- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2000

Warren Thompson's success story began almost 30 years ago, when as a starry-eyed kid he decided he wanted to own a restaurant.

That dream came true more than a decade ago, and now Mr. Thompson is the owner of Sterling, Va.-based Thompson Hospitality, a $55-million restaurant business and food service provider for schools and government offices.

Thompson Hospitality reached its high point in December, winning the contract to open Nick and Stef's Steakhouse at MCI Center, expected to open this summer in the space vacated by the Velocity Grill.

Nick and Stef's, the latest in a string of upscale steakhouses to open downtown, will be one of the biggest restaurants in the city with 500 seats.

Mr. Thompson has been trying to get into the arena since it was built two years ago. At first, he settled for an opportunity to run Big Al's pretzel stands in the arena.

"I worked hard to get in," he said. "At the time I couldn't, so we opened the pretzel stands as a subcontractor."

Running the pretzel stands was a small step, but it worked. The effort allowed Mr. Thompson time to develop relationships with key players at the arena. So when Velocity Grill couldn't pay its taxes and closed, Mr. Thompson made his pitch for Nick and Stef's.

Mr. Thompson's story is one of persistence, luck and undying entrepreneurial spirit. It began 28 years ago, when his parents would take 12-year-old Warren, his brother and sister to Shoney's every Friday night, 25 miles from their home in Windsor, Va.

"As a kid I said to myself, 'I could own a restaurant,' " said Mr. Thompson, who at the age of 13 got his first taste as a businessman starting a neighborhood lawn-mowing business.

After high school he enrolled in Hampden-Sydney College near Farmville, Va., and earned a bachelor's degree in managerial economics. By graduation, his brother was already in a master's program at the University of Virginia, and Mr. Thompson was ready to follow in his footsteps.

The program was very competitive and would not accept students straight out of undergraduate school. That did not stop Mr. Thompson, who knocked on the university's door several times, making a case that he had enough work experience. He was accepted.

Two years later, in 1983, he had a master's degree in business administration and two summer internships with hospitality giant Marriott under his belt. The internship program took eight students each summer, and when graduation time rolled around, Marriott's food service division offered a job to just one graduate: Mr. Thompson.

He started with Marriott as an assistant manager at Roy Rogers in Sterling. He left nine years later as vice president of operations, responsible for restaurants at 18 airports on the East Coast.

"Marriott was selling off some of its restaurants, and I felt it was time to do what I really wanted to do," Mr. Thompson said.

So he raised $2 million through investment banks in New York, took a $13.1 million loan from Marriott, and bought 31 Big Boy restaurants. The plan was to convert most of them to Shoney's, and develop a few others with a different identity.

Mr. Thompson hit a rough patch in March 1993 when a blizzard caused about $500,000 in damages to his business. Three months later, his father passed away.

Mr. Thompson reconsidered his strategy, sold off some unprofitable restaurants and entered the contract food service industry

By September 1997, that segment of the business grew so much that Mr. Thompson split his business into two parts: Thompson Hospitality Corp., which runs four Shoney's, a T.J. Roadhouse Grill and Saloon, and Thompson Hospitality Services, which is the food service contractor.

That same month, Thompson Hospitality took on a big partner: Compass Group, of Great Britain, the largest food provider in the world. Compass now has a 2 percent stake in Thompson Hospitality, and Mr. Thompson, in turn, sits on Compass' board of directors.

For a company that didn't make any money in its first two years, Thompson Hospitality has come a long way, with revenues of $55 million last year, and projected revenues of $65 million to $70 million this year.

Thompson Hospitality last year ranked 44th on Black Enterprise magazine's list of the top 100 minority-owned businesses in America.

"The key word for [these] companies was innovation striving to meet their entrepreneurial mission in ways that they may not have considered or attempted in the past," said Alfred Edmond Jr., the magazine's executive editor, in a statement in May.

Mr. Thompson said he enjoys what he does. He recalled a recent moment when he was about to close a 20-year-long contract food service deal.

"I was sitting around the table with a group of people, and they were saying 'I'm not worried 'cause I'm not going to be here then.' And I said to myself I really hope I'm still here 20, 25 years from now."



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