How the Wendy's founder went from abandoned child to lovable hamburger tycoon

Editor's note: In honor of his birthday tomorrow, Columbus Monthly is republishing this 1991 profile of the late Wendy's founder Dave Thomas, who started the burger chain in Downtown Columbus in 1969.

Five years ago, it wouldn't have caused a stir. R. David Thomas, founder of Wendy's International, walks into a Dublin Wendy's and strolls around asking customers how the food is. 

“How's everything?” he asks a table of diners. He introduces himself, hands out some souvenirs and moves on. 

But it did cause a stir when the 59-vear-old Thomas walked in the door that July day, and it wasn't just the TV cameras that came trailing behind him. Little kids came up for autographs. Diners poked each other. Nobody needed an introduction.

Even the restaurant staff, under strict instructions to act natural, couldn't keep it up. Work ground to a halt. Thomas put on an apron and flipped a few burgers for the cameras. The staff crowded around and stood on tiptoe to get a look.

"He's cooking!"

"He's got the salt shaker now."

"This is exactly what they told us not to do."

Things have changed for Dave Thomas. Grandfatherly, down-to-earth Dave Thomas, the man who founded Wendy's in 1969 and built it into a multi-million dollar fast-food empire, is more than a good businessman now. He's a star.

The cameras following Thomas that day were from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, scheduled to air a Thomas segment in October. “See, I'm on Rich and Famous," Thomas explained to diners, before the show's New York producer suggested he say Lifestyles like everybody else.

"I don't know how rich we are," he said. But famous? “Well, I don't know about that either."

But he is, thanks to a series of some of the just-plain-cutest commercials around. The spots have transformed Thomas-the-faceless-founder into “Dave," the household word. 

“I travel with him a lot and it's unbelievable," says Wendy's CEO Jim Near. "The women and the children, it's like he's some kind of a father or grandfather. I mean they want to touch him."

"My 80-year-old mother said it best of all," Near says. "I came in the door one day and she said, 'Jim, I just saw Dave on TV.' I said, 'He's on all the time.' And she said, 'He's so cute I could just pinch him.' ”

This fall, Dave Thomas's celebrity status will go up yet another notch. Thomas's autobiography, called “Dave's Way,” hit the bookstores Sept. 20, earning Thomas a spot on Good Morning America and his first-ever book tour.

The book itself is pure Thomas—plain, modest and written with an implicit assumption that just everybody is fascinated by hamburgers. The profits will go to adoption causes. Adopted himself, Thomas is now the national spokesman for President George Bush's special initiative on adoption. He's a funny spokesman. When Thomas talks about adoption, Thomas talks bluntly.

"Blood relatives are altogether different than people who are non-blood relatives," Thomas says in his Dublin office. Denny Lynch, Wendy's public relations vice president, winces.

"I didn't have that sense of belonging you see with a family," Thomas says, “that sense that every kid has that his or her parents are his or her possession," Thomas says. "That's what it's about. It's about possessing, about being possessive."

The word guy steps in. “Roots," says Lynch, is what Thomas is trying to say. Thomas shakes his head.

"Nope, it's not roots," he says. “It's possession. You have a possession of your mother. It's my mom, my dad. And when you go into your house, it's my home. It's not her home. It's mine, too.”

“I envy families,” Thomas says. “I get mad at my kids if they fight. The feeling that you don’t have without a family. … I envy people who have families, who have a mother and a father. They should really take care of that.”

Dave Thomas was born in Atlantic City, the son of a woman named Molly and a man named Sam. The two never married. Molly, whose parents were Orthodox Jews, put her infant son up for adoption, with instructions that he not be raised Jewish. A Michigan couple adopted him six months later.

Dave Thomas's first memory comes five years later. He was at his adoptive grandmother's house in Michigan, and Auleva Thomas, the woman he knew as his real mother, was dying. Rex Thomas, the man he knew as his father, wasn't around.

"She died when I was 5. It's the first thing I remember remembering,” Thomas says. “It's like you just come to one day. I think her dying really brought me alive."

Auleva Thomas and her mother, Minnie Sinclair, are about all Thomas remembers good about his childhood. Rex Thomas was everything else. Thomas could have lived forever with Minnie Sinclair, the only adult who liked him as a child. But shortly after Auleva died, Rex Thomas “just sort of showed up one day. 

Dave Thomas is kind to his late adoptive father today, kinder than are the stepsisters he acquired when Rex remarried. Thomas doesn’t mention the beatings his stepsisters swear to, or the way everybody froze when Rex walked in the door. Thomas does say that his father moved a lot, remarried a lot and had little to say.

