Dave Thomas

We'll always do it Dave's way.

When he was eight years old, Dave Thomas dreamed he'd run the best restaurant in the world. He didn't just achieve his dream, he shared it with everyone.

Dave loved two things above all else, food and people. That's why he started Wendy's. He believed in a place where you get great food, made fresh, served by nice people. At all our restaurants we do our best to carry on that simple idea, every day. It's his legacy. Our name is Wendy's, but we will always be Dave's place. Learn about the legacy and see how you can keep it alive.

1932 - 1944: Humble Beginnings

A little boy dreams big.

As a young boy, Dave and his adoptive father moved around a lot. It was a lonely life, but eating in restaurants gave him comfort and showed him what family life was really like. In his adoptive family, Dave was closest to his grandmother and cherished the time he spent with her and the lessons she taught him. Overcoming the challenges and hardships of his childhood and setting goals for his future drove him toward success.

Born in 1932

Dave Thomas was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey on July 2, 1932. Rex and Auleva Thomas adopted him when he was six weeks old. When Dave was five, Auleva died and his early years were spent moving many times from state to state in the Midwest while his adoptive father sought work.

 “A family can count on each other, and that’s something that can’t be bought or sold. All the small stuff is swept aside when an obstacle is faced. It brings out the best of us. That old saying is true, we’re stronger when we stand together. I’m very grateful and proud to be part of the Thomas family.”

Dave and Grandma Minnie

Dave's fondest childhood memories were summers spent in Michigan with Grandma Minnie Sinclair. She taught him about doing the right things and treating people with respect, as well as important lessons about quality and service - all values he later used in his business life. Minnie taught Dave that "Hard work is good for the soul, and it keeps you from feeling sorry for yourself because you don't have time."

Restaurants bring families together for Dave

Dave's father Rex was an imposing figure who only had to tell you once to do something. While he didn't spend much fatherly time with Dave, they often ate together at restaurants - mainly small neighborhood cafes that made good hamburgers. For Dave, eating out was a special event. It was the one time he felt like he had his father all to himself. And Dave enjoyed watching families sitting together, sharing a meal.

“In 1940, at the age of eight, I dreamed that I would one day own the best restaurant in the world. All of the customers would love my food, and all of my employees would do everything they were supposed to do. But, most important, everyone would think I was a good boss, and everyday when I walked into the restaurant, people would be glad to see me.”

Understanding customers

Dining out became a passion for a Dave, and he decided he would one day own his own restaurant. He was fascinated with how restaurants served food, looked different, and promoted their specials. He observed different types of menus, how things looked and tasted, and how friendly restaurants felt. By the time Dave was nine, he was an "expert," understanding what customers expected and what kind of service and quality was acceptable.

1944 - 1968: Passion for the Business

Dave worked hard and learned from mentors about the restaurant business.

Starting at age 12, Dave immersed himself in the restaurant business, choosing the right mentors, committing himself to hard work, and sticking to a philosophy handed down from his grandmother never to cut corners on quality. Each day, each effort, each experience brought him closer to his dream.

1944, Dave, age 12

Frequent moving from city to city left Dave without roots or a sense of belonging. He sought refuge in work, hoping that a job would gain him respect and the money he needed to get more out of life. At 12, he delivered groceries in Knoxville, but was fired by his boss. As a soda jerk at Walgreen's, he was fired again when his boss found out he wasn't 16. After being told he'd "never amount to anything," he vowed never to lose another job.

“Don’t give up. It’s easy to throw in the towel when things aren’t going your way.  Nothing good comes without hard work. Be willing to invest the time and energy to achieve your goals.”

1944, Dave's first real restaurant job

Dave worked very hard at a family restaurant in Knoxville. The wartime work ethic set a standard for Dave; he thought it was just the way people were supposed to work. And the owners treated Dave like family, giving him encouragement and mentorship that had a positive and lasting effect on him. Dave learned he could be whatever he wanted to be, within the laws of God and man.

1947, Hobby House Restaurant

After another move, 15-year-old Dave found work at the Hobby House Restaurant in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. He started as a busboy, then worked the fountain and went on to the front kitchen, believing that if he was going to have his own restaurant on day, he needed to know how to do every job. Owner Phil Clauss became his mentor, motivating Dave and teaching him everything about the business.

