Celebrating Black History Month: 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.
Throughout his life and career, Thompson has used his influence to promote small, minority-owned businesses, mentoring young people and giving back to the community. Read his story below.
Warren Thompson is a storyteller.
There’s the story he tells with pride about his great great grandfather, a respected blacksmith in Afton, VA, who was once a slave.
There’s the story of his first business venture… buying the family hog farm in Windsor, VA, 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, VA, 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 that this is needed 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 over $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 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (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.”
While our nation focuses on Black History this month, the UVA Alum and Compass Group Board member is preparing to pay tribute to the Black History in his community by opening a new restaurant. The Ridley, scheduled to open in March, will pay homage to Dr. Walter N. Ridley.
“It will be 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.
“It will be my way of trying to move us forward, and making a difference in Charlottesville.”
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, 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.
There’s one more story Thompson will soon be telling. One he didn’t think he’d ever get to tell. The story of being a dad. Thompson is newly married. He and his wife are in the process of adoption.
“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.”