Dave Thomas

American businessman Dave Thomas (born 1932) is the founder of the Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburgers chain. He is also an advocate for adoption, establishing the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption to realize his dream of a home for every child.

Through his successful Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburgers television ads, Dave Thomas's lovable, grandfatherly image has made him one of the most recognized faces in the United States. This has gone a long way in promoting the advantages of adoption for his Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. His dream of making sure every child has a home and loving family are not just words. He has consistently put his heart and his money into making it easier for all children to realize this dream.

Born on July 2, 1932, to a single mother, R. David "Dave" Thomas was adopted as a six-week-old baby by Rex and Auleva Thomas of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The family unit was short-lived, as his adoptive mother died of rheumatic fever when Thomas was five years old. Travel became a big part of his life as his adoptive father moved from town to town looking for work. Among the few constants in his early life were the summers he spent with his grandmother, Minnie Sinclair, on her small farm in Michigan. He has credited her with providing him with a sense of security and with teaching him the value of an honest day's work.

At an early age, Thomas developed a fascination with restaurants and a love of food. He attributed that to eating out so much as a child and spending time with his grandmother, who worked at an eatery. "I thought if I owned a restaurant, " Thomas told Marilyn Achiron of People, "I could eat all I wanted for free. What could be better than that?"

His father, who did not participate much in his son's life, remarried three times after his wife died and moved from town to town to find work. By the time Thomas was a teenager, he had lived in a dozen different places. As his company biography noted, Thomas "found himself without roots or a sense of belonging." These feelings deepened when, at thirteen, his grandmother told him he was adopted. "It really hurt that nobody told me before, " he recalled to Achiron. "It is a terrible feeling to know my natural mother didn't want me." These long-standing feelings have made it difficult for Thomas's own children to understand why he promotes adoption with such a passion. "Life with my new parents was not easy….Yet without a permanent family of my own, I know I would not be where I am today, " he wrote in Parade Magazine.

Thomas lied about his age and started in the restaurant business as a busboy at the Hobby House restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1947. The owner, Phil Clauss, was an early mentor to Thomas. Thomas quit school after the tenth grade (he has called this his biggest mistake in life), and began to work full-time. After serving in the U.S. Army for two years, he returned to the Hobby House in 1953 and took a position as a short-order cook. His earnings were $35 a week. It was there he met his future bride, 18-year-old waitress Lorraine Buskirk. They were married seven months later and had five children, Pam, Ken, Molly, Melinda Lou (Wendy), and Lori.

In the 1950s, while working for Clauss, Thomas met his other mentor, Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). Sanders impressed him with a commitment to quality fast food and a talent for salesmanship. In 1962, Clauss asked Thomas to turn around four KFC carryouts that he owned. If Thomas could take over the management of these outlets and make them solvent, Clauss would transfer 45 percent of the ownership of the restaurants to him. Thomas wanted his own restaurant, so he moved his family to Columbus, Ohio.

Thomas took on the challenge and quickly recognized the stores were failing largely because of the intimidating, 100-item menu which was confusing to the customers. He reduced the menu to mostly chicken and introduced the distinctive rotating bucket of chicken sign. In 1968, Thomas sold his share of the franchises back to the Kentucky Fried Chicken Corporation for more than $1.5 million.

After a short stint with the Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips chain, Thomas was ready to build his own chain. He saw himself as a "hamburger man" and decided that hamburgers would be his specialty. He felt McDonald's and Burger King were not doing hamburgers his way: custom-made with fresh meat and a good choice of toppings. Although friends and family cautioned him the hamburger market was saturated, he opened the first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant in downtown Columbus in 1969. The name derived from his daughter, Melinda Lou, whose siblings had difficult pronouncing her name, which came out "Wenda" and eventually became "Wendy."

Thomas envisioned opening a few stores to give his children work during the summer. However, his concept of a restaurant with old-fashioned food and decor, wooden furniture, and carpeted dining rooms was a hit. Thomas turned a profit within six weeks. In 1973 Thomas began selling Wendy's franchises covering entire cities and parts of states, an unprecedented move in the industry. Over 1, 000 franchises opened in the first 100 months of the offering, a substantial growth which would continue for twenty years and would make Wendy's the third-largest restaurant chain in the world.

The original menu at Wendy's consisted of some of Thomas's favorite foods, chili, french fries and fresh hamburgers, as well as the Frosty Dairy Dessert. Crisis came in the late 1970s when Thomas's managers suggested introducing a salad bar. Self-doubt plagued Thomas, and when the salad bar proved to be a hit, he wondered if he should be moving in a different direction. "Here's a company I didn't want to screw up, " he commented to Linda Killian in Forbes. "I see a lot of entrepreneurs start something they can't finish…. I think an entrepreneur has limitations. I thought it was the best time to back off and let other people who were smarter than me do things."

