Dave Thomas was a Korean War veteran working at a small restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana when he made the decision to enlist with a different kind of colonel.
The Hobby House
When Colonel Harland Sanders was trying to expand his Kentucky Fried Chicken business in the mid-1950s, he discovered the Clauss family, their Hobby House restaurant, and their head cook, Dave Thomas.
As the Clausses transformed their Hobby Houses into the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, Dave rose through the ranks and produced suggestions that became every bit as important to KFC's growth as Sanders' legendary "secret recipe".
During his time with Colonel Sanders, Dave worked tirelessly to help create brand recognition, understanding that the more the customer believed in your brand, the more loyal they would be to your business. Dave recommended that KFC trim down their menu so that the company could focus on a signature dish that would distinguish them against their competitors. He also thought up the red-and-white-striped chicken bucket and the revolving sign designed to look like the bucket. He pressed the Colonel to appear in more commercials for the brand, believing that if the consumer knew and could relate to him, they would be more likely to develop an affinity for the brand.
Dave Thomas Starts Wendy's
Dave's suggestions proved so successful that the Clausses sent him to Columbus, Ohio to turn around some of their franchises. By 1968, he was able to sell the restaurants back to Sanders for a percentage and became a millionaire at age 35. Frustrated at being unable to find a good hamburger in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969 Dave started his own chain of hamburger-based restaurants named after his daughter, Melinda Lou. As a child, Melinda Lou had trouble pronouncing her name, and it came out "Wenda." Dave simplified that in naming his restaurants, "Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers." His vision was high-quality food, made to order.
Among the “Big Three," there has never been that great a difference in what was offered on the menu. Unlike McDonald's and Burger King, Wendy’s does not have a “signature” sandwich such as the Big Mac or the Whopper. Wendy’s did begin prioritizing a more robust offering of chicken sandwich options before its two major competitors, but that has since been equaled. The only major distinction that Wendy’s has over the other two legs of the “Big Three” stool is that it uses square patties.
If you asked Dave why he chose square patties for his hamburgers, he would respond by saying, stone-faced, “At Wendy’s, we don’t cut corners!”
The Success of Wendy's
Dave's initial goal in founding Wendy's was to expand enough that his five children would all have a place to work during the summertime, but his success far outstripped this modest ambition. By 1980 there were 2000 Wendy’s nationwide, and the company had begun to expand internationally by opening a location in Japan.
As of 2018, the Wendy’s restaurant system was comprised of 6,711 restaurants employing 12,500 people, still featuring Dave's signature square hamburger patties. Wendy's is the world's third largest hamburger fast food chain.
Dave continued to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the Wendy's franchise until resigning in 1982. But the founder couldn't stay away for long, and after some misguided decisions by the corporation (such as an attempt to copy the breakfast menus of McDonald's and Burger King) and the cancellation of the "Where's the beef?" commercials starring Clara Peller, Dave was asked to return.
Dave Stars in Television Ads
By 1989 Dave was following the advice he'd once given Colonel Sanders, he appeared in commercials representing the Wendy's brand and revealed himself to be a regular guy who loved good food and wanted others to have it. This particular public relations move framed Dave taking his product, rather than himself, seriously.
Dave appeared in 800 Wendy's commercials from 1989—2002 (more than any other company founder in television history), often in brightly clashing shirts and ties. He became every bit as popular as Clara Peller, and a fast-food icon on the level of Colonel Sanders and Ronald McDonald.
Finishing His Education
Dave's success led to several people citing him as a man who had become successful despite being a high school dropout. Thinking that this role model status might lead children to drop out of school, he decided to correct what he saw as the greatest mistake of his life: dropping out of high school at 15 to work in the Clauss family restaurant full time. He earned his GED in 1993 after attending classes at a high school near his home in south Florida.
Dave's Adoption Foundation
Himself an adopted child, Dave became active in encouraging foster care adoption in the early 1990s, and in 1992 he founded the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. The Foundation continues to commit itself to Dave's vision of making sure every child has a permanent and loving family. With the support of the Wendy’s Corporation, the Foundation has helped more than 1,000 children become adopted in Ohio.
Dave Thomas remained involved with Wendy's until liver cancer began to take its toll. He died in 2002 at the age of 69. In 2011, his daughter Melinda Lou Morse began appearing in commercials for the chain that bears her nickname, promoting "Dave's Hot 'N Juicy Cheeseburgers," and working to preserve her father's legacy.