Dave Thomas – Patriot of the Week

Thomas, Dave (2 July 1932-8 Jan. 2002), restaurateur and philanthropist, was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the son of an unwed mother. He was adopted at the age of six weeks by Rex Thomas, a construction worker, and Auleva Sinclair of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He never met his birth parents, and his adoptive mother died when he was five years old, later replaced by three subsequent wives of his adoptive father. Thomas went to schools in many cities in the Midwest and the South as his father moved around looking for work, and he spent his summers with his maternal grandmother in Kalamazoo. He attended high school in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but left before finishing the tenth grade, at the age of fifteen. The many after-school jobs he held began with that of counterboy at Walgreen’s Drug Store in Knoxville, Tennessee, when he was twelve, and included stints in several restaurants. In 1947 he took a job as a busboy at Hobby House, a family restaurant in Fort Wayne, where he remained, living at the YMCA, when his adoptive family moved on. Three years later he joined the army and, because of his experience in restaurant work, was given the chance to sign up for Cook and Bakers School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Thomas reached the rank of staff sergeant and was made the manager of an enlisted men’s club, serving as many as two thousand people a day, in Germany. He was the youngest ever to hold that position.

Upon his discharge in 1953 he returned to work as a short-order cook at Hobby House for $35 a week, and the next year he married Lorraine Buskirk, a waitress there. The couple had five children. Thomas’s boss at Hobby House, Philip Clauss, owned four failing Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) franchises in Columbus, Ohio, and in 1962 he asked Thomas to try to make them profitable, offering Thomas a 45 percent share of the profits if he succeeded. Thomas had met the KFC founder Harland Sanders in 1956 and had been deeply impressed by Sanders’s marketing expertise. Thomas accepted the challenge, and his innovations were immediately successful; he reduced the number of items on the menu, focusing on a signature dish, and introduced the trademark sign featuring a revolving red-striped bucket of chicken. By 1968 he had increased sales in the four fried chicken restaurants so much that he sold his share in them back to Sanders for more than $1.5 million.

Thomas worked with Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips chain for a time, but by the end of the 1960s he felt professionally confident and financially secure enough to open a fast-food restaurant that reflected his own vision. A hamburger lover since childhood, he had never been satisfied with the products of the two giants in the field, McDonald’s and Burger King, and he was determined to create a competitor that served cooked-to-order burgers of freshly ground meat in the ambiance of a warm family restaurant. Instead of the Formica, steel, and glass of the burger restaurants that dominated the market, he chose wood furniture, carpeted floors, and soft lighting. In 1969 he opened the first Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers (named after the nickname of his eight-year-old daughter Melinda Lou) in Columbus, Ohio. The “old-fashioned” approach to both quality and décor was an immediate success; Wendy’s began showing a profit within its first six weeks. Remembering the results of narrowing KFC’s choice of dishes, Thomas kept his own menu simple, focusing on burgers in distinctive square patties–his grandmother had always advised him never to cut corners, he recalled–homemade chili, home fries, and Frosty dairy desserts.

In 1973 Thomas followed the example of his mentor Colonel Sanders and began selling franchises. Within four years Wendy’s had sold over one thousand franchises and become the world’s third-largest restaurant chain. In 1982 Thomas, feeling the administrative details of his corporation were becoming too challenging for him, gave up the title of CEO for that of senior chairman, relinquished day-to-day operation of the chain, and devoted time to other interests and investments, such as orange groves and car dealerships, as well as golf and sailing the yacht he kept at his Fort Lauderdale, Florida, home, but he admitted that he “didn’t find any of it very exciting” (Killian, p. 106). When Wendy’s profits dropped from its record $76.2 million in 1985, he returned to serve as quality-control inspector and, again like his model Colonel Sanders, television spokesperson. From April 1989 to 2001 he appeared in over eight hundred commercials, the highest number for any one person in television history, and was described in Advertising Age as “hilarious, pointed,. . .and beautifully performed” (p. 3). With his low-key pitch and folksy, homespun image, wearing a short-sleeved white shirt, red tie, and Wendy’s apron, he became one of television’s most familiar personalities and provided one of its most successful advertising campaigns.

From the 1980s Thomas devoted much of his time and money to philanthropy. In 1983 he contributed $1.8 million to the cancer hospital at Ohio State University, and, remembering his own painful childhood, he established the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption nine years later and instituted a program that paid the costs of adoption for his employees. Over the years he donated more than $20 million to children’s causes, including all fees from his television commercials. His lifetime regret at never having been able to finish high school led him at the age of sixty to study with a tutor for three months and obtain a general equivalency diploma. At his high school graduation in Fort Lauderdale in 1993 he was voted most likely to succeed, and he and his wife were elected king and queen at the school prom.

He died in Fort Lauderdale.

Known for his personal modesty–at one charity function he could not resist getting up to help the waiters bus the tables–Thomas elevated the standards of the fast-food industry and was a powerful advocate for adoption, appointed by President George H. W. Bush as a national spokesman for the cause and recognized by President Bill Clinton for his contribution to it. He was a model of American self-made success: beginning as a busboy, he lived to see more than six thousand Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurants operating in North America, as well as two thousand Tim Hortons, a Canadian-based coffee and doughnut chain acquired by Wendy’s International in 1995. By the time of Thomas’s death, the two chains totaled over $8 billion in annual sales.

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