Thomas was adopted by Rex and Olivia Thomas when he was six weeks old and christened Rex David Thomas. His adoptive mother died when he was five, and after his father divorced his second wife, Thomas began to get up close and personal with the restaurant business.
"We started going to restaurants for our meals," says Thomas. "It was then that I decided I wanted to own my own restaurant because I liked to eat, and I just thought restaurants were really neat, exciting places. By the age of nine, I had become a real expert on restaurants. I knew what customers expected and I knew what kind of service and quality was acceptable. I overheard complaints and compliments and I soaked it all in."
Thomas spent his teen years learning the grunt side of the restaurant business. When he was 15, his family moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he landed a job as a busboy at the Hobby House Restaurant. "By then, I was a veteran restaurant worker," Thomas chuckles.
At 18, he made another major career move: He enlisted in the army and enrolled in the cook and baker school to learn the skills of a master baker, as well as the rudiments of managing a mess hall that served 2,000 meals a day. He learned to negotiate with vendors and buy in quantity.
"It turned out to be a great learning experience," says Thomas. "I learned how to be an entrepreneur and it didn't cost me anything. It was like running my own business, without any of the risks."
When he finished his three-year army stint, he got back his job as a short order cook at the Hobby House. There he met and fell in love with a pretty waitress named Lorraine Buskirk. They married in 1954, when Thomas was 22 and Lorraine 19.