Rex David “Dave” Thomas (July 2, 1932 – January 8, 2002) was an American business magnate and philanthropist. Thomas was the founder and chief executive officer of Wendy’s, a fast-food restaurant chain specializing in hamburgers. He is also known for appearing in more than 800 commercial advertisements for the chain from 1989 to 2002, more than any other company founder in television history.
Thomas was born on July 2, 1932 in Atlantic City, New Jersey to a young unmarried woman he never knew. He was adopted at six 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, whom 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 had 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.
At the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, rather than waiting for the draft, he volunteered for the U.S. Army to have some choice in assignments. Having food production and service experience, Thomas requested the Cook’s and Baker’s School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was sent to Germany as a mess sergeant and was responsible for the daily meals of 2000 soldiers, rising to the rank of staff sergeant. After his discharge in 1953, Thomas returned to Fort Wayne and the Hobby House.
Fast food career
Kentucky Fried Chicken
In the mid-1950s, Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Col. Harland Sanders came to Fort Wayne to find restauranteurs 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 Sanders 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, was that KFC reduce the number of items on the menu and 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.
After serving as a regional director for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Thomas became part of the investor group which founded Arthur Treacher’s. His involvement with the new restaurant lasted less than a year before he went on to found Wendy’s.
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.
Dave Thomas was married for 47 years to Lorraine. She is the mother of their five children. Besides Melinda they had three daughters, Pam, Lori and Molly, and a son, Kenny. Though Kenny died in 2013, Dave’s daughters still continue to own and run multiple Wendy’s locations. Thomas founded the chain Sisters Chicken and Biscuits in 1978, named in reference to his other 3 daughters.
Honors and memberships
Thomas, realizing that his success as a high school dropout might convince other teenagers to quit school (something he later claimed was a mistake), became a student at Coconut Creek High School. He earned a GED in 1993. Thomas was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1999.
Thomas was an honorary Kentucky colonel, as was former boss Colonel Sanders.
Thomas was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003.
Thomas was raised a Master Mason in Sol. D. Bayless Lodge No. 359 of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and became a 32° Mason, N.M.J., on November 16, 1961, in the Scottish Rite Bodies of Fort Wayne. He affiliated with the Miami, Florida, Scottish Rite Bodies on December 18, 1991; was invested with the Rank and Decoration of Knight Commander Court of Honor on November 13, 1993, in Jacksonville, Florida; and was coroneted an Inspector General Honorary, S.J., on November 25, 1995, in Atlanta, Georgia, and unanimously elected to the Scottish Rite’s highest honor, the Grand Cross, by The Supreme Council, 33°, in Executive Session on October 3, 1997, in Washington, D.C.
Thomas had been battling a carcinoid neuroendocrine tumor for ten years, before it 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.