“From the very beginning, I never thought of myself as anybody special. And whatever I’ve accomplished throughout my life, when I look in the mirror, I still see myself as a hamburger cook.”

Dave goes out on his own

When Dave's family moved yet again he stayed behind, and, at age 15, lived on his own at the YMCA. In the tenth grade, still searching for his dream, Dave even wrote an essay about it "The Pursuit of Happiness," where he outlined the path he would take toward achieving it. Except for not finishing school, which he always regretted, Dave followed his plan to the letter.

Dave in the Army

In the early 1950s at the age of 18, Dave joined the Army according to his plan. The Korean War was beginning. From Cook and Baker's School in Ft. Benning, Georgia, to becoming one of the youngest soldiers to manage the Enlisted Men's Club, Dave's entrepreneurial spirit and initiative served him well. Dave served in Germany for two and a half years, working hard and gathering the knowledge and experience he would apply to building a food-service business.

Dave gets to know Colonel Harland Sanders

In 1953, Dave returned to his job and restaurant family at the Hobby House. A new waitress, Lorraine Buskirk, caught his eye; they married in 1954. Dave also met Colonel Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC) and one of his strongest mentors. When Phil Clauss bought a KFC franchise, Dave was in the chicken business.

1962, Dave gets into the chicken business

Clauss offered Dave a chance to revive his four failing Kentucky Fried Chicken carryouts in Columbus, Ohio. Against even the Colonel's advice, Dave took the challenge and succeeded. He trimmed the menu and used creative promotions - swapping chicken for radio time and making an illuminated sign that looked like a rotating bucket of chicken. Clauss later sold the carryouts, making Dave a millionaire and launch his career in hamburgers.

“I don’t consider myself a great leader, but if I really thought about it, I’d say I’ve followed my own advice. I do what I say I’m going to do. I’ve been lucky over the years to have a great team of people to work with. I learned from my mentors that if you say you’re going to do something, do it. When people believe in you and you treat them with respect, they’ll follow you.”

1969 - 1979: Quality is Our Recipe

Dave introduced America to his fresh, made-to-order, square hamburgers.

When other quick-service restaurants were using frozen beef and mass-producing food, Dave developed an innovative method to prepare fresh, made-to-order hamburgers. Wendy's became known for square ground beef hamburgers that hang over the bun, made with the customer's choice of toppings. Quality and fresh food are still the focus, allowing Wendy's to quickly serve high quality and variety to millions of customers each day.

1969, Dave's dream comes true

Consumed by his love of hamburgers, Dave visited every hamburger stand he could find, sharing his restaurant ideas with friend Len Immke in the steam room of the Columbus Athletic Club. Upon finding the Club's dining room closed one day, Len said it was hard to get a good lunch downtown, and suggested Dave open his restaurant in one of Len's buildings on Broad Street. It became the home of the first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers.

The first Wendy's

Dave's 20-plus years behind the counter and all his restaurant management experience came together when the first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant opened on November 15, 1969 in Columbus, Ohio. A capacity crowd of local dignitaries joined the first Wendy's family of employees and suppliers at the grand opening.

“When I started Wendy’s in 1969, ‘Quality is Our Recipe’ was our motto. Our focus on quality hasn’t changed, and it never will. Wendy’s offers customers the highest quality food and freshest ingredients, made-to-order sandwiches, and fast, courteous service. When you like a restaurant’s food and are treated well, you’ll go back again. We have to earn our customers’ loyalty every day, and exceed their expectations on every visit. That’s our mission and our focus and, in my opinion, that’s what generates loyal customers.”

The face that started it all

After trying all five of his children's names for the restaurant, Dave decided on daughter Melinda's nickname - Wendy. The first menu included hot 'n juicy hamburgers, rich 'n meaty chili, french fries, soft drinks and a Frosty Dairy Dessert. And the homey interior featured carpeting, Tiffany-style lamps, newsprint tabletops and Bentwood chairs - very innovative for the time.

