Although it is largely forgotten today, the Chicago-based John R. Thompson company was one of the largest “one arm” lunchroom chains of the early 20th century. We so strongly associate fast food chains with hamburgers that it may be surprising to learn that Thompson’s popular sandwiches included Cervelat, 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 chain’s bakery. Thompson was proud that his meals were suited for sedentary office workers of the 1900s and 1910s. 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 restaurants 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 (pictured, today). 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 in NYC). By the mid-1920s Thompson’s, Childs, and Waldorf Lunch were the big three U.S. chains, small by comparison to McDonald’s but significant nevertheless.
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 government while improving schools and roads. In the 1920s 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 Afro-Americans. 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.” J. R. died in 1927. Where he stood on the question of public accommodations is unclear but the chain faced numerous lawsuits by blacks 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. 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 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.
© Jan Whitaker, 2010