How the owner of Fort Lauderdale’s Matchbox and YOT built a billion-dollar empire

Hospitality mogul Warren Thompson, 64, speaks with a familial charisma and has the smile to match. His humble demeanor belies the immense wealth he’s built over the years.

The Fort Lauderdale resident has spent more than 30 years building his company Thompson Hospitality, which owns 75 restaurants and 20 hotels and provides food services to more than 1,800 businesses nationwide. His portfolio features seven Fort Lauderdale restaurants, including the waterfront YOT Bar & Kitchen and the recently opened Val+tino, a high-end Italian restaurant.

From casually catching up with workers at the Sawgrass Mills mall where his Matchbox restaurant is located to doing business with basketball legend Ralph Sampson, there is no conversation too small or too out of reach for Thompson.

Growing up in rural Virginia in the 1960s, Thompson was inspired to pursue a career in entrepreneurship by a story his father told him about his great-great-grandfather, Cleve Thompson.

“He was born a slave in Virginia and lived about 30 years as a slave and then he was freed when the Emancipation Proclamation took place,” Thompson said of his great-great-grandfather. “He started a very successful blacksmith business based on the skills he picked up as a slave. He lived to be 103 and had 73 years as a free man.”

Thompson used his great-great-grandfather’s story as a blueprint for his own success as he worked his way through college and then graduate school to earn his master’s degree in business administration. He was intent on getting a job in hospitality to better understand the business.

In his early 20s, Thompson participated in a Marriott fast-track program led by Dick Marriott, who with his brother Bill ran the Marriott Corporation, which at the time was still primarily a restaurant company.

“I was a summer intern under Dick Marriott,” Thompson said. “With the program, once you graduated from grad school, you started as an assistant manager at a Marriott property but got paid an MBA salary, which is exactly what I wanted.”

Thompson initially planned on staying at Marriott until he was 30 but ended up being with the company for nine years, until he was 32. He used $100,000 in personal savings to launch Thompson Hospitality in 1992 and bought 31 restaurants in the D.C. area soon thereafter.

Working at Marriott taught Thompson about business and how to run a company with family. His siblings Fred Thompson, 67, and Benita Thompson-Byas, 55, quickly left their jobs to join him at his new venture.

Thompson Hospitality began as a restaurant company and later expanded into contract food service and hotels. This year, he predicts Thompson Hospitality will do nearly $1 billion in revenue.

“We set a goal 10 years ago to get to $1 billion revenue and should do it in 2024,” he said.

Warren Thompson, founder of Thompson Hospitality, poses in front of his company’s Matchbox restaurant on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, at Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise. Thompson started the company in 1992 after working at Marriott. Alie Skowronski/
Warren Thompson, founder of Thompson Hospitality, poses in front of his company’s Matchbox restaurant on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, at Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise. Thompson started the company in 1992 after working at Marriott. Alie Skowronski/

Being passionate about the hospitality industry has been a key factor in Thompson’s success over the last four decades. He frequently recommends that aspiring entrepreneurs stay focused on that passion because entrepreneurship is difficult without it.

Collaboration with others has been a key part of Thompson’s success and led Thompson to his work in South Florida. One evening a decade ago on a boat with his wife, Danielle, he struck up a conversation with a man who also worked in the restaurant business. That conversation led to a lunch meeting the next day, and then a business relationship.

“That started a partnership locally,” Thompson said of his lunch with restaurateur Mike Linder. “With a local partner, he’s opened doors and had connections that I never would have had in this community. We’ve opened four restaurants together, and we have YOT Bar & Kitchen, Canyon, 411 South Bar & Grill, and Val+tino ... Those are restaurants that I would never have been able to do [alone].”

In March 2022, Thompson connected with former University of Virginia classmate and basketball Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson to open Ralph Sampson’s American Taproom in Charlottesville, Virginia. Sampson was a winner on the court, and Thompson had the hospitality background to match.

As Thompson looks ahead, he reflects on what he considers full-circle moments. Thompson Hospitality now has a significant presence on the University of Virginia campus, where his late father, Fred Sr., a decorated Korean War veteran, was not allowed to attend because he was Black.

He is proud of the success his family has achieved while working at the company he started and is grateful for the way in which they’ve created a path for other Black professionals.

“My sister is vice chair and still runs a big, big chunk of the company,” he said. “She’s nine years younger than me, so she’s taking over more and more responsibility. I have a nephew who just joined the company about eight or nine months ago, and he’s in one of the entry-level positions right now, similar to the program I went through.”