1971, New Pick-up Window does more than pick up business

The Wendy's Pick-Up Window concept was born in the first freestanding restaurant. The drive-up window wasn't brand new, but no one had made it work successfully. Originally designed as an add-on to the building to generate a few extra dollars in sales, it proved to be the catalyst that propelled Wendy's from a four-store Columbus chain into a foodservice phenomenon.

Early restaurant design, circa 1973

In 1973, Dave began to franchise the Wendy's concept. His idea of selling franchises for entire cities and regions, rather than single units, was an industry innovation and enabled Wendy's to open more than 1,000 restaurants in the company's first 100 months.

Wendy's innovations changed the industry

Under Dave's leadership, Wendy's led the industry in product innovations. In 1979, the company was the first national chain to introduce salad bars, and in 1983 Wendy's added baked potatoes to the menu. Other innovations followed, including the 99c Super Value Menu, breaded chicken sandwich, fresh carryout salads, and the spicy chicken sandwich.

1979, Dave accepts the Horatio Alger Award

The restaurant industry and business community applauded Dave's innovation and success. Dave received every major industry award and was honored as a pioneer in the restaurant business. One award he was particularly proud of was being honored with the Horatio Alger Aware, presented by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.

“People ask me about the secret of my success, and I tell them there’s no secret. You have to have persistence, a burning desire to succeed, and a passion for the business. These things kept me motivated and focused on what I wanted to accomplish. It sounds simple, and it really is. I believed in my dream of opening a hamburger restaurant, and I was willing to put in the time and make the commitment to succeed.”

1989 - 2002: Folk Hero

No ordinary spokesman, North America fell in love with Dave's food.

The long-running Dave Thomas Campaign made Dave one of the nations most recognizable spokesmen. North Americans loved him for his down-to-earth, homey style. As interest in Dave grew, he was often asked to talk to students, businesses or the media about free enterprise, success and community service.

1989, Dave becomes the "guy on Wendy's commercials"

After Wendy's marketing executives decided that no one could speak more passionately about Wendy's than Dave, in early 1989, he agreed to appear in a few television commercials. While advertising experts and critics panned the spots, consumers loved them and restaurant sales increased. Consumers agreed with Dave that "food made fresh tastes best."

Dave the Celebrity

Throughout the campaign, Dave appeared with many famous celebrities, including NHL star Mike Richter, Olympic Gold Medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, and soap opera star Susan Lucci. Because of his honesty and old-fashioned values, Dave emerged from Wendy's advertising campaign as an American folk hero.

1993, Graduation Day

Dave was asked to speak about his accomplishments, advising kids to "Get all the education you can." Some students challenged Dave since he was a drop out. So, 45 years after leaving school, Dave received his GED from Coconut Creek High School in Ft. Lauderdale.

“One of my biggest mistakes led to one of my greatest accomplishments. I dropped out of school when I was 15, so I could work full time. That was the biggest mistake I ever made. I was ashamed to be known as a ‘drop-out.’ One day while talking to high school students about getting a good education, a student asked how I could tell them to stay in school when I dropped out. So after 45 years, I went back to school, studied for and got my GED. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it, and it’s something I’m very proud of. I was ‘adopted’ by the senior class of Coconut Creek High School near my home in Ft. Lauderdale. They voted me Most Likely to Succeed, and elected my wife Lorraine and me Prom Queen and King.”

Commercial success

In 1996, the Dave Thomas Campaign reached its landmark 500th commercial, and in May 1999, celebrated its 10th anniversary, with 652 commercials December 2000 brought another honor when Guinness World Records recognized the campaign as the "Longest Running Television Advertising Campaign Starring a Company Founder." The campaign ran nearly 13 successful years, including more than 800 commercials.

An early appearance on "Good Morning America"

It seemed everyone was interested in Dave's life story, eager for him to share his secret of success. Dave appeared on all the major news and talk shows, including the "Today Show," "Good Morning America," "Larry King Live," "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "48 Hours," and many others.

“Profit is not a dirty word. We all talk about achieving our dreams and accomplishing our goals. But let’s not forget that making a profit gets us there. Profit in business means expansion, growth and opportunities. It also means you can share your profit with your management team and the community. Profit means success, and success means sharing with others.”

