“As an 8-year-old, I dreamed I would someday own the best restaurant in the world. People ask me about the secret to my success. There is no secret. You have to have persistence and a burning desire to succeed.” Dave Thomas
July 1932 – Atlantic City, New Jersey: He was born on July 2, orphaned the next day and adopted six weeks later by Rex and Auleva Thomas from Kalamazoo, Michigan. They named him Rex David Thomas. His adoptive mother died when he was 5 and he moved often as his father chased jobs across the Midwest. Dave’s favorite time was eating out with his father, especially hamburgers.
At age 8, while enjoying a hamburger, Dave told his father that he would own a restaurant one day, serve good food and be a good boss. At age 12, he was fired from his job as a delivery boy at the Regas Restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee. Later Walgreens let him go when they discovered he was underage. Accustomed to being told he wouldn’t amount to anything, Dave dropped out of high school in the tenth grade and got a job as a busboy at the Hobby House Restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
When his father moved from Fort Wayne, Dave got a room at the YMCA and stayed behind to learn the restaurant business from Hobby House owner Phil Clauss. From busboy, he moved to cook and later restaurant management. At 18, Dave wrote out his restaurant ownership plan, which he called “The Pursuit of Happiness.”
People join the Army for various reasons. Dave joined to gain cooking experience and save enough money to start a restaurant. The Army sent him to the Cook and Baker’s School at Fort Benning, Georgia, then to Germany with the Army food service division for two years.
After the military, Dave returned to the Hobby House Restaurant. By this time, Clauss had purchased four fast food restaurants in Columbus, Ohio, which were part of a new restaurant chain called Kentucky Fried Chicken. The restaurants were failing, and Dave was sent to Columbus to try to turn them around. He was so successful with the KFC restaurants that Clauss sold them for $1.5 million.
While in Columbus, Dave learned about the fast food restaurant business from the Kentucky Colonel Harlan Sanders. On November 15, 1969, Dave capitalized on his experience with the Colonel and opened his first restaurant on Broad Street in downtown Columbus. He called it Wendy’s, the nickname of his youngest daughter.
Known for their square hamburgers, innovation, choice of great toppings and excellent customer service, Wendy’s soon had four restaurants in Columbus. Although others had tried it, Wendy’s was the first to make the drive-through window a success and the first fast food chain to introduce a salad bar and baked potatoes.
The company experienced phenomenal growth and had 1,000 stores within a decade. In 1989 with restaurant sales stagnant, Dave took on the role of company television spokesman, becoming a household name following a series of 800 successful ads during the 1990s. Today, Wendy’s is the No. 3 hamburger restaurant in America, behind McDonald’s and Burger King, with approximately 6,000 stores.
Throughout his life, Dave worked tirelessly to promote the adoption of foster children. He created the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, an employee benefits program for people who adopt and was appointed by President George W. Bush as the national spokesman for the White House Initiative on Adoption.
Embarrassed that he had not finished high school, Dave hired a tutor and began studying for the GED. In 1993, 45 years after dropping out, the 61-year-old hamburger exec received his GED through Coconut Creek High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The senior class at Coconut Creek voted him Most Likely to Succeed.
Dave started with a boyhood dream, put his plan on paper and then stuck to it, never imagining the success that was to come. According to Dave Thomas, “Dream on. It is easy to throw in the towel when things aren’t going your way but don’t give up. It is not where you start but where you end up that matters.”