Thomas’ stepmothers came quickly, Marie about a year after Auleva died, Viola about four years later. Thomas didn’t like Marie. “I didn’t like to be around her. She wasn’t glad to see me, and I wasn’t glad to see her.” Viola was better. She had two daughters close to Thomas’ age.

Thomas was 10 by then. Shy by nature, he’d taught himself how to make friends but had no way of keeping them. The family moved too often, sometimes three times in one year. At home, he was at best tolerated. At 10, Thomas already knew two things. He was on his own. And he’d own a hamburger stand one day.

Food leaps off the pages of Thomas’ autobiography. It starts when he was knee-high, following his grandmother to her restaurant job, and continues through the latest menu change at Wendy’s. Thomas can remember what he ordered at a Detroit grill when he was 9—a hamburger with mustard, pickle and fried onions.

It was always restaurant food. Scour Thomas’ book for a home-cooked meal memory and you’ll find exactly one.

During the time between Marie and Viola, Thomas—lonely, shy, increasingly solitary—finally had his father to himself. The two ate only in restaurants and, to the boy Thomas, it was the best of times. Rex Thomas would eat in silence. Dave Thomas would twist in his chair and watch the other families talk and eat. He looked forward to those evenings above all things. 

"It was a substitution for other things, I suppose," Thomas shrugs now. "There's something about eating, about the family tradition of eating together. People, when they eat, are happy." 

Thomas's own family would fall apart for good three years after his father married Viola. Thomas was 13 when Minnie Sinclair told him the truth. He was adopted. Thomas was mad.

"It was like no one trusted me,” Thomas says now. “My adoptive dad didn't tell me. Everybody had known but me. I lost respect for my adoptive dad. I resented him."

"I don't know if, in them days, people really told before that," Thomas says. “I would have told before. I would have. But maybe, if you're adopted, it's something you didn't go around talking about. We were already always moving. I was always the new kid. And the other kids, you know. It would have been, 'He doesn't even have his own mother and father.' ” 

“Adoption meant you were really an outcast. I wasn't proud of it. I wasn't proud that I'd never seen my mother and father, that I'd been born out of wedlock. I'm still not proud of it. The problem is, that's the way it is.” 

When Thomas learned he was adopted, it was over. He was a boy without a family, period. From that day on, he had one foot out the door. The career of R. David Thomas was launched.

It wasn't quite that simple, of course. He was only 13. But he'd begun landing jobs at 12. At first, he lost them as fast as he landed them. He still remembers his father's fist slamming on the kitchen table the night Dave lost a job at Walgreen's. Finally, Thomas landed and kept a job at the Regas Restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee. It put him about where he wanted to be in his career just then.

“People ask me, 'Did you really think all that at that age?’ ”Thomas says. “And the bottom line is, I did. Life had brought me very little. And I had no family. And I had to think about something."

"I made a decision at a young age about how I was going to take care of myself," Thomas says.

The job became Thomas's family. “I was ashamed of the way we lived," he says. “I didn't like it. I wanted a fantasy. The restaurant, for me, was a different way of life. I mean, I couldn't wait to get to work."

At work, people liked him. Thomas nabbed his first mentor at the Regas, then his second and third. The fantasy ended briefly when his family moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana. But he found a new restaurant, the Hobby House, and a new mentor, Phil Clauss, and, when the family moved again a year later, he stayed put.

In the years afterward, things would fall apart for Rex. Thomas and his new family. Donna Roberts, one of Viola's daughters, remembers Rex Thomas as "big and dark and mean," a wife beater and a child beater. Viola divorced Rex Thomas a few years after Dave Thomas left. Rex Thomas retaliated by kidnapping the couple's youngest daughter.

In the five years it took Viola to find her daughter, says Roberts, the family neither knew nor cared to know where Dave Thomas was. They assumed he'd gone to live with his grandmother, though they had doubts. Rex Thomas, says Roberts, was too mean-spirited to let his adoptive son live where he was happy.

Where Dave Thomas really was those years was at work. The 14-year-old Thomas did little else. It would be years before he'd understand what friends were for, even more years before he understood leisure time. When he went into the Army at 17, it was planned, a career move, he writes in his book.

He made the most of it. He was a staff sergeant by 18, assistant manager at the Enlisted Men's Club just months later. True to form, Thomas did nothing else. When he left Germany, he'd seen none of the rest of Europe and had made no real friends.

