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 on Randolph St.|
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.
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 Cafeterias. In 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 Neil Gale, Ph.D.