Craving a fresh smoothie before work at 7 a.m.? R. Thomas Deluxe Grill is open. How about a superfood quinoa bowl at 3:15 p.m., when most restaurants' lunch service has ended? R. Thomas's hasn't stopped. And when you get a hankering for fresh fish tacos at 2 a.m., R. Thomas will, yes, still be open. In fact, the restaurant has stayed open since 1985, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We sat down with Richard Thomas himself and learned about his history from fast-food chain to healthy restaurant owner.
Your dad worked in the restaurant business, too. How early on did you get involved?
I was raised in Michigan. When I was ten, I worked my first food service job. My dad owned a concession stand at a softball stadium, and he told me to run it. I always admired him, and when he died I took over the business.
In 1964, you ate Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time, and your dreams of opening your own chicken business changed. Why?
The chicken I made was very good, but when I got that barrel of chicken it scared the shit out of me. It was so much better than mine. I looked on the barrel and saw Kentucky Fried Chicken— Shelby, Kentucky. I found the phone number and called. An old man answered, and I said, "I'm interested in talking to somebody about getting a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Michigan." He said, "Michigan is all sold out. I'm busy, bye!" And he hung up.
Despite the cold exchange, you didn't give up?
I kept thinking about how damn good that chicken was, and the next day I got in my truck and drove to Shelby, Kentucky. At six o'clock in the morning, I pulled up to a big beautiful mansion that housed Kentucky Fried Chicken's offices. I was tired and no one was around, so I took a little nap in my car. Pretty soon there's a bang on my window and there stood Colonel Sanders, fully dressed. He asked, "Are you the gardener? I want all the dandelions pulled." I'm a gardener anyway, so I got to work. Then the real gardener showed up and Colonel comes up to me and said, "You're not the gardener. What do you want?" I told him I wanted a franchise in Southwestern Michigan. He said, "You got it!" By 1968, I got my wife involved and we had six stores.
From there you became President of Operations, running 600 stores. What led you to start your own venture?
I couldn't get along with John, the new president so I retired in 1975. I then started a little company in Charlotte, North Carolina called Sunny's Chicken, but it didn't do well. I met a friend who invested some money in the restaurant and renamed it Bojangles. I owned a few Wendy's and Pizza Huts in between, and in 1982 I sold them all.
What did you do until 1985, when you opened R. Thomas Deluxe Grill?
I spent a lot of time in California, where there were a few places that were neat and healthy. My son was getting ready to graduate high school and said he wanted to work with me because he would learn more than [if he went to] college. So we opened R. Thomas, modeled after a California burger joint called Hamburger Mary's.
How did you go from burger joint to health food?
My lawyer Jeff Gates introduced me to his wife Donna, a nutritionist. She told me, "You have poisoned more people in America selling your food." I was willing to change, so I said, "Help me." So she came aboard, and for six months we worked in the kitchen and began to bring healthy food to the table.
Those first few years you didn't have much business, but you never gave up. What motivated you to stay open?
My philosophy is if you aren't getting good business, you just need more time. You stay in the same place and make it work, and eventually it will begin to catch on.
When we switched concepts, we started using coconut oil, clarified butter, amaranth flour, quinoa, blue corn pozole. You call Sysco 30 years ago and say, "Send me some quinoa and amaranth flour," and they hang up on you. It's different now. Donna helped me build a very healthy concept.
Eventually the concept did catch on. How long did it take?
It took about 4 to 5 years. The southern appetite was more dangerous than the California appetite at the time. But we just kept the plan moving and we began to grow, and in the last 15 years the restaurant has gotten better every year. We were very organized with buying philosophies and finding those fresh health foods such as quinoa and coconut oil, and now we've got it under control.
Part of your success comes from your staff, and you have several long-term employees.
Cesar Villanueva, our general manager, has been working here since 1995. We have servers that have worked here for 16 years, eight years, cooks in the back that have worked here for six years.
Do you consider R. Thomas a diner?
No, definitely not. We distinguish ourselves by serving healthy food and doing proper food combining thanks to Donna's guidance.
What are some favorite dishes at R. Thomas?
It depends on the time of day. In the morning, the French toast is popular. For lunch, it's the fish tacos. And nighttime, people really like the chicken piccata or ahi tuna.
What about good hangover food?
The best is the R's Big Breakfast Special. It is a half-order of French toast, eggs any style, bacon and fries.
R. Thomas is open 24 hours. How do the day crowds and night crowds differ?
Nighttime is fun. The whole restaurant and hospitality industry gets out at around 2 a.m. and they need a place to go. We also have a lot of gay and strip clubs that close around 3 in the morning, so we get the strippers. Everyone has worked a hard day. They want to slow it down and relax.
You've got disco lights. Any late-night dance parties?
No, people are tired. We use two security officers and that just protects the atmosphere so people can relax.
Have they ever kicked people out?
There's a lot of anxiousness on third shift. We've kicked people out for loudness and screaming.
Word on the street is that you used to have a celebrity working for you.
Madonna used to work for me as a server at Kentucky Fried Chicken, part-time when she was in school.
Does she dine at R. Thomas?
All the time. We've also had Denzel Washington, Queen Latifah, and Usher. His mother dines here all the time.
You have 12 birds that you personally care for, including a toucan. Sometimes you bring the birds into the dining room. How do customers react?
They talk to them all the time. I'll have the birds fly around the dining room, and sometimes I'll surprise a guest and put a bird on their head. Our veterinarian says the birds are so healthy because they interact with people. We also have a couple bird ladies that come two times a week to spend a few hours caring for them.
What is your favorite bird?
Sparkle, she's a Yellow Nape Amazon parrot. When I was 10 years old my dad bought me an incubator and an egg and told me, "Learn how to take care of this." And she's been with me ever since. She'll say, "Play ball!" or sing "Happy Birthday" to guests.
You're 80 years old. Any plans to retire?
I enjoy what I'm doing. I have a lot of people trying to buy the restaurant, putting out offers worth a lot of money. I have Bojangles managers that are trying to franchise. Right now I'm having a good time and I'm going to stay right here.
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