In January, Atlanta lost a beloved Atlanta restaurateur: Richard Thomas died at 82. He will be remembered for his R. Thomas Deluxe Grill, which he founded in 1985 as a homage to healthy living. Thomas co-founded the North Carolina fast food chain Bojangles. He also served as the first president of operations at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
After selling Bojangles to a large conglomerate out of New York City, Thomas traveled the country, spending about a year in California. He returned to the Southeast with the realization that “I’ve been poisoning America my whole life,” according to his surviving daughter, Linay Thomas-Sheltra. This epiphany led him to open R. Thomas Deluxe Grill, which since its founding, has welcomed guests with a colorful group of exotic parrots.
The collection of squawks and trills has kept Cecilia Turbyville returning. She is the self-proclaimed "Bird Lady of R. Thomas Deluxe Grill."
“We have about twelve birds here, all tropical, which have been here ever since he’s opened the restaurant,” Turbyville said.
Between a Hawk-Headed parrot and a toucan lies Sparkle, a 70-something Yellow-Naped Amazon parrot. Sparkle is one of the many birds Sheltra grew to love as a child. Her father hatched the green and yellow parrot from an incubator himself. He is known to charm admirers with her laugh and whistled rendition of the Andy Griffith theme song -- all of which are vocalizations that remind Thomas-Sheltra of her father.
“He whistles just like Richard,” Thomas-Sheltra said. “They mimic whoever taught them, so when you hear Sparkle laugh, it’s actually Richard’s laugh.”
From the birds to the menu to the plethora of windmills, Thomas-Sheltra is adamant: R. Thomas will not change. She plans to fly down from her North Carolina home weekly during this transitional period, after which she will come down once every two weeks. “There’s no problem,” she explained. “R. Thomas is still going to keep going and keep running, and staying the same as it always has.”
The dedicated restaurant staff is committed to fulfilling that promise. As executive chef John Vo put it, “I was so sad when he passed away, but now we just carry on to the next generation.”