Back in Fort Wayne, Thomas met and married Lorraine Buskirk in 1954. A year later, the couple's first child, Pam, was born. Kenny Thomas was born a year later. Dave Thomas was a Hobby House manager now, making $75 a week. Thomas needed a lucky break.

Thomas is the first to admit he didn't recognize his golden egg when it showed up. It came in the form of Col. Harland Sanders, a 65-year-old oddball with a goatee, mustache, string tie and white suit. Thomas heard of Sanders through his boss, Phil Clauss, and thought he was a con man.

Sanders had discovered a faster way to fry chicken. Instead of frying it, then steaming it in the oven, Sanders did both at one time in a pressure cooker. And he was willing to teach anybody how, for the price of the cooker, some secret spices and a nickel for each chicken sold.

Thomas didn't like chicken. And he hated the idea of losing all those nickels to Sanders. Two months later, he met Sanders, tried the chicken and knew he'd been wrong. Dave Thomas was about to make more money than he'd ever dreamed.

Thomas and Clauss got their first KFC franchise in 1956. They soared with it. Thomas and Clauss pioneered take-out Kentucky Fried Chicken and the famous chicken bucket.

They were wild years. Sanders, says Thomas, "knew how to get your attention and it was mostly by cussing you out. He thought profanity was very bad. He hated it. But he couldn't help himself. It got your attention. He was kind of a showman." 

"Once he got your attention, it was different," Thomas says. “He'd be all nice, and it was 'Honey, this' and 'Honey, that.' He used the word 'honey' very loosely, for both men and women."

Thomas continued to collect mentors. Kenny King, of Kenny King restaurants in Cleveland, was a big one. Thomas met him in the late '50s. He decided to be just like King, to try harder, get richer, buy nice things for his family, just like King.

King was one of the Thomas mentors who said he was crazy when he made the move to Columbus. Some Hobby House franchises, in which Phil Clauss was a big investor, were on their last legs in Columbus. Thomas was to bail them out. The restaurants served Kentucky Fried Chicken, among other things. But even Sanders himself thought the idea was nuts; the franchises were too far gone. King just thought the whole fast-food take-out idea was a fad.

Thomas did it anyway, under a complicated deal with Clauss. Clauss paid the franchises $250,000 debt. In return, Thomas was to turn them into money makers. If and when Thomas repaid the $250,000, he would get 40 percent of the business for $65.

The business, of course, was what would become the Columbus franchise for Kentucky Fried Chicken. In January, 1962, Thomas moved to Columbus. Things were so bad that even Colonel Sanders's spices came COD.

Thomas fired everybody in sight, painted the walls, renamed the restaurants Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken, and put up large rotating buckets for the restaurant signs. He turned the restaurants around, paid Clauss the $250,000, got his 40 percent share of the business. By 1968, the 35 year-old Dave Thomas had a net worth of $1 million, a high-level job with Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a new swimming pool, shaped like a chicken.

It wouldn't last. Thomas's falling out with the Kentucky Fried Chicken people was almost inevitable. Eventually, it would hang on a stock deal gone bad. As Thomas tells it, he got suckered by a KFC boss into selling stock for far less than it was worth. Thomas quit, hired attorney F. Lee Bailey, sued to get his stock back and won. He was 37, rich, and jobless.

In the months after leaving Kentucky Fried Chicken, Thomas took a job with Arthur Treacher's, sold stock for cash and dreamed of hamburgers. 

Len Immke remembers. Immke met Thomas when Thomas came in to buy a Buick at Immke's Broad Street dealership. The two hit it off. “We were both hamburger freaks," says Immke.

Thomas and Immke would work out at the Athletic Club, then sit in the steam room drinking pitchers of beer. Thomas talked hamburgers as though they were an art form. He'd tasted McDonald's burger and thought, "It was zero." Thomas could do better, he'd tell Immke. Hamburgers are a question of proportion, and fresh ingredients, and fresh preparation, and …

Thomas believed there was a market for a quality fast-food hamburger, one that was bigger than the others, one that didn't sit under heat lamps, one like the ones Thomas had when he was little. Thomas thought people would pay a little extra for a burger like that. And despite the fact that every marketing study around thought McDonald's and Burger King had the burger market locked up, Thomas believed the time was right. "Quality” was about to become a buzzword of the times. Thomas knew it.

As Thomas tells it, Immke donated the space at Broad and Fifth streets, next to his Buick dealership, just to shut him up. Immke says he did it because Thomas' hamburgers sounded good, because he wanted them nearby and because of a pent-up lunch demand Downtown.

“We had to sit down and figure how much either one of us could afford to lose," says Immke. "We knew it would lose money for a while. But it didn't."

