The history of Wendy’s began with the dream of one man: Dave Thomas. Born in 1932 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, he was adopted at birth by Rex and Auleva Thomas. When Dave was 5 years old his adoptive mother died, and he spent a great deal of time with his grandmother while his father traveled around the country looking for work. At the age of 12, Dave found work at The Regas, a restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee. He lost the job, but this experience would have a lasting impact on him and his dream of starting up his own restaurant.
History of Wendy’s – The Beginning
After Dave lost his job at The Regis he got another job at Walgreens as a soda jerk, but that didn’t last either after his boss found out he was not yet 16 years old. These setbacks didn’t deter Dave, however, and when he was 15 he and his father ended up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Dave landed a job at the Hobby House Restaurant. His family would relocate but Dave stayed behind to continue working at the Hobby House Restaurant, dropping out of high school in the process.
At the age of 18 he joined the Army and when he came back resumed working at the Hobby House Restaurant. In 1956 Dave, together with his boss Phil Clauss, inaugurated The Ranch House Restaurant and it was at this point that he first met Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the three entered into an agreement and Dave ended up owning four KFC restaurants. During this time, the KFC branches were struggling, and Sanders, impressed with Dave’s work at the Hobby House restaurant, offered him a business partnership deal if he could turn them around. Not only did Dave manage to make a profit with the restaurants, but he made enough money to open more restaurants.
In 1968, at the age of 35, Dave sold his KFC restaurants back to Kentucky Fried Chicken and the following year, finally realized his long-cherished dream of opening his very own restaurant. In 1969, Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburger Restaurant was opened in Columbus, Ohio.
Open for Business
Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers was named after Dave’s daughter Melinda “Wendy” Thomas, and the place immediately got the attention of the industry because they provided made to order burgers with fresh meat. In addition, the company gained a reputation for providing high-quality food at competitive prices. While Wendy’s was (and is) best known for its hamburgers, their restaurant also offered choices for health-conscious people such as the salad bar beginning in 1979.
And to further diversify the offerings, Wendy’s restaurants added potato entrees, chili, chicken sandwiches, French Fries, the