After complaining that he couldn't find a good hamburger in Columbus, Ohio, Dave Thomas opened his own restaurant on November 15, 1969: Wendy's, named after Thomas's 8-year-old daughter. Wendy's quickly caught on, and within less than a decade, had grown into a 1,000-store franchise. In 1989, Thomas took on the role of television spokesman for the company with a series of hugely successful commercials. He died in Florida in 2002.
Dave Thomas, famed founder of the Wendy's restaurant chain and television spokesman, was born Rex David Thomas on July 2, 1932, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Thomas never knew his birth mother, and was adopted by a couple from Kalamazoo, Michigan, when he was 6 months old. Thomas's adoptive mother died when he was only five, and by the age of 10 Thomas had lost two stepmothers as well. He spent summers in Maine with his adoptive grandmother, Minnie Thomas, who was his closest relative and a big influence in his life.
When Thomas was still a pre-teen, his family (his father, Rex, had remarried again) moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he worked at such jobs as a paperboy, golf caddy, and at a soda fountain counter in a drugstore. Thomas got his first job at a restaurant when he was 15 years old, and when his family decided to leave Fort Wayne to move again, he refused to leave, dropping out of school in the 10th grade and going to work full time.
Foray into Restaurant Business
Thomas served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War as the manager of an enlisted-men's club. Upon returning to Fort Wayne, Thomas found his former boss at the Hobby House restaurant, Phil Clauss, owned some of the first franchises of the budding Kentucky Fried Chicken chain. Clauss offered Thomas the opportunity to move to Columbus, Ohio, to turn around the restaurants, which were failing. Colonel Sanders's signature chicken had been a big hit for the Hobby House and Thomas thought he could sell it in Ohio. By 1968, a few short years later, a 35-year-old Thomas sold the franchises back to the headquarters for $1.5 million.
First Wendy's Opens
After complaining that he couldn't find a good hamburger in Columbus, Thomas decided to open his own restaurant. On November 15, 1969, he opened the first Wendy's restaurant, named for his eight-year-old daughter, Melinda Lou, known as Wendy. She was the youngest of his five children with his wife Lorraine, whom he married in 1956. Known for its square hamburgers and choice of toppings, Wendy's quickly caught on and within less than a decade grew into a franchise of 1,000 stores.
In 1982, Thomas gave up command of day-to-day operations at Wendy's. Four years later, after some business mistakes had hurt sales for Wendy's, the company's new president urged Thomas to take a more active role in the company. Thomas began to visit franchises and espouse his hardworking, so-called "mop-bucket attitude." In 1989, he took on an even more important role, as the television spokesman for the company in a series of fantastically successful commercials.
Success as Pitchman
With his folksy style and his relaxed pitch for his restaurants, Thomas became a household name. A company survey during the 1990s, a decade during which Thomas starred in every Wendy's commercial that aired, found that 90 percent of Americans knew who Thomas was. After more than 800 commercials, it was clear that Thomas was one of the main reasons behind Wendy's status as the number-three burger restaurant in the country (behind McDonald's and Burger King), with more than 6,000 franchises.
Thomas also worked throughout his life to promote the adoption of foster children. He founded the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, which promoted the creation of an employee benefits program for people who adopt, as well as a number of other groundbreaking initiatives. President George Bush named him a national spokesman on adoption issues. Thomas, who always regretted not finishing high school, hired a tutor and passed the G.E.D. high-school equivalency exam in 1993.
In December 1996, the portly Thomas had quadruple bypass surgery. Though he soon returned to his busy schedule of making commercials, he began undergoing kidney dialysis in early 2001. On January 8, 2002, at the age of 69, Thomas died of liver cancer at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
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