Dave the Author

Dave shared his experiences and insight into achieving his dreams in his autobiography, Dave's Way. As he put it, "It also tells people about my mistakes and what they should avoid. It's important to learn from your mistakes and I hope people can learn from mine." Dave also published a book on success called Well Done!, and the business book Franchising for Dummies. Proceeds from all books went to Dave's adoption foundation.

“Honesty and integrity are the foundation upon which every successful person stands. Dishonest people don’t make it in the long run. Throughout your life, you’ll have the opportunity to cut corners and take some short cuts. Don’t do it! If you lose your integrity, you’ve lost everything you set out to gain. Earn and appreciate the trust of the people you work with and respect. You earn your reputation by the things you do every day. And at the end of the day, all a man has is his integrity.”

1996, Dave carries the Olympic Torch

In recognition of his service to the community and his work for the cause of adoption, Dave was selected to carry the Olympic Torch during the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay before the Atlanta Games. Dave's route passed through Dublin, Ohio, home of Wendy's world headquarters.

Dave's Everlasting Legacy

Dave gave generously with his time, money and heart.

Dave strongly believed in giving back to the communities that support the business. Throughout his life, he shared his energy, his time and his money. And while Dave's popularity helped sell hamburgers, he tried to use it to bring attention to causes and issues that were important to him. While much of his time was focused on the cause of adoption, he actively supported many other community organizations that improved the lives of children.

“Everyone has a responsibility to support their community. My rule of thumb is: support the community that supports you. Find a cause that means something to you and support it with your time, energy and money. For me, that cause is adoption, but you should find something that’s important to you. Giving back is the right thing to do.”

A cause close to his heart

In 1990, President George Bush asked Dave to head the White House Initiative on Adoption, Adoptions Works… for Everyone. With his background as an adoptee and his stature in the business community, Dave accepted the challenge of raising awareness for the cause. He also wanted to reduce the red tab and cost that discouraged many families from adopting.

Anything for the kids

In 1992, Dave established the Dave Thomas Foundation for AdoptionTM, a public not-for-profit organization that provides grants to national and regional adoption organizations for programs that raise awareness and make adoption easier and more affordable. He also traveled throughout North America to bring attention to the cause and inspire hope in thousands of children in foster care.

“Every child deserves a permanent home and loving family. Having a family means there are people who care about you and who will always be there for you. Adoption is a great way to create or add to a family. There are so many children in America waiting to be adopted.”

Breaking ground for children in Florida

Dave supported many organizations that improved the lives of children, including the Children's Home Society of Florida, where he provided seed money to build the I. Lorraine Thomas Home, a temporary emergency home in Ft. Lauderdale.

All about education

A strong believer in education, Dave established the Thomas Center at Duke University. The Center houses the Fuqua School of Business' Executive Education programs. He was a founder of the Enterprise Ambassador Program at Nova University in South Florida. The program introduces the free enterprise system to high school students through classes and a mentoring programs.

Presidential appreciation

Dave made several visits to Washington to urge government leaders to make adoption benefits available to federal employees, and to testify before Congress on the need for adoption tax credits. In 1996, President Clinton signed a tax credit bill into law giving adoptive parents a tax credit of $5,000 when they adopt. At the public signing, the President personally thanked Dave and acknowledged the impact he'd made on adoption across the country.

“America is the greatest country in the world.  Everyone has an equal chance and opportunity to succeed. You can be anything you want to be within the laws of God and man.”

Adoption stamp generates awareness

Dave and his Foundation partnered with the U.S. Postal Service to create and promote the Adoption Stamp. It was unveiled in October 1999 at Rockefeller Center in New York and was available in May 2000. The colorful, 33¢ stamp has four themes: "Adopting a Child, Shaping a Life, Building a Home, Creating a World."

Making children's lives better

Dave's capacity to give was limitless, especially when it was for the kids. Children's Hospital in Columbus, the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute at The Ohio State University, and St. Jude Children's Cancer Research Center in Memphis, are also among the many organizations that benefited from Dave's generosity.