On November 15, 1969, Dave Thomas opened the first Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. Today, Wendy’s is the third-largest hamburger chain in the world.
Thomas is a familiar face to many, thanks to the long-running series of commercials he starred in. His folksy, self-effacing persona caught the public’s eye and helped make his restaurants successful. We know Dave Thomas as the guy who chatted with us about burgers and salads, but there was a lot more to him than that – from his work to promote adoption awareness, to a strong commitment to education.
To honor the anniversary of Dave Thomas’s first big burger milestone, we bring you 10 facts about his life and work.
1. Dave Thomas was born on July 2, 1932, but he never met his biological parents – a poor single mother and an unknown father. He was adopted by Rex and Auleva Thomas when he was six weeks old. This prompted some of his most important work later in life: in 1992, he founded the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. This non-profit organization works to raise adoption awareness and make adoption easier and more affordable.
2. Another childhood event that led Thomas to charitable work was his choice to drop out of high school in order to work full-time at the Hobby House Restaurant. As Wendy’s became successful and his name, face and life story started to be well-known, Thomas worried that his success after dropping out would encourage other kids to try to follow the same path. So he returned to high school and received his GED in 1993, at age 61. His graduating class voted him Most Likely to Succeed. He went on to found the Dave Thomas Education Center, which offers courses for adults who are working toward their GED, as well as a citizenship curriculum and programs for adults with disabilities.
3. Thomas served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, but not as a draftee – he chose to enlist. When war broke out, he knew he’d get a better assignment as a willing volunteer, and he wanted to be able to use and develop his cooking skills. He asked to be trained at the Cook’s and Baker’s School at Fort Benning, and he went on to serve as a mess sergeant in Germany.
4. In the 1950s and 60s, Thomas was involved with several KFC franchises. He worked with Colonel Sanders himself on some projects to make KFC more successful and better-known. One of Thomas’s suggestions to Sanders was that he should appear in commercials for his restaurant. The Colonel took him up on it, and Thomas himself used the idea years later, with obvious success for Wendy’s.
5. Thomas’s experience running KFC franchises prepared him for his next business venture – opening his own hamburger restaurant. Legend has it that Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers was named after Thomas’s daughter Melinda Lou – nicknamed Wendy – and it’s almost true. Yes, it was named after Melinda Lou, and yes, she had a nickname, but that nickname was Wenda.
6. Thomas opened the original Wendy’s restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, the same city where he had operated several KFCs. Although Wendy’s is now internationally successful, the flagship restaurant closed in 2007 due to poor sales.
7. In addition to the organizations Thomas founded, he was also a generous donor to charities, particularly those dedicated to helping children in need. He supported St. Jude Children’s Cancer Research Center, the Children’s Hospital in Columbus, the Children’s Home Society of Florida, and others.
8. Wendy’s has produced some memorable commercials over the years, starting with famously crotchety Clara Peller and her signature line, “Where’s the beef?” When that series of ads was discontinued in 1985, Wendy’s suffered a sales slump that lasted several years. What brought the chain’s sales back to life? See #9.
9. Dave Thomas began appearing in Wendy’s commercials in 1989, although his first efforts weren’t quite the casual, funny ads many of us remember today. He was initially criticized for being stiff, but when the ad team began to write in a way that would humorously complement Thomas’s awkward style, the commercials took off. Thomas went on to star in every commercial Wendy’s ran in the 1990s, and by the time he died on January 8, 2002, he had appeared in more than 800 of them.
10. Thomas stated that his all-time favorite meal was a Wendy’s Single with mustard, cheese, pickle and onion, along with fries, a bowl of chili, a Frosty and a Diet Coke.