How an Entrepreneur Learned to Sell Quinoa in the Land of Grits
Richard Thomas, standing, who owns a health food restaurant in Atlanta, said customer service was a priority.
Bryan Meltz for The New York Times
The R. Thomas Deluxe Grill, an Atlanta Health-Food Restaurant, Took 10 Years to Become a Success
In 1985, after many years in the fast-food business, Richard Thomas took a 180-degree turn and opened a health food restaurant, R. Thomas Deluxe Grill, on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. It struggled for 10 years, and then it became a local institution.
Mr. Thomas had owned multiple Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut units, and he had helped found the Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits chain, which he built into 28 locations across Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and North and South Carolina and sold for $12 million in 1982.
He got the idea to open a health food restaurant after traveling around California, where he sampled the menus of the kinds of places that were not easily found in the South in the 1980s. Later, he was further motivated when he met a nutritional consultant, Donna Gates, author of "The Body Ecology Diet," who told him that he had been poisoning people with his fried food.
Mr. Thomas opened his grill in 1985 with 48 seats, investing $528,000, then waiting patiently for Atlanta residents to expand their palates beyond fatty, hyperprocessed food. He turned a small profit five years out but really started to make money only in 1995. Today, the place has 94 seats, employs 42, is swamped on weekends — especially from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. — and generates $4 million a year in revenue.
Mr. Thomas, who keeps a collection of birds outside his restaurant, decided to open a health-food restaurant after a trip to California.
In a recent conversation, which has been condensed and edited, Mr. Thomas, who will turn 80 in December, talked about why he continues to run the restaurant.
- What prompted you to open a health food restaurant in Atlanta?
- After I sold Bojangles', I didn't do anything but wander. I spent a lot of time in California. In San Francisco, I saw this little health food restaurant that I liked and I thought, maybe I'll come back to Atlanta and do a kind of healthy thing. I came back and rented this building on Peachtree Street and we opened up in 1985.
- Were you feeling bad about the kind of food you had been selling?
- No. That came later.
- How did your restaurant do initially?
- We didn't do very well. It was in the South, and the South wasn't into a healthy concept at the time. They were looking for more biscuits and that kind of thing and that's all I really knew, I was kind of winging it — and this was a whole new kind of thing. I lost money the first couple of years and then we kind of broke even. We weren't really profitable for about 10 years.
- How did you stay afloat?
- I still had my resources from my Bojangles' days and I didn't draw a salary for the first 10 years.
- What turned things around?
- One day this lady, Donna Gates, walked in my door and told me: "You have poisoned more people than anybody in the state of Georgia." But we soon became friends, and she said, "let me help you." She took over my kitchen for 90 days.
- Was it scary turning your kitchen over to someone else?
- Well, I had never done anything like that and Donna said she'd help me and she stood forward and did it. If it hadn't been for the motivation of Donna, we would not have what we have today.
- What did she change?
- She trained everybody, including me. She instructed us on cooking with amaranth flour, quinoa and coconut oil. I didn't even know what these things were or where to buy them. Under Donna's direction, we went from a kind of a healthy restaurant to a full bloom, beautiful operation.
- Did people like the taste of her food?
- It took some time. Remember this was the South and people were used to grits.
- What had to change?
- In the hospitality business, customer service is everything so I would spend 12 hours a day roaming the restaurant talking to customers. We made a lot of food donations in the community and as I wandered the city I would give $5 gift certificates to the restaurant to everyone I would see.
- Was there anything from your fast-food days that you drew from to make it through those challenging early years?
- Well again, customer service is No. 1, making everybody happy. Someone would come in and say, "I don't know what quinoa is," so I comped it. If someone didn't like their meal, I also comped it.
- Anything else?
- Well, staying open 24/7, but that was an accident. When we first opened, we planned to go from 11 to 11. On opening day, when it was about 10 p.m. I saw that it had gotten kind of busy. It kind of surprised me because it had been slow most of the day. Around 10:30 p.m. my son said we needed to start to close, and when I reached in my pocket for my keys, I couldn't find them to lock the door. So my son said, "O.K., let's stay open." We got swamped from midnight to 4 a.m. It turns out that the late-night market in Atlanta was a beautiful thing. At the time, there wasn't much else open late at night besides the Waffle House.
- Is your son still involved in running the business?
- My son started working for me when he was 19. He worked in the kitchen and learned all the skills. He worked alongside Donna every day and gathered a tremendous amount of information. He became the driver, and I kind of stepped aside. Then five years ago he died of leukemia — so that means I'm back playing again, so to speak.
- When did you know that the restaurant had caught on?
- When I began to see many customers eating with us at least three to four times a week. Once I began to see regulars, I said, "Whoa, there is a market for this."
- Now that healthy eating in Atlanta is no longer an outlier, do you find yourself in competition with other, similar places?
- Yes, but I think this is good for me and for the city. I actually help my competition.
- If someone wants to open a juice bar, I let them work in my place for three to four days. I tell people where to buy coconut oil; I push the use of it.
