Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers, says he knew from the time he was eight years old that he wanted to be in the hamburger business, but he cooked a lot of chicken and fish and chips before he created the highly successful hamburger chain he leads today.
R. David Thomas was born July 2, 1932, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and never knew his parents. He was adopted by a couple from Kalamazoo, Michigan, when he was six weeks old, but his adoptive mother died when he was five. He moved from state to state as his adoptive father sought work.
When Thomas was fifteen, his family moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and he got a job as a busboy at the Hobby House Restaurant. When his family decided to move again, Thomas decided to stay. He took a room at the YMCA and exhausted from working long hours at the restaurant, dropped out of school after completing the tenth grade.
He joined the U.S. Army when he turned eighteen and attended the army’s cook and baker school before serving a tour of duty in Frankfurt, Germany, where he became one of the youngest soldiers ever to manage an enlisted men’s club. Discharged, he returned to the Hobby House as a short order cook, where he met his future wife, Lorraine, a waitress, whom he married in 1954.
In 1962, he joined Kentucky Fried Chicken (see ReLATIVELY Speaking, December 1996, Life Begins at Forty) and transformed four bankrupt take-out stores in Columbus, Ohio into a $1.5 million personal profit. Thomas was a millionaire at 35. After he left KFC, Thomas and an associate started Arthur Treachers Fish & Chips – although his first love was still the hamburger business.
The first Wendy’s opened on November 15, 1969 at 257 East Broad Street in downtown Columbus, Ohio. He named the restaurant after his eight year old daughter, Melinda Lou, dubbed Wendy by her brother and sisters. Thomas’ ambitions were modest. He hoped someday to have several restaurants around Columbus that would provide a place for his children to work in the summer.
Today, the former busboy and high school dropout presides over an empire that includes more than 3,800 restaurants throughout the U.S. and in thirty countries and territories around the world. Some 600 people work in Wendy’s headquarters in Dublin, Ohio, and 130,000 people are employed by Wendy’s and its franchises worldwide. Thomas recipe for success: hard work, patience, honesty and total commitment.