Aside from McDonald’s and Burger King, Wendy’s is another American burger fast food chain that is now serving hungry customers globally. Its reputation rests on its squared burger patties, its salad bar and the Frosty soft ice creams with toppings. This multi-million global corporation and success story started as a simple dream for its founder and first CEO Dave Thomas (b. 1932 – d. 2002)
Thomas, born in New Jersey and an adopted child, was taught with good values in serving other people and treating them with respect. He also believed in industriousness. These were the things he would later apply in his future life in business. His adoptive mother died when he was just five, and he moved in with his adoptive father as the latter was looking for work.
Before he turned 13, young Thomas found his first employment at a grocery store, but was soon released when his employer found out that Thomas wasn’t yet 16. That setback never daunted the persevering, hard-working youth. At 15 he found another employment at Hobby House restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Because of his job, he was forced to drop out of high school, something that Thomas would later say was the biggest mistake he had ever made in his entire life.
During the Korean War, 18-year-old Thomas joined in the US Army on his own terms, and served daily meals to thousands of soldiers when he was stationed in Germany. Following his discharge from the service in 1953, he returned to work at the Hobby House.
Thomas working for KFC, and his big challenge
Dave Thomas and his boss at Hobby House, Paul Clauss, encountered Col. Harland Sanders who was the founder and owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken. At that time Sanders was at Fort Wayne and looking for possible buyers of his KFC franchises. Clauss eventually franchised KFC upon Sanders’ insistence, and later owned other KFC restaurants in the Midwest. Thomas, who was Hobby House’s head cook, was now selling KFC chicken.
In 1962 Clauss came to Thomas with a proposition which would dramatically change the latter’s life. Clauss told Thomas that if he would be able to turn around the former’s four ailing KFC stores, Clauss promised Thomas that he would be given a hefty percentage of the business. Thomas loved the challenge and accepted his boss’ offer.
Thomas went to work along with Col. Sanders in KFC. Among the approaches Thomas made was to trim down the number of menu items and focus instead on the chicken. He also introduced the chicken bucket to keep the chicken nice, hot, and crisp. He also suggested to Sanders that the latter himself should appear in KFC commercials. These suggestions were implemented and not long after, Thomas successfully revived the four restaurants, and business really began to boom.
“Colonel Sanders saved me” — Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas on KFC icon
Opening Wendy’s, which would become a successful brand
He was granted the whopping 45% share of the KFC business, and from his profits Thomas opened his own KFC restaurants. When he was in his 30s, he became a millionaire. In 1968, he sold the shares back to Sanders and KFC corporation for $1.5 million.
A year later, Thomas established Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburger in Columbus, Ohio (that very restaurant was finally shut down in 2007, after 37 years of operation, due to its lagging sales in later years). The long years of hard work and perseverance finally paid off in a really big way. His boyhood dreams were finally coming true.
In 1979, Wendy’s introduced the salad bar, the first of its kind among burger fast food chains. Thomas was active in overseeing his business and even appeared as himself in Wendy’s TV commercials. The marketing strategy proved effective and helped pick up Wendy’s from its sluggish sales in 1990s. Wendy’s corporate brand awareness regained its old glory. By then most Americans identified Thomas with Wendy’s.
Wendy’s is now the third largest burger fast food chain in America (after McDonald’s and Burger King). It also operates more than 6,500 restaurants in 34 countries.
The inspiring story of Dave Thomas and Wendy’s is proof that we can make our simple dreams come true, through good-ol’ hard work, perseverance and determination to succeed. The story of Wendy’s doesn’t end here as more will be heard in the future.
History of Wendy’s