In November, 1969, Wendy's was born. The name was a nickname for his 8-year-old, red-headed daughter, Melinda. The real Wendy attended the opening with wires stuck in her pigtails.

Wendy's early growth was careful. A year after the first store opened, Thomas opened a second in Upper Arlington. It was a calculated risk, meant to find out whether Wendy's success was a fluke of the underserved Downtown lunch market.

The second Wendy's had rough going. There was a time when Thomas met payroll out of his personal savings. But the store worked, eventually. Ron Musick and Bob Barney jumped ship from Arthur Treacher's to Wendy's. The four partners—Thomas, Immke, Musick and Barney—and their wives headed to the bank for their first loan. All eight had to co-sign individually.

In 1971, it was time for another experiment—two new Wendy's in less ritzy neighborhoods. Wendy's prices were clearly higher than McDonald's. Again, it was a risk. But the two new Wendy's—on Livingston Avenue and on Sullivant Avenue—broke sales records immediately. Even people without much money would pay more for Thomas' burgers. That, according to Thomas, was when he and his partners knew they had something big.

In 1972, Thomas opened the first out-of-state Wendy's in Indianapolis and finally quit his Arthur Treacher's job. He kept building. Wendy's stock went public in 1975, which helped fuel massive franchise expansions.

The competition fought back, of course. McDonald's and Burger King latched on to Thomas' key idea almost immediately, adding bigger burgers to their menus. Burger King started its “Have it your way" campaign, adopting Thomas's "choice of toppings" idea. Everybody, in other words, "started moving into Dave's niche,” current Wendy's CEO Jim Near says.

Wendy's fought back with some of the most innovative ideas in the business, like the hot stuffed baked potato, and like the 1980 salad bar, a proposal Thomas thought was just plain dumb.

The idea flew against his strongest conviction—restaurants should focus on a few things and do them well. But the salad bar was wildly successful. It was what made Thomas decide to withdraw from Wendy's day-to-day decision making, Thomas told Forbes magazine this summer. "I thought it was the best time to back off and let other people who were smarter than me do things," Thomas said to Forbes. In 1982, after working nonstop for 38 years, Dave Thomas gave up his CEO title, though he remained Wendy's senior chairman.

Thomas, then 50, was light years away from his beginnings. The little hamburger stand was now Wendy's International Inc., a 3,000-plus international chain, the fourth-largest fast food chain in the world. Thomas was rich, with five houses around the country, and influential: He hobnobbed with former Gov. James Rhodes, knew Ronald Reagan, had flown in Air Force One. His name even came up as a possible gubernatorial candidate once.

As a semi-retiree, Thomas did what one does. He relaxed, golfed, invested in things. He also got bored. But it wouldn't be long before his company would need him again. 

In 1984, Wendy's saw its biggest year ever, spurred by the famous Clara Peller "Where's the Beef” ads. But there were problems and they soon got worse. Buoyed by the ad, Wendy's had gotten cocky, according to Thomas. Quality control got shoddy. A breakfast menu was disastrous. Sales and stock prices slipped.

Thomas kept an eye on it and, in 1989, asked company president Jim Near to replace the retiring Bob Barney as chief executive officer. Near then asked Thomas back, to lend a foundation to the back-to-basics changes Near wanted to launch.

The Wendy's bust is over now. Near added lower-priced menu items, moving into the competition's niche. And he tightened quality control. This year, the company saw a 25 percent increase in sales and is considering further expansion. Near gives a large share of the credit to Thomas.

"He's the Santa Claus of the system," says Near. "It's been unbelievable. He's absolutely a gem to work with."

And Thomas could do ads. The company was flailing around for a new spokesman by then. Even Paul Harvey's name came up.

Then, says Near, “We got to thinking we're maybe the only major company in the business that has its own founder available. And he's just so good, and so genuine."

The early Dave commercials were fairly straight. Thomas would offer a money-back guarantee, period. He got panned. “A steer in a half-sleeved shirt," was Advertising Age's caustic description; the paper lambasted his wooden delivery. 

"At that point, I'll be honest with you, it wasn't clear then that this was going to work,” says Wendy's marketing director Charlie Rath. Some parts worked, like Thomas' visible and ultimately endearing discomfort in front of a camera. But the campaign didn't gel, says Rath, until they added "Wendy," an off-screen voice admonishing her dad to get "with it.” 

