Alex Berentzen refers to Thompson Hospitality as “the biggest hospitality company you’ve never heard of.” It’s an understandable oversight for outsiders, however. The 30-year-old organization, founded as a restaurant company in 1992, owns Homewood Suites, a Hilton property in its homebase of Reston, Virginia, and provides F&B services to post-secondary schools, many of which are historically Black colleges and universities, as well as corporations like Capital One and American Express, often via its partnership with Compass Group. It also dips into facilities management and advises on systems like energy efficiencies and pest control. The company’s standing as the largest privately held, Black-owned U.S. foodservice group is one that’s held headlines before.
But the restaurant journey is an escalating one. Thompson Hospitality directed 28 units at the beginning of last year. By calendar’s close, it was up to 67 (over 70 presently), and triple-digits are well within sight for year-end 2024.
Berentzen has been with the company since August 2022, joining as SVP of operations before moving into his post as chief operating officer. Before, he led fast casual Organic Krush as president and COO for more than three years and served as VP of operations at Fox Restaurant Concepts, and director of operations with King’s Signature Group before that.
Thompson Hospitality is a legacy company that’s moving at startup pace. There are 19 brands across five states, with 12 openings on deck for 2023.
The go-forward plan for Thompson Hospitality, Berentzen says, unfolds across three areas: Organic growth, or duplicating concepts that turn in a good profit; concept development, like the company’s CUT132 that just opened January 23 in Columbus, Ohio; and strategic partnerships. “We’re focused on stability, and we’ve got that broken out in a process,” Berentzen says. “We’re going to improve processes wherever they’re needed. Simplify things. Focus on consistency in the restaurants. And what we’re also making wildly important this year, too, is having fun.”
As Thompson Hospitality erupted through recent months, Berentzen says, the company has, like much of the sector, had to snap out of pandemic, locked-down fog. Operations remain a challenge, from skyrocketing supply costs to labor to commodity instability, but it’s time to reassess and get back to the hallmarks. “We’re going to focus on food,” he says, noting the company recently hired Brian Pancir as corporate director of culinary.
Thompson Hospitality also created a new position at its home office for an operations business analyst to bridge the gap between accounting, finance, and operations. The aim being restaurant groups need someone to take a hands-on role in teaching unit leaders. “When you join our company, we’re going to teach you how to run your business,” Berentzen says.
In November 2020, the company acquired Matchbox Food Group LLC as the brand emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. This would be a signal of things to come: Fold in a brand and then give it the oversight and tools to win.
Thompson Hospitality previously made an $11 million investment in the Washington, D.C.-based chain (2018) that included an exercised purchase option. The deal gave Thompson Hospitality Matchbox’s nine corporate restaurants and one franchise—three units were closed earlier as part of the reorganization. Today, there are 14. Thompson Hospitality opened one late January in McLean, Virginia.
About four months ago, Berentzen brought on Mumia Fatiu as Matchbox’s VP of operations. He’s a brand vet who previously worked as director of operations at Ted’s Montana Grill and FoodFirst Global Restaurants. “He’s going to wake up in the morning and all he’s going to think about is Matchbox,” Berentzen says.
Much of Thompson Hospitality’s focus will be on the DMV and South Florida regions (about 60 units are in the former). And much of it will center on what Berentzen says are two ready-to-activate growth vehicles—Milk & Honey and Wiseguy Pizza, the latter of which Thompson Hospitality acquired last summer. There are nine Milk & Honey stores and five of the New York style Wiseguy Pizzas. “Those do extremely well on the bottom line,” he says.
Makers Union Pub for the People (one location) and CUT132, which is a modern-vibe steakhouse, are eyeing development as well.
The company’s other brands include: Velocity Wings (a partnership that happened in December), The Ridley, Locals Tacos and Tequila (came in the Velocity deal), The Delegate, Canyon, Ralph Sampson’s American Tap Room, YOT Bar & Kitchen, Big Buns Damn Good Burgers, South PMP Bar & Kitchen, Willie T’s Seafood Shack, BRB (Be Right Burger), Hen Quarter, The Rub, and Thompson even runs some Chick-fil-A operations.
In period one, the overall company was trending up nearly 30 percent in sales, Berentzen says, beating budget by nearly 11 points. The blueprint, as shown at Matchbox, is working. As Thompson Hospitality grows, it’s setting levers in place to make sure each avenue of the company runs smoothly with dedicated attention.
Another example: It recently hired a VP of fast casual, Ken Schell, who clocked six-plus years at &pizza and north of 14 with Pearl Hospitality. He’ll oversee the growth of Big Buns, Wiseguy, Willie T’s, and BRB. “We’ve got a new structure in place,” Berentzen says. “We’ve added a lot of support and we are laser focused on just running amazing shifts and having clean restaurants.”
Founder Warren Thompson, after graduating from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, joined the Marriott Corporation as an assistant manager at a Roy Rogers. Nine years later, starting with a $100,000 personal investment, he created Thompson Hospitality in October 1992. Thompson expanded the company’s interests into the contract foodservice arena in 1998 with Thompson Hospitality Services, LLC, brought on by the aforementioned partnership with Compass Group, which over the years, has allowed the company to grow and expand to markets it otherwise wouldn’t have been able to penetrate. “This strategic partnership has also created exceptional economies of scale and pricing efficiencies a company of our size wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” Michael Katigbak, vice president of marketing, told FSR earlier.
Thompson’s vision, Berentzen says, was always to create a portfolio that spread occasions for every bucket of consumer, from fast casual to fine dining. It’s why the company plans to keep growing through M&A as well as internal concept creation. Berentzen says they’re actively looking for partners in the coffee, dessert, and healthier salad arenas.
“It puts us at a competitive advantage as well when we talk to the landlords,” Berentzen says. “You go into the plaza, and we sign two or three or four leases. Many plazas we now have multiple concepts in. It also gives us an operational advantage for our operational oversight. One person can go to that plaza and visit multiple sites and support those locations.”
The company, he adds, hasn’t missed a rent payment in 30 years. “We have a good reputation, and we get good deals,” Berentzen says.
Throughout this growth spurt, Berentzen dialed in on infrastructure. There are four different POS systems across the fleet. The company is moving to one. When Thompson Hospitality partnered with Velocity and Wiseguy Pizza, all of the restaurants needed to be integrated, from culture to tech to logistics like teaching employees process on accounts payable and inventory. “And how do we manage our P&L and taking over all those accounts. There’s a lot of reorganization and restructuring happening right now,” Berentzen says. “But I feel pretty good with where we ended the year.”
Berentzen says his background, which also crosses segments and categories, was a “perfect match.”
“I look at the restaurants and the concepts like my children. They’re all very different. Sometimes one needs more attention than the other,” he says. “But they’re all very special in their own unique way and we love them and treat them accordingly.”
Thompson Hospitality has always been a culture-centric operation, regardless of scope. It’s a no-nonsense, diverse, and inclusive approach that goes direct to the source and has no plans to let up.
“Our strategy for 2023 is we’re not reinventing the wheel; we are literally going back to basics, and I will tell them every day, we have three main goals for 2023: No. 1 is we’re focused on our people and it’s people before profit and we’re going to hire, train, and develop and retain—that’s what we’re laser focused on,” Berentzen says. “Secondly, it’s growth. Obviously, growth comes with managing our financials. The P&L is your report card and it tells you how you’re doing. And then growth moving forward will be controlled growth through organic growth, concept development, and strategic partnerships. And lastly, we’re focused on stability.”
Going back to basics for Thompson Hospitality will start with food and hospitality. Nothing you won’t find in every operator playbook across America, Berentzen says. But Thompson Hospitality will pay attention to everything from furniture to windows to lights. What it often calls, “MELT,” or music, energy, light, and temperature. “How does it feel in the restaurants. Does it match your value proposition?” he says. “If we can get those things right, we’re going to have successful business.”