In 1982 Thomas gave up his title of chief executive but retained the senior chairmanship, a hands-off executive supervisory position. Although for several years it appeared the corporate ship could sail smoothly without him, he eventually returned to management in a different position. The year 1985 was a great success with the catchy "Where's the beef?" advertising campaign boosting sales to a record $76.2 million, but a downturn was coming. A huge investment in a breakfast program failed as made-to-order omelets and french toast couldn't be made fast enough to meet customer demand. The overall franchise system began showing signs of collapse.

The company reported a $5 million loss in 1986. Thomas hired James Near, a successful franchiser, as the new president. One of Near's conditions for accepting the post was that Thomas come out of retirement and act as the company's spokesperson, ambassador, and unabashed morale booster. It was a rocky road, but Thomas ended up being his own spokesperson. His failure as the company pitchman in 1981 was likely due to the words he was given to say-"Ain't no reason to go anyplace else." His comeback in 1989 was uncomfortable at first, but success came when he found his own voice. Bob Garfield of Advertising Age characterized the new spots as "hilarious, pointed, tactically sharp, and beautifully performed." Thomas quickly became one of the most easily recognizable faces in America with over 500 commercials to his credit.

Yet, a hole remained in his personal life. Thomas sought out his birth mother when he was 21. According to Achiron, "his biological mother … had died, but he met her family, and didn't feel any particular closeness to them." Without any other leads, he decided not to look for his biological father. His daughter Pam picked up his pursuit in 1988. She found his father's family in Philadelphia and learned Thomas's father, by then dead, had married and had another son. His half brother was a college professor, an MIT graduate, and wanted nothing to do him. "He didn't want his mother to know that his father had a little one-night deal, " Thomas told Achiron of People. "He might be very, very smart, but he doesn't have much common sense."

The pain of his adoption was still fresh, and although he is quick to acknowledge his own experience was not perfect, he has stated it was far better than growing up in an orphanage. And so, in the late 1980s when the National Council for Adoption asked Thomas for his support, he gave it. In 1990 then President Bush sought his help in publicizing the plight of those who are least likely to be adopted; the handicapped, older children and siblings. In 1990, he established the Wendy's corporate adoption program which helps defray the cost of adoption for employees.

His support is not just for hard-to-place children being adopted, but also for would-be parents seeking to adopt. In 1992, Thomas founded the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. He also tried to reach children waiting to be adopted. "I hope you find a loving home real soon, " he wrote in his 1994 book Well Done! Dave's Secret Recipe for Everyday Success, "and I can tell you firsthand that, with hard work and values, you can go as far as your greatest dreams."

Dave's Way: A New Approach to Old-fashioned Success (1991) was an autobiographical account of Thomas's creation of the Wendy's fast-food chain and was a top-selling nonfiction book according to the Chicago Tribune. His second book, Well Done! Dave's Secret Recipe for Everyday Success (1994) was filled with motivational reflections and what he perceives as the skills, attitudes and values shared by successful people. Profits from his two books were donated to national adoption awareness programs and to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

In 1993, Thomas rectified what he considered to be his biggest regret. He commented to Achiron, "I had everything to do with not finishing high school. That was a dumb mistake." Thomas earned his G.E.D. and graduated from a Florida high school. According to his company biography, his classmates voted him "Most Likely to Succeed, " and he and his wife attended the senior prom, where they were crowned king and queen.

In late 1996, Thomas underwent heart bypass surgery, but he quickly rebounded. In 1997, with 5, 000 Wendy's units around the world, Thomas continued to appear in commercials and launched the successful "Eat a Pita!" campaign. However, he still sticks to the basics. He commented to Roberta Maynard of Nation's Business, "Even in this computer age, our approach is still one customer at a time."


Further Reading on Dave Thomas

Thomas, Dave, Dave's Way: A New Approach to Old-fashioned Success, 1991.

Thomas, Well Done! Dave's Secret Recipe for Everyday Success, HarperCollins/Zondervan, 1994.

Advertising Age, August 6, 1990, p. 3.

Chicago Tribune, October 2, 1991, Business Section, p. 1.

Forbes, August 5, 1991, pp. 106-107.

Grand Rapids Press, December 20, 1996, p. C7.

Nation's World, October 1997, p. 65.

Parade Magazine, December 1, 1996, pp. 8-9.

People, August 2, 1993, pp. 86-87.

Profit, July/August 1992.

Restaurant Business, May 1, 1992, pp. 114-116.

Saturday Evening Post, November/December 1994, pp. 26-28.

"Wendy's International Inc., " http://www.wendys.com (January 5, 1998).