Dave Thomas continues to resonate with people, even years after his death. Perhaps it’s because he truly lived out the American Dream by working his way up and creating one of the most successful fast-food chains in the world. The creation of Wendy’s is certainly a “rags to riches” story that made Dave Thomas a restaurant-owning icon. Everything from his commercials, net worth, and delicious food made him come across as everyone’s friendly grandfather.
Wendy’s is so popular that it serves about 50 million people a month in the United States. You probably already know that the restaurant was named after his daughter Melinda, who was nicknamed Wendy. Her face and classic pigtails are immortalized, making her one of the most iconic redheads of all time. But there are more facts about this fast-food legend that may surprise you.
This is the incredible story of Dave Thomas, the creator of Wendy’s fast-food chain.
Dave Thomas didn’t have the ideal childhood. He was adopted as an infant, but, sadly, his adoptive mother passed away when he was only five years old. His adoptive father, Rex, moved him from town to town, which made young Thomas feel like he didn’t belong anywhere. Over ten years, he lived in at least a dozen different places.
Thomas’s fondest childhood memories were the summers he spent with his grandmother, Minnie Sinclair. He looked up to her and was inspired by her work ethic; she worked several jobs to keep food on the table and support the family after her husband died. “Minnie was a motivator,” Thomas wrote in his book. “Quality is everything… if people keep cutting corners, this country’s going to be in big trouble.” Quality food and service later became a cornerstone of Wendy’s.
Thomas and his father didn’t have much money and usually lived in boarding houses or trailers as they bounced around. When he was 15, Thomas moved out and lived at the local YMCA for a while. He dropped out of high school after 10th grade so that he could work full-time. Then, he volunteered for the Army and served from 1950-1953.
In 1993, Thomas’s daughter Melinda (her nickname was Wendy) told People magazine that her dad could live without basic necessities: “He didn’t have anything as a kid. He still won’t let anyone see his feet, which are all screwed up because he never had proper-fitting shoes.” He remembers what it was like to have so little and displayed immense generosity after Wendy’s became a success.
Growing up, Thomas rarely ate home-cooked meals. He and his dad usually went to restaurants that primarily served cheap hamburgers. Thomas didn’t mind because burgers were his favorite food. Thomas told Ohio Magazine, “Popeye wasn’t my hero. Wimpy was because he loved hamburgers.”
Thomas said that they ate in silence and often watched other people in the restaurant, both the customers and the staff. “I remember watching families sitting together and having a good time,” he explained. “To me, eating out wasn’t just about the food. It was a special event.” Ever since he was a young boy watching his grandfather work at an eatery, he was interested in the restaurant industry.
However, Thomas had bigger dreams. He didn’t want to settle for working in a restaurant; he wanted to make millions of dollars as a restaurant owner. Thankfully, he didn’t give up on his goals and made his dreams come true despite all odds against him. “I thought if I owned a restaurant, I could eat all I wanted for free. What’s better than that?” Thomas said. He sure has a point.
Dave Thomas will be linked to Wendy’s forever. He isn’t the most famous restaurant owner legend. That title belongs to Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Before he started, Wendy’s Thomas and Colonel Sanders worked together for several years. Small world.
Thomas started working as a chef for Phil Clauss at Hobby House restaurant. He was the one who helped Clauss sell Colonel Sanders his secret recipe chicken, way before the first KFC ever opened. Only later did the Clauss family own four KFC franchises in Columbus, Ohio, but they were failing. Clauss sent Thomas to Ohio so that he could try and turn it around.
Thomas made substantial changes that helped save the restaurants. He cut down the menu and created the rotating, appealing bucket of chicken that he put outside the restaurant. Sanders was impressed with the successful changes, and they were incorporated into all the KFC restaurants. Thomas was also the one who told Sanders to star in his own commercials. By then, Thomas had shares in KFC and sold them back to Sanders for over $1.5 million.
When Thomas opened his first Wendy’s restaurant in 1969, the fresh, square hamburger patties were the star of the show. There is one more item from the original five-product menu that is still incredibly popular today: the Frosty. The original menu also included French fries, chili, and soft drinks.
Thomas wanted to create an item that was thicker than a milkshake, something people could eat with a spoon that was not as thick as ice-cream. The original Frosty flavor was a mixture of chocolate and vanilla. Thomas was worried that too much chocolate would overpower the taste of his burgers. He only had one Frosty machine at the original Wendy’s and mixed the chocolate and vanilla himself.
One of the most unique and memorable aspects of Wendy’s is their square-shaped hamburger patties. In a world where round burgers in round buns are the norm, Wendy’s innovative patties remain a novelty. However, the exact reason why Thomas chose to create square patties isn’t perfectly clear.
The most popular theory is that he “borrowed” the idea from a restaurant that he supposedly frequented when he was a young boy living in Michigan: Kewpee Hamburgers. Since Kewpee served square burgers, it probably inspired Thomas. But there are other possible explanations. Another reason is that Thomas wanted to show that his burgers were made from fresh beef.
Thomas’s untraditional burger shape emphasizes that they didn’t come from a mass manufacturer. The fresh food mantra has always been an important aspect of Wendy’s and it still is. There is even a 50-page instruction manual that teaches the franchises how to create the perfect Wendy’s square hamburger patty.
Another commonly believed reason for the square patties is that Thomas’s grandmother often told him to “never cut corners.” Having square patties instead of the regular round ones was a perfect representation of that as well as a tribute to Minnie Sinclair, who always inspired and motivated Thomas.
Nowadays, fast-food restaurants all over the place; from McDonald’s to Taco Bell, fast-food chains are not hard to find. They all seem to use a similar system of providing food to consumers, but it had to originate somewhere. Dave Thomas was the brains behind the system that is still used today.
For example, in the second Wendy’s restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, Thomas installed a drive-through section that had a separate grill area, which led to faster service. Still, in the early drive-through days, customers often struggled to figure out how to order through the speaker system.
Whenever hungry customers had trouble with the speaker system, one of Thomas’s daughters, Pam Farber, came to the rescue. She would regularly go outside with a pen and paper to make sure all confused drive-through customers got their orders in.
In 1979, Thomas wanted to set Wendy’s apart from all the other fast-food franchises by adding a salad bar. It sounds simple, but it was a drastic change in the fast-food industry. Shortly after, he added baked potatoes. By 1989, Wendy’s introduced a $1 or less Super Value Menu. Most fast-food chains or restaurants now typically offer special value menus in one way or another.
When Wendy’s opened its 2,000th restaurant and the company joined the New York Stock Exchange in 1982, Thomas stepped down from day-to-day operations. However, as earning started to decline, Thomas came out of retirement and returned to the chain in 1989.
As part of his comeback, Thomas agreed to use his face in a Wendy’s TV ad campaign. Since then, Thomas has appeared in over 800 commercials, with his signature look: a short-sleeved shirt with a red tie. The campaigns were usually humorous and sometimes even featured celebrities alongside the owner, such as Susan Lucci or Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi.
Critics ridiculed his early commercials because Thomas came across as nervous and awkward. However, it worked in his favor because the public trusted him, and the unpolished ads became a major hit. In 1991, a financial analyst told The New York Times, “He’s given Wendy’s a corporate identity… a down-homey type image. The lack of sophistication is a real benefit for the company.”
Despite his success, Thomas always yearned to meet his biological family. When he was 21, he first attempted to locate his birth parents. According to People magazine, he found out his birth mother had died, and since he had no leads on his biological father, he gave up on his search.
Because he couldn’t really make a connection with his biological family members, his daughter Pam decided to help. In 1988, she discovered some new leads. She finally tracked down information on his biological dad, who had already passed away by that time. But that’s when she discovered that her dad had a half-brother.
She reached out to the relative who was an MIT graduate and asked if he was interested in meeting Thomas, but he wanted nothing to do with him. Thomas told People, “He didn’t want his mother to know that his father had a little one-night deal. He might be very, very smart, but he doesn’t have much common sense.”
After he was released from the Army, Thomas immediately jumped into the restaurant business. It left him no time to go back to high school and earn his diploma. After Wendy’s became a major success, he used the platform to speak about the importance of education. When high school students questioned Thomas about why he doesn’t have a diploma, he was inspired.
He decided to return to school and earn his GED. Thomas wanted to practice what he preached. Instead of just telling kids to stay in school, he wanted to be a good influence on them. In 1993, he proudly graduated from Coconut Creek High School in Florida.
Frank Vamos, the director of brand communication at Wendy’s, reported to Upworthy, “Dave was worried that his business success might discourage young people from finishing high school.” He went on to say, “One of Dave’s biggest regrets was dropping out, saying it was one of the worst mistakes he’s made in his life.”
Another benefit of obtaining his diploma so late in life was that he was able to attend prom with his wife. That’s right. 61-year-old Dave Thomas attended prom with the senior class at Coconut Creek high school. “They voted me ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ and elected my wife Lorraine and me Prom Queen and King,” Thomas exclaimed.
After everything he had gone through in life, Thomas valued and appreciated the importance of family. He wanted to help other adopted kids have a better childhood than he did. Thomas became an advocate for hard-to-place children that want to be adopted, and he also helped parents who were trying to adopt. In 1992, he founded the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
Despite his complicated situation growing up, Thomas made up for lost time by starting a family at a young age. He and his wife eventually had five beautiful children together, but every family has its own set of challenges. Things weren’t as picture-perfect as they may have seemed.
Because of his personal upbringing, Thomas didn’t really have any positive experiences that he could draw from while dealing with his own children. His daughter Pam told People, “He really didn’t know how to treat kids, didn’t know how to go to a baseball game. My mom really held it together.”
“How can I explain?” Thomas said. “I like to be around them, but I couldn’t do it too much because it would bother me. We’d bug each other.” Although he didn’t know how to deal with kids, he still loved all his children unconditionally, but in his own way. He just wanted to provide them with the life he never had.
After living in Ohio for most of his adult life, the restaurant owner icon died of liver cancer in 2002 in his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Thomas owned four houses across America and a golf course in South Carolina, so the fact that he died in his Florida residence sparked a political controversy in Ohio.
A few years after Dave Thomas died, an Ohio state representative reportedly said that the state’s estate tax led many Ohio natives to leave as they got older, because their tax situation would be better in another state. He then mentioned one particular Ohioan. State Representative Jay Hottinger stated, “Dave Thomas left the state literally on his deathbed to avoid the estate tax.”
However, Politifact research illustrated that Thomas established his Florida residence in 1982, decades before his death. It makes it extremely unlikely that he left Ohio to escape the tax situation. I mean, Wendy’s is huge, and Thomas was a very rich man. I don’t think tax payments were something he was concerned about.
Florida happens to be a place where many seniors choose to spend their retirement. After moving to Florida, Thomas continued to help charities in Ohio, as well as other places in America. He built an exceptionally successful franchise, and Wendy’s remains a significant part of American culture.
Dave Thomas isn’t the only legend who created a company that changed the world. Check out the life of John Pemberton and the creation of Coca-Cola.