Saturday, December 31, 2016

Thompson’s Cafeteria Restaurants of Chicago, Illinois.

Although it is largely forgotten today, the Chicago-based John R. Thompson Company was one of the largest "one arm lunchrooms" chains of the early 20th century. Food would be very cheap but customers had to sit in a schoolroom style chair with a small eating surface and widespread out arm-rests, one being short, making it difficult to get real comfortable and stay too long. It was Thompson's way to turn-over tables faster and increase profits by decreasing a customer's dining time.
We so strongly associate fast-food chains with hamburgers that it may be surprising to learn that Thompson’s popular sandwiches included Cervelat (a cooked sausage), smoked boiled tongue, cold boiled ham, hot frankfurter, cold corned beef, cold salmon, and Herkimer County cheese, served on “Milwaukee Rye Bread” baked by the restaurant chain’s own bakery.
Thompson’s Cafeteria Restaurant at Madison and Kedzie, Chicago. Circa 1933.
Thompson's Cafeteria on Randolph Street, Chicago.
Thompson was proud that his meals were suited for sedentary office workers of the early 1900s. A 1911 advertisement claimed that lunch at Thompson’s “won’t leave you logy and lazy and dull this afternoon.” Thompson, an Illinois farm boy, ran a rural general store as his first business. He sold it in 1891, moved to Chicago, and opened a restaurant on State Street. He proved to be a modernizer in the restaurant business as well as in politics.

He operated his cafeteria's on a “scientific” basis, stressing cleanliness, nutrition, and quality while keeping prices low. In 1912 he moved the chain’s commissary into a premier new building on North Clark Street. Thompson’s, then with 68 self-service lunchrooms plus a chain of grocery stores, became a public corporation in 1914, after which it expanded outside Chicago and into Canada.

By 1921 there were 109 restaurants, 49 of which were in Chicago and 11 in New York with a commissary (a restaurant or cafeteria in a military base, prison, movie studio or other institution) in New York City. By the mid-20s Thompson’s Restaurants, Childs Restaurants, and Waldorf Lunch System were the big three U.S. restaurant chains.
John R. Thompson Restaurant Office:
350 North Clark Street

John R. Thompson Restaurant Locations:
350 North Clark Street
15 West Adams
141 North Clark Street
354 North Clark Street
528 North Clark Street
44 South Clark Street
220 South Clark Street
520 South Clark Street
105 North Dearborn Street
337 South Dearborn Street
414 South Dearborn Street
80 East Jackson Boulevard
24 West Jackson Boulevard
60 West Madison Avenue
119 West Madison Avenue
339 West Madison Avenue
521 West Madison Avenue
811 West Madison Avenue
955 West Madison Avenue
1548 West Madison Avenue
3200 West Madison Avenue
1152 South Michigan Avenue
1418 South Michigan Avenue
2201 South Michigan Avenue
31 East Monroe Street
61 West Monroe Street
340 Plymouth Court
91 West Randolph Street
62 East Roosevelt Road
314 South State Street
412 South State Street
76 West VanBuren Street
110 West VanBuren Street
7 South Wabash Avenue
104 South Wabash Avenue
207 South Wabash Avenue
343 South Wabash Avenue
175 West Washington Street
3813 North Broadway
3875 Cottage Grove Avenue
235 South Halsted Street
1223 South Halsted Street
4167 South Halsted Street
6215 South Halsted Street
6243 South Halsted Street
3169 North Lincoln Avenue
1228 North Milwaukee Avenue
1581 North Milwaukee Avenue
206 West 31st  Street
1122 West 35th Street
1031 West Wilson Avenue
In politics, Thompson served as a Republican committeeman and managed the campaign of a “good government” gubernatorial candidate in 1904. A few years later he failed in his own bid to run for mayor, promising he would bring efficiency to the government while improving schools and roads. In the 20s he financed a personal crusade against handguns.

Despite John R. Thompson’s progressive politics, his business would go down in history as one that refused to serve Negroes. Or, as civil rights leader Marvin Caplan put it in 1985, “If the chain is remembered today, it is not for its food, but for its refusal to serve it.” Thompson died in 1927.
Where he stood on the question of public accommodations is unclear but the chain faced numerous lawsuits by Negroes in the 1930s. However, the best-known case occurred in 1950 when a group of integrationists led by Mary Church Terrell was refused service in a Washington D.C. Thompson’s Restaurant. 

The group was looking for a case that would test the validity of the district’s 19th-century public accommodations laws. After three years in the courts, the Thompson case (for which the Washington Restaurant Association raised defense funds) made its way to the Supreme Court which affirmed the so-called “lost” anti-discrimination laws of 1872 and 1873 as valid.

Over the years the Thompson chain absorbed others, including Henrici’s and Raklios. At some point, possibly in the 1950s, the original Thompson’s concept was dropped. 

By 1956 Thompson’s operated the Holloway House and Ontra CafeteriasIn 1971, as Green Giant prepared to buy Thompson’s, it had about 100 restaurants, including Red Balloon family restaurants, Henrici’s restaurants, and Little Red Hen Chicken outlets. 


Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. Very nice site. I'm enjoying the historical information. Where can I obtain a copy of the photo of Thompson's Restaurant at Madison & Kedzie? Thank you.

  2. Just the info I was looking for. I found a Thompson’s serving platter at a thrift store and was wondering about its history. How sad that they refused to serve blacks 😔


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