Dave Thomas was born on July 2, 1932 in Atlantic City, New Jersey to a young unmarried woman he never knew. He was adopted at 6 weeks by Rex and Auleva Thomas, and as an adult became a well-known advocate for adoption, founding the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. After his adoptive mother’s death when he was 5, his father moved around the country seeking work. Thomas spent some of his early childhood near Kalamazoo, Michigan with his grandmother, Minnie Sinclair, who he credited with teaching him the importance of service and treating others well and with respect, lessons that helped him in his future business life. At 12, Thomas got his first job at Regas Restaurant, a fine dining restaurant in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, then lost it in a dispute with his boss; decades later, Regas Restaurant installed a large autographed poster-photo of Thomas just inside their entrance until the business closed down December 31, 2010. He vowed never to lose another job. Moving with his father, by 15 he was working in Fort Wayne, Indiana at the Hobby House Restaurant owned by the Clauss family. When his father prepared to move again, Dave decided to stay in Fort Wayne, dropping out of high school to work full-time at the restaurant. Thomas, who considered ending his schooling the greatest mistake of his life, did not graduate from high school until 1993, when he obtained a GED. He subsequently became an education advocate and founded the Dave Thomas Education Center in Coconut Creek, Florida, which offers GED classes to young adults.
In the mid-1950s, Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Col. Harland Sanders came to Fort Wayne to find restaurateurs with established businesses in order to try to sell KFC franchises to them. At first, Thomas, who was the head cook at a restaurant, and the Clausses declined Sanders’ offer, but the Colonel persisted and the Clauss family franchised their restaurant with KFC and later also owned many other KFC franchises in the Midwest. During this time, Thomas worked with Sanders on many projects to make KFC more profitable and to give it brand recognition. Among other things Thomas suggested to Sanders that were implemented: KFC’s signature chicken bucket (to keep the chicken crisp), reduce the number of items on the menu, focus on a signature dish. Thomas also suggested Sanders make commercials that he appear in himself. Thomas was sent by the Clauss family in the mid-1960s to help turn around four failing KFC stores they owned in Columbus, Ohio. By 1968 Thomas 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. This experience would prove invaluable to Thomas when he began Wendy’s about a year later.
Thomas opened his first Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio, November 15, 1969. (This original restaurant remained operational until March 2, 2007, when it was closed due to lagging sales.) Thomas named the restaurant after his eight-year-old daughter Melinda Lou, whose nickname was “Wendy”, stemming from the child’s inability to say her own name at a young age. According to Bio TV, Dave claims himself that people nicknamed his daughter “Wenda. Not Wendy, but Wenda. ‘I’m going to call it Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers’.” In 1982, Thomas resigned from his day-to-day operations at Wendy’s. However, by 1985, several company business decisions, including an awkward new breakfast menu and loss in brand awareness due to fizzled marketing efforts, caused the company’s new president to urge Thomas back into a more active role with Wendy’s. Thomas began to visit franchises and espouse his hardworking, so-called “mop-bucket attitude.” In 1989, he took on a significant role as the TV spokesperson in a series of commercials for the brand. Thomas was not a natural actor, and initially, his performances were criticized as stiff and ineffective by advertising critics.
By 1990, after efforts by Wendy’s agency, Backer Spielvolgel Bates, to get humor into the campaign, a decision was made to portray Thomas in a more self-deprecating and folksy manner, which proved much more popular with test audiences. Consumer brand awareness of Wendy’s eventually regained levels it had not achieved since octogenarian Clara Peller’s wildly popular “Where’s the beef?” campaign of 1984. With his natural self-effacing style and his relaxed manner, Thomas quickly became a household name. A company survey during the 1990s, a decade during which Thomas starred in every Wendy’s commercial that aired, found that 90% of Americans knew who Thomas was. After more than 800 commercials, it was clear that Thomas played a major role in Wendy’s status as the country’s third most popular burger restaurant. In 1994, Thomas made a cameo appearance as himself in Bionic Ever After?, a reunion TV movie based upon The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman.
Thomas had been battling Carcinoid Cancer (AKA Neuroendocrine Tumor) since the 1990s, the disease had metastasized to his liver. He died on January 8, 2002 at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the age of 69. Thomas was buried in Union Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. At the time of his death, there were more than 6,000 Wendy’s restaurants operating in North America.
- July, 02, 1932
- Atlantic City, New Jersey
- January, 08, 2002
- Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Cause of Death
- carcinoid cancer
- Union, Cemetery
- Columbus, Ohio