Dave Thomas, when placed in almost any modern situation, ended up funny. There was Bran Puff Dave—Thomas at a ritzy party with weird food, longing for a hamburger. There was Nouvelle Cuisine Dave—Thomas with a skimpy plate of pricey food, longing for a hamburger. There was the one where Thomas says "Howdy, dude" to a teen-age kid. (It was Thomas's idea. The original script gave the "Howdy, dude” line to the kid.) And there's Thomas in sweats, strolling in the background of a muscle-bound workout club, lifting tiny weights and longing for a burger. People "got a smile," as Rath puts it.

People identified, even when Thomas was talking about things he himself couldn't possibly identify with; one commercial has him introducing a chicken fried steak just like his Mom used to make.

The campaign is now in its third year, and corporate-wise, the commercials have been gold. Rath researched it recently, putting a picture of Thomas in shopping malls around the country. Twenty-three percent of those polled knew him with no hints whatsoever. Sixty percent knew him if told he did commercials.

Thomas's friends love the commercials. “He is the man in those commercials," says Immke. "I told him he's a born ham actor. He's just a big kid. In his own way, he's funny. I like the one where they wake him up in bed, and say, 'If you do this, they will come,' and he says, "They will?”

If Immke thinks the commercials are real, the real Wendy, Thomas's daughter, is doubtful. “Isn't that terrible?” says the real Wendy of the off screen ultra-hip valley-girl Wendy in the TV spots. “I'm not a bimbo. I'm not at all like that, which is sad. I'm 30 now. I'm too old for that." 

Thomas's family, his wife, Lorraine, and his kids—Pam, Kenny, Molly, Wendy and Lori—are the other half of his life. The family is grown now. Wendy, now Wendy Morse, is a Wendy's franchisee in Texas. Pam heads Mayor Dana Rinehart's volunteer office, Lori is a student, Molly is a homemaker, and Kenny is an entrepreneur. 

Dave Thomas is proud of his family. He dedicates his book to "that unshakeable bond called The Thomas Family." His kids' version is that the unshakeable bond is pretty recent, that they hardly knew Thomas as kids.

“He was always at work," says daughter Wendy Morse. “And when he was home, he was very strict. He was overly strict for never being around. I didn't know him then. He never came to my school. I'm not even sure he knew where my school was."

"I used to be jealous of parents where both the father and mother were at home for dinner," Morse says. "I used to wish that, as a family, we could have gone on a picnic."

Pam Farber, Thomas's eldest daughter, remembers the same usually-absent father Wendy does. Some of it, says Farber, was necessary, the cost of building what Dave Thomas built. And some of it, she says, was just Thomas. Rex Thomas was all the father he'd ever known. Dave Thomas didn't know what to do with kids.

Both daughters say things have changed, especially since Thomas backed out of the day-to-day operations at Wendy's.

"Maybe it was better this way," says Morse. “Maybe if we'd had a better relationship then, it would have been more difficult now. Actually, it's turned out great. We get to learn about him now, about how he really did miss out on childhood."

It was Farber who took on the big family project, a first-ever Dave Thomas family reunion. The reunion happened July 4. 

Thomas had tried to trace his real family himself once. He found and tried to call his birth mother six months after she died. When Farber began digging, her father was somewhat helpful and a lot wary. Today, Thomas talks happily about what his daughter found. At the time, says Farber, he was scared. He didn't know who his father was. He wasn't sure he wanted to.

Dave Thomas's real father is dead, though Farber did reach his family. "They were absolutely shocked," she says. “They said, 'Why are you calling us? What do you want? We have nothing.’ " 

Dave Thomas's real dad was "just a wonderful father, the best father a kid could have," says Farber. “That made my Dad feel better. I think he was scared of that."

Thomas wasn't the only one scared. Donna Roberts, Viola's daughter, says she and her sisters thought often about calling their former stepbrother. "But we were scared," says Roberts. “We didn't know if he'd want to open up that can of worms. We had all put it behind us, closed the door on that part of our lives." 

Thomas sprang for dinner the night his new family arrived, dinner at the Broad Street Wendy's. The reunion could have been painful but it wasn't, for the most part. Thomas' newfound family did what other families do. They told embarrassing kid stories on each other. It was a first for Thomas, and his kids ate it up.

"They kept asking, and we kept telling, and Dave was standing there laughing," says Donna Roberts.. "He kept saying, 'You don't have to tell everything.' ” 

The reunion also could have been angry. It wasn't, partly because Thomas isn't. 

Thomas still shakes his head over what his stepsisters said that day. They told him he'd been abused.

"I think people go overboard on this abuse stuff," he says. “My family situation was really cold. But he didn't have to keep me.”

This story originally appeared in the October 1991 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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