
Today, Compass Group is the world’s largest food service provider, and Thompson Hospitality is the largest minority-owned food service provider.
“The partnership has had a positive transformational impact on the many communities we serve,” added Thompson. “Both organizations provide opportunities for our communities, whether that be client or student communities, our employee communities, or minority- and women-owned businesses that have been able to reach a wider market because of Compass Group and Thompson Hospitality’s commitment to intentionally valuing diverse supplier partnerships.”
Thompson is particularly proud of how the partnership has elevated his ability to serve HBCU clients and communities through internships, permanent employment, summer employment and job skills training.
To punctuate the influence of a partnership designed to lift up the communities it serves, Thompson added, “The Compass Group and Thompson Hospitality partnership continues to be an example of a relationship that can do well and do good at the same time.”
30 Years of Thompson Hospitality
In 2022, Thompson Hospitality will celebrate its 30th anniversary with more than 150 joint venture accounts, a testament to Thompson’s vision that an authentic commitment to community is good for business.
Thompson will open 17 new restaurants in 2022, and they are seeing rapid growth in facility management services, particularly on HBCU campuses.
And with continued success comes more community support. In the past four years, including throughout the pandemic, Thompson Hospitality has given more than $5 million back to their communities, and in 2021 alone, a significant portion of nearly half a million dollars in donations went directly to HBCUs.
Moving forward seems to be a theme with Thompson. “The advice I give young people,” Thompson says, “is find something you really enjoy doing as early as possible and get experience in that field prior to starting your own company.”
It’s a path he’s walked himself. After nine years with the Marriott Corporation, Thompson bought 31 Big Boy restaurants from his then-employer and converted most of them to Shoney’s restaurants. It was an investment that checked off a dream for his 12-year-old self. And the rest, as they say, for Thompson Hospitality, is history. A history that will live on in the legacy of Thompson’s stories of diversity, mentoring and giving back.
A new story is being written, the story of Skylar Valli Thompson, the beautiful baby adopted by Thompson and his wife, Danielle. Both the personal and professional Thompson family have embraced this cheerful child and Warren, true to form, is a loving and nurturing father. This is a story Thompson didn’t think he would ever get to tell, but he now has the opportunity to pass down the rich legacy of his past and his strong guiding principles to his daughter.
“He’ll be loving and nurturing,” said Billups. “He’ll know how to recognize his child’s strength and will enhance it. He’ll know how to bring out the best. He’ll be a great father.”