- What would you have done if the restaurant hadn't become a hit?
- I was just determined. I guess I was a classic entrepreneur. I could not help myself. I was driven and I still am. I love it. Once I realized how important feeding America correctly was, that was my driving force. Money was not an issue for me. We were losing money in the beginning, but I don't spend a lot. I work every day. Personally, I live very conservatively. I was always convinced this would work out.
- Do you ever eat at KFC, Pizza Hut or Bojangles'?
- I will occasionally stop at a Bojangles' if I see one, but there's not a lot of ‘em in Atlanta. The only thing I get is the biscuit because I want to see how they're screwing it up, because they are.
In the News
No Chill? Pop a Probiotic (The Gut-Brain Connection is 100% Real)
Your Body Ecology: A Full Day of Optimal Gut Health
Living Well With Donna Gates: Avocado Smoothies + Fermented Shakes
Gut Health IRL: Inside Donna Gates' Fridge
New York Post
Nutritionist Susan Levin, with children Ben and Alina, claims that Ben’s autistic condition was improved by the yeast-free Body Ecology Diet.
First for Women Magazine
Heather D'Onofrio loses 67 pounds with the help of the Body Ecology Diet.
"This is the only bottled coconut water I've found that tastes like an actual coconut." - Actress Rachel Bilson on Body Ecology's Coconut Water.
Life After Fifty Magazine
Life After Fifty covers the new release of Body Ecology's Baby Boomer Diet book release.
Vital Juice feature's Donna's Baby Boomer Diet Book, plus includes an interactive quiz.
Malibu Times Magazine
Body Ecology's CocoBiotic is featured as a "nutritious concoction that aids in the defense against disease-causing bacteria, viruses, yeast, and other dangerous invaders."
Women's World Magazine
Himalayan Secrets of Natural Healing! Donna offers information on the benefits of antioxidants in black tea.
Living Without Magazine
Food as Medicine by Lisa Lewis, PH.D. Treating Autism: "When improvements plateau, consider implementing the BED Diet."
Living Without Magazine
Probiotics: Good Germs for Your Gut by Kathryn Scott. The Body Ecology Diet helps Renee Deyo's 7-year old son Bryan to treat his autism.
How Much Would You Pay for Your Dream Body? by Virginia Sole-Smith. The Body Ecology Diet helped Dulce Tanelli lose 40 pounds.
Natural Health Magazine
Cooking Culture by Jill Neimark. Donna offers insight on food fermentation plus a recipe for the Fermented Lunch.
Treating Group B Strep by Christa Novelli. Donna contributes to this column by offering her insight on The Benefits of a Probiotic Diet.
Naked Bliss Cookbook
Body Ecology is featured in the latest edition of Diana Stobo's Naked Bliss milkshake cookbook.
The Raw Truth
Bestselling author Jordan Rubin features Donna Gates and The Body Ecology Diet in The Raw Truth.
Donna Gates has her article featured in this issue, describing the benefits a healthy diet can have for a child with Autism.
Bottom Line Magazine
Donna Gates shares her experience and knowledge with food combining.
Donna Gates explains how a child's diet can be the foundation to autism recovery.
Huffington Post Magazine
Former KFC Executive Richard Thomas credits Donna Gates for his transition to serving healthier food.
Times Square features Body Ecology
Upon release of The Body Ecology Diet book, its sales are featured in Times Square!
The Chalkboard Magazine
The Chalkboard Magazine interviews Donna Gates to find out what makes the Body Ecology program so unique.
Weight loss discovery
Heavy since the sixth grade, Heather could no longer deny that her system was screaming for help. She began walking and turned to the book The Body Ecology Diet to learn how to make wiser food choices, like eating cultured veggies and homemade coconut kefir.
Praise for Donna Gates and The Body Ecology Diet
A few years ago I attended a week long workshop with Donna Gates. It was an eye opening experience as she shared simple but powerful principles for attaining and maintaining a super healthy body. One of the most important things in the workshop was that Donna fed us breakfast and lunch. We were able to taste and experience how delicious the fermented foods were. Everyone enjoyed her way of cooking and delighted to take her recipes and probiotic nutrition home with them. I have been a follower ever since and at 84 am enjoying vibrant health.
- Louise L. Hay, the New York Times best-selling author of You Can Heal Your Life.
Body Ecology emphasizes the importance of what we put into our bodies and teaches a way of eating that makes me feel like I am in control of my health and in tune with my body's intuitive needs. Cultured vegetables and coconut kefir have become essentials, not only in my home, but whenever I travel.
- Jessica Biel, Actress.
If you're suffering from chronic health problems and confused at all the differing messages out there, please don't make the same mistake I did and take the long road to find answers. After all the programs, you'll eventually find Body Ecology. What a life changer. Thank you Donna!
- Chynna Phillips, Singer and Actress.
