Dave Thomas

Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s International, Inc., was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey on July 2, 1932. Dave got his first job at age 12 as a counterman at a Knoxville restaurant, and fell in love with the restaurant business. When he was 15, he found work at the Hobby House Restaurant in Ft. Wayne. It was then that he made what he considered his greatest mistake: he dropped out of school to work full-time. Through his work at the Hobby House, Dave met Colonel Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and the man who became one of the greatest influences in his life.

In 1962, Dave had a chance to turn around four failing KFC restaurants in Columbus, Ohio owned by his Hobby House boss. Four years later, by using his experience and determination, these four restaurants were sold back to KFC and from his percentage of the sale Dave became a millionaire at age 35. His “rags-to-riches” success story earned him the Horatio Alger Award in 1979.

When he was a child, Dave dreamed of opening a hamburger restaurant. On November 15, 1969 Dave made his dream come true when he opened the first Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. It was named for one of his daughters. Wendy’s became known for fresh (not frozen) ground beef hamburgers that are square rather than round. Dave explained, “At Wendy’s, we don’t cut corners!” At a time when American fast food restaurants featured plain plastic chairs and linoleum floors, Dave created an old-fashioned atmosphere by carpeting the dining rooms and furnishing them with Bentwood chairs, Tiffany-style lamps and newsprint table tops. Dave also created the modern-day Pick-Up Window, revolutionizing the quick service restaurant industry. Wendy’s restaurants were also the first to introduce the salad bar and baked potatoes.

While his success elevated his status in the business world as an entrepreneur, he never lost sight of his roots. “I’m just a hamburger cook,” Dave said on many occasions. He was most at home when talking with Wendy’s restaurant managers and operators because he understood them and what they face everyday. And to those managers and operators, Dave wasn’t just the founder of the company; he was a role model and an example of how hard work, dedication and commitment can lead to success. He believed that teamwork was the key to success. Dave liked to say, “There’s no ‘I’ in Wendy’s. The first two letters are WE.” He believed everyone has a role to play and every person is important. He believed leaders should give their people the tools they need to do their job, motivate them, and then trust them to get the job done.

Dave was probably best known as the “guy on Wendy’s TV commercials.” In early 1989, Dave agreed to appear in a few Wendy’s commercials. During his nearly 13-year run (and 800+ commercials) as Wendy’s spokesman, Americans came to love him for his down-to-earth, homey style. This campaign made Dave one of our nation’s most recognizable spokesmen. The Guinness World Records™ recognized the Dave Thomas Campaign as the “Longest Running Television Advertising Campaign Starring a Company Founder.” Dave’s real genius was his simplicity. When he talked, people listened – not just out of respect, but because they knew they would learn something. His straightforward messages about quality, integrity, respect, pride and responsibility were important lessons for business and for life. Dave lived by the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. He simplified this by saying, Just Be Nice.

Dave Thomas went back to school at the age of 60 and received his GED from Coconut Creek High School in Ft. Lauderdale. He said this was one of his greatest life accomplishments. He died on January 8, 2002 at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after a decade-long battle with liver cancer. He was buried in Union Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. At the time of his death, there were more than 6,700 Wendy's restaurants operating in North America and employing more than 46,000 people in its global operations.