George Thomas knows what he likes. And when he makes a decision, he doesn’t let challenges stop him.
It’s been 20 years since he opened Route 66 Classic Grill in Canyon Country. And that’s after a 25-year career on the Los Angeles Police Force.
It’s pretty safe to say he likes big projects – He’s even built more than one home in Sand Canyon.
“I moved out here in 1973 when I became a Los Angeles policeman,” Thomas said.
He lived about 12 years in Valencia before buying a lot on Saddleback Road where he and his wife at the time turned their ideal floor plan into a reality.
“We’d go to new construction sites like Circle J and go through models and take pictures of things we liked,” he said. “We kind of put our pictures together and showed it to the architect and after a lot of drawing and redrawing, we had it built.”
The Thomas family was extremely content with their design – they even used the floor plan when they built their next house – only in reverse.
“We loved that floor plan,” he said. “We were constantly having people approaching us wanting to buy the plans and build a house.”
Knowing what he likes came in handy for George Thomas when planning his restaurant – another first for him. He liked the ‘50s diner theme and wanted it to involve cars. At first he looked into the Hudson’s Grill franchise, but consultants urged him to create his own restaurant.
“I knew very little going in and I just listened to everybody. I was like a sponge – anybody who had anything to say about what I should do,” the restaurateur said. “I’ve been absolutely blessed.”
Whatever he did, the Santa Maria native knew one thing would be on his menu: Santa Maria tri-tip.
“I grew up barbecuing with my dad on oak wood – he did it for Kiwanis and American Legion,” he explained. “In Santa Maria the Chamber even has a barbecue museum, which goes back to the 1800s when the cattle ranchers would go to big auctions there. They would barbecue their beef and compete for who had the best beef.”
Thomas grills tri-tip every day on oak wood at Route 66 and he said it’s a customer favorite. He also has a trailer that does off-site grilling for events.
When it came to decisions about his new restaurant’s location, he was considering Stevenson Ranch. “Because my boys grew up in Canyon Country and went to Canyon High School, I decided to do it here,” he said.
Thomas’ sons, now both grown and working as firefighters, played football at Canyon High, and George Thomas is one of the parents who was pivotal in getting Coach Harry Welch to return to the school. Thomas and others also garnered the funds to erect a sign reflecting the field’s new name: Harry Welch Stadium.
“I was point man for getting the stadium named for him,” he said. “We passed the hat among big fans of Harry’s and paid to have the sign made.”
But it’s the tip of the iceberg when you consider Thomas’ support of local causes.
You can see the massive attendance at Route 66 Bike Nights, which are every Wednesday, and the parking lot is packed during monthly car shows. Thomas has the longest running bike night and car show in Santa Clarita history.
And in this facet as well, Thomas knows what he wants: for local nonprofits to benefit.
“A man wanted to put on a California State Arm Wrestling Championship,” Thomas explained. “I said we’ll do it under one condition: benefit a local nonprofit.”
He has other examples too.
“There was a car accident on Soledad where some young men got killed, so I called Canyon High School and asked the principal if there was anything I could do,” he said.
Thomas was directed to Safe Rides, a nonprofit organization offering teens free, safe rides home on weekends after partying. For 20 years all of the proceeds from Route 66 car shows went to Safe Rides, which is now closed, so the shows are benefiting Rotary Club.
“Safe Rides was a perfect fit for us because it’s about kids driving safely,” Thomas said.
Two of the business owner’s favorite events were the tribute to 9/11 and a special event honoring a military man from Canyon Country.
“A local Canyon High School graduate became a Navy Seal,” Thomas said. “I met his parents and I was so impressed by hearing his story. He was constantly deployed and they never knew when he was coming home. We recognize (soldiers) when they’re injured or killed, but not while they’re alive.”
So, Thomas organized a “welcome home party” for the young man which drew approximately 500 attendees. It included a low flyby from a Van Nuys Condor Squadron.
“When I asked if they’d do (the flyby) they said, ‘Absolutely.’” Thomas said. “I told them to drive back up to Route 66 for dinner after returning to Van Nuys and they did – to meet the (man of honor).”
The list of events and fundraisers goes on and on. There have been so many, in fact, that Santa Clarita Planning Commissioner Dennis Ostrom called Route 66 Classic Grill the “entertainment hub for this side of the valley.” Thomas likes that reputation.
And even when it comes to the future, George Thomas knows what he wants. His two boys and four grandchildren live in the Santa Clarita Valley and he’d like to spend more time with them. Also, six years ago he started riding his bike, as many as 20 miles a day.
But while he is contemplating retirement, he won’t abandon the goals of Route 66 Classic Grill. He wants the friendly staff and popular food choices at the restaurant to thrive … and for the events to continue.