Donna Gates has opened my mind up to new and amazing alternatives and possibilities to healing. Never did I know and fully understand the power food has in regards to healing the body. Not only is the book educational for a better life but the food is DELICIOUS! Who knew healthy food could be so good?!
- Tia Mowry, Actress.
Donna Gates packs every page of The Body Ecology Guide to Growing Younger with health principles and nutrition advice that help rejuvenate your life and allow you to actually grow younger based on the latest breakthrough natural-health technologies. This inspiring book empowers your healing, improves your life experience, and gives you tools to live over 100—all while having ‘the best day ever’ every single day!
- David Wolfe, creator of The LongevityNOW Program; author of Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future, Eating for Beauty, and Amazing Grace.
Donna Gates has always been on the cutting edge of nutrition and wellness. She is a vibrant example of the profound anti-aging potential of nutrient-dense living foods. I urge anyone who is interested in living a long and vibrant life to follow the principles contained in The Body Ecology Guide to Growing Younger.
- Jordan Rubin, founder of Garden of Life; New York Times best-selling author of The Maker’s Diet.
So if you’re interested in anti-aging, if you value your life, I highly recommend the new book by Donna Gates and the anti-aging program. I highly recommend all the supplements on this program and starting to implement them into your life.
- Truth Calkins, creator of the Tonic Bar and Raw Food Guru.
Let’s face it, when you take a look at Donna, you know she embodies the type of principles in this book. I really urge all of you, get this book, it is a must read, it is a must guide that will really take us into a very long, active, and energetic life.
- George Lamoureux, Master’s Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture, Medical Qi Gong Practitioner.
Donna Gates has fused ancient wisdom with modern science to develop the most powerful eating program on the planet today. The Body Ecology Diet is a complete system of living that consciously brings the love of eating into your home. It's not about weight loss...it's about health gain.
- Dr. Darren Weissman, author of Awakening to the Secret Code of Your Mind.
I love this book! Our national health has become an emergency, and Donna Gates provides the solution. As Boomers, we’ve pioneered it all, and now we’re leading the way in new approaches to aging. Scientifically and clinically based, this book provides a user-friendly, comprehensive handbook for our care and feeding into healthy longevity. Read it and stay young.
- Hyla Cass, M.D., author of 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health.
Awesome book! Donna Gates is as incredibly wonderful as she is excessively humble. If you are a Baby Boomer who is tired of hearing the ‘same old, same old’ and wants vitality of your spirit as well as your body, this book is for you! Donna will teach you to die very ‘young’—but very late in life . . . and feeling glad that you made the journey!
- Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., medical director of the Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers nationally; best-selling author of From Fatigued to Fantastic!, Pain Free 1-2-3: A Proven Program for Eliminating Chronic Pain Now, and Beat Sugar Addiction NOW!.
Read this book! Donna Gates reveals a new design for living that may change your life. Every page is food for thought, from the repercussions of the products we ingest to their effect on our health, longevity, and physiques. This is a comprehensive, step-by-step, safe, and natural path for wellness and staying young. It deserves your utter attention!
- Richard Stamile, M.D., Orthopedic Surgery and Geriatric Medicine specialist; and Terri Stamile, RN.
I have seen Donna Gates and her Body Ecology program greatly improve health in all age ranges, from children with autism to healthy aging in senior citizens when they stick with the program for a few months. Her plant-based organic food diet, with an emphasis on fermented foods, is ideal for building a healthy intestinal tract, which is the foundation for optimum health and well-being.
- Leonard Smith, M.D., renowned gastrointestinal, vascular and general surgeon, and expert in the field of nutrition and natural supplementation.
While internet technology provides us with a myriad of information, a seeker often gets lost, confused, and overwhelmed. Such is the case faced by many of my patients who are in a quest to find answers to their physical and mental ailments. Donna Gates’ 'Body Ecology Diet' is not only a succinct compilation of effective health information, equivalent to reading dozens of related books, it also provides a well versed program ushering the reader on a path to greater wellness. Donna’s insights will shine a ray of light to many who are at lost.
- Dr. Taisuke Jo DC, DIBAK .
The Body Ecology Diet is easy to understand and chock full of practical information. I recommend it!
- William G. Crook M.D., author of The Yeast Connection and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
The Body Ecology Diet brings us into the era of whole-body therapy. I don't think the authors left anything out.
- Lendon H. Smith M.D., Author of Feed Your Kids Right, Feed Yourself Right, and co-author of Beyond Antibiotics.
No one has ever put together all that we need to know about recovering and enhancing immunity - until now. I am making it a must reading for all my patients with candidiasis, immune disorders and food allergies.
- Keith W. Sehnert M.D., author of Selfcare/Wellcare, Stress/Unstress, and co-author of Beyond Antibiotics
The Body Ecology Diet takes the mystery out of the often confusing topic of eating for optimum health. Donna Gates' book combines recent scientific thought with proven traditional healing concepts and common sense...
- Michael A. Schmidt M.D., author of Tired of Being Tired, Managing the Patient with Chronic Fatigue, and co-author of Beyond Antibiotics.
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