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Atlanta Loses a Culinary Icon in Richard Thomas

Thomas was the founder of R. Thomas Deluxe Grill, Bojangles, first President at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Thomas was the founder of R. Thomas Deluxe Grill, Bojangles, first President at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

[UPDATE (January 27, 2016): Thomas’ family will be hosting a celebration of life February 5, 2017 from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, at 980 Briarcliff Rd NE, Atlanta Ga 30306, R. Thomas Deluxe Grill late-Thursday posted to its Facebook page.]

Richard Thomas — founder of Atlanta’s beloved R. Thomas Deluxe Grill, Bojangles and the first President at Kentucky Fried Chicken — passed away Wednesday, according to his family.

Thomas’ family reached out to What Now Atlanta regarding the passing.

No stranger to accolades, Thomas was most recently awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award during What Now Atlanta’s inaugural Elite 100 event March 30, 2016. Future recipients will be awarded the “R. Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award” in Thomas’ honor.

In 1985, he opened R. Thomas Deluxe Grill on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, a change of pace after many years working in the fast food business.

He owned several Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut locations as well as helping to found Bojangles’ Famous Chicken n’ Biscuits, which he built into 28 locations across several southern states and beyond.

According to R. Thomas Deluxe Grill’s website, Thomas “lived many roles” in his lifetime — from “hardworking restaurant laborer to driven entrepreneur, a creative designer, a successful businessman, a leader and innovator.”

Following the news of his passing, several of the restaurant’s patrons chimed in on social media, sharing their condolences to family and friends.

Clint Gharib, local financial advisor of Integrous Investing, said he felt “blessed to have had a chance to know (Thomas) and his amazing and wonderful family. His smile and his beloved birds … have touched so many lives.”

Added Gharib: “You will be missed … you truly made this world better.”

Communications firm SPR Atlanta posted a note Thursday on the company’s facebook page, calling Thomas a “one-of-a-kind” individual with a “hard-working attitude and commitment, which led to his KFC and Bojangles’ success, (and) to his visionary creation of the glory that is R. Thomas … we are still in constant awe of this Atlanta treasure.”

Since Thomas opened the restaurant 32 years ago, which has since become an Atlanta institution, the location has expanded and grown.

Open 24 hours, the restaurant is surrounded by tropical birds and lush gardens which were cared for by Thomas himself.

Thomas brought a healthy philosophy of dining to Atlantans with organic offerings that aimed to provide locals with all-natural foods.

Established originally as a “funky burger joint with a little healthy California style flair” the location evolved into a landmark of Atlanta restaurant culture, including a broad variety of food choices — including juices and smoothies, free-range meats and organics, vegetarian and vegan, macrobiotic, gluten free and raw food items.

In 2014, the New York Times published a Q&A-style feature on Thomas and his success.

According to the article, Thomas got the idea to open his restaurant after traveling around California, where he sampled the menus of the types of places not often found in the south during the 80s.

The article states that Thomas originally opened R. Thomas Deluxe Grill with 48 seats, investing $528,000, then waiting for Atlanta residents to expand their palates beyond what they’d come to expect; it took about a decade to really catch on.

According to the restaurant’s website, Thomas wanted to bring his own personal discovery of healthy and responsible cuisine to the table for all who visited the establishment.

Or, in his own words:

“I came to realize the miracle that the human body is deeply connected to the planet itself and the food supply that springs from it.”

As for R. Thomas Deluxe Grill, it’s business as usual, and just as Thomas — who spent every waking minute in the restaurant making Atlantans smile — would have wanted it.

The restaurant, with a seasoned management team, some of which have a tenure of 20-plus-years, was built to hum.

Richard Thomas at R. Thomas Deluxe Grill Photo: The New York Times.
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Richard Thomas at R. Thomas Deluxe Grill (Photo: The New York Times.)
Richard Thomas - Elite 100 2016
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Richard Thomas (right) with What Now Atlanta Founder Caleb J. Spivak (left) at the Elite 100 2016 gala at Porsche.

Frank Reddy

A veteran journalist, Frank Reddy has written freelance articles for a wide range of mostly Atlanta-area publications, including What Now Atlanta, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Curbed Atlanta, Creative Loafing, Atlanta Magazine, Gainesville Times and Gwinnett Daily Post. He has won multiple awards from the Associated Press and Georgia Press Association for business writing, feature writing, and hard news coverage. He is the author of Eyes on the Island, a debut novel, which was published in August 2016 by Fiction Advocate.

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8 Comments

  1. He was a great man, indeed.

    One of the kindest and most gracious people I’ve ever met. He treated all of the building staff where he lived with the greatest respect and appreciation. I will miss you, Mr. Thomas!! You were a bright spot in my day at 1280 West.

  2. I am so very saddened by the passing of this unique, quirky, and WONDERFUL man. We did business together for many years. Every visit was a bit of an adventure. He spouted his philosophies, his passions, his creative energy and so much more during our ‘think tank’ sessions.
    Richard was smart and cared deeply about his clientele. He wanted to educate people about nutrition by offering a unique menu of healthful choices. I hope, hope, hope his concept will live on at R.Thomas.

    Goodbye dear friend.

  3. I first knew Richard when he was President and CEO of Kentucky Fried Chicken after John Y Brown bought the company from Colonol Sanders. Richard was a great gentleman then and remained so through the years. He served the healthiest food in Atlanta and had a collection of exotic birds which were his first love. Not to mention his crazy psychedelic interior. R Thomas is our favorite restaurant in Atlanta.
    Richard will be sorely missed at R Thomas and in the Atlanta community.

  4. I have had the pleasure of knowing Richard for a number of years. He is truly an incredible human being who has brought so much joy to so many. He will truly be missed. My heart and prayers go out to his wonderful family. Let us do our best to emulate even one of his wonderful traits – I feel that this is the best way to honor Richard and his family. God bless you Richard!
    Blessings,
    Will

  5. Richard “R” was a sweet man – so sad – terrible loss. We were blessed with his spirit and gifts – let his light and vision stay with us.

  6. When Richard first opened in the 80’s he contacted me to furnish the restaurant with vintage Fiesta china. He wanted R Thomas to be completely different from anything Atlantans had ever seen & he was truly one of a kind. He will be missed by so many.

  7. Sorry to hear about the passing of Mr. Thomas. I didn’t know him but I did read about his life and from what I read he was great citizen and a very intelligent man. He will be missed. I wished that I have been able to meet him. RIP

  8. Richard will forever be my respected friend and mentor of Life in general. Having worked @ R. Thomas back in the early 1990’s as a teenager I was fortunate to have not only worked at such a cool place but also along side of an amazing staff all directed by an even more amazing human being. Much Love to my R. Thomas Family and may your spirit fly high & free Richard”””” Much Love & Appreciation Brother….

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