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In a decade that saw great upheavals across the American political and social landscape, Columbus saw another upheaval: Dave Thomas introduced the square hamburger in downtown Columbus on East Broad Street. Despite the fact that many observers of the fast food business believed the market had peaked, Thomas beat the odds in a saturated fast food market and his little restaurant on East Broad Street became the cornerstone of Wendy's International.
Most people never met Dave, but through his chain of restaurants and his television commercials, you felt like Dave was a friend. Dave Thomas died several years ago at the age of 69, but his empire lives and continues to grow.
Dave Thomas' life was often a hardship, and his story from being an adopted child to head of the billion dollar Wendy's hamburger kingdom is truly remarkable. But Dave was truly a common man, an accidental celebrity. In his books and in interviews, Thomas talks of being approached by those who recognize him from television and say he must be someone famous. Dave says he replies, "I'm nobody, really. I just make hamburgers for a living."
Dave Thomas was born to a woman living in a home for unwed mothers in Atlantic City on July 2, 1932. Rex and Auleva Thomas adopted Dave 6 months later. When Dave was 5, Auleva died and his early years were spent moving from state to state while his adoptive father sought work. Dave’s fondest memories of his childhood included summers spent with his Grandma Minnie Sinclair in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She taught him about doing the right things, treating people well and important lessons about quality and service – all things he later used in his business life.
Although they were of modest means, every Saturday him and his grandmother would go to downtown Kalamazoo and eat at the five and dime store lunch counter. This was Dave's first encounter with the food service industry. At age 12, Dave got his first job working the counter at a Knoxville restaurant, and fell in love with the restaurant business. At 15, he found work at the Hobby House Restaurant in Ft. Wayne. It was then he made what he considered his greatest mistake: he dropped out of school to work full-time. His father and step family were preparing to move again and Dave decided to stay in Ft. Wayne, move into the YMCA and work full-time. This decision to drop out haunted him until he went back to school 45 years later and received his GED from Coconut Creek High School in Ft. Lauderdale. He said this was one of his greatest accomplishments, as was being named “Most Likely to Succeed” by the graduating class of 1993.
Through his work at the Hobby House, Dave met the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Sanders. The Colonel became one of the greatest influences in his life. In 1962, Dave had a chance to turn around 4 failing KFC restaurants in Columbus, Ohio owned by his Hobby House boss, Phil Clauss. Using his experience and determination, he turned those stores around, sold the restaurants back to KFC and received a percentage of the sale – he became a millionaire at age 35.
Dave often said he was lucky to have been born in America.
“Only in America would a guy like me, from humble beginnings and without a high school diploma become successful. America gave me a chance to live the life I want and work to make my dreams come true. We should never take our freedoms for granted, and we should seize every opportunity presented to us.”
On November 15, 1969 Dave made his childhood dream come true when he opened the first Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. Named for one of his daughters, Wendy’s was everything Dave dreamed of: an old fashioned, homey place where families could be together and enjoy great tasting, made-to-order hamburgers.
The restaurant industry and the business community applauded Dave’s innovation and success with Wendy’s. Dave received every major industry award and was honored as a pioneer in the restaurant business. Though business experts would point to different elements of Wendy’s operations as the reason for its success, to Dave it all came down to one thing: the customers.
“If we take care of our customers every day and exceed their expectations, we’ll earn their loyalty. It all comes back to the basics: serve customers the best tasting food at a good value in a clean, comfortable restaurant and they’ll keep coming back.”
Mentoring — sharing your experiences with someone — was one of Dave’s favorite ways to give back. He credited several mentors in his life for making him successful. Dave said he didn’t wait for them to take him under their wing. He found people he respected professionally and personally and crawled under their wing. He absorbed their knowledge, put it to work, then later mentored others interested in learning from him.
Dave was a national advocate for adoption, a cause very close to his heart. Adopted as a child, Dave believed every youngster deserves a permanent home and loving family. His passion led to the creation of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, dedicated to dramatically increasing the number of adoptions in North America. Dave said if just one child got adopted, all the effort would be worth it.
Quality is Our Recipe
Do the Right Thing
Treat People with Respect
Profit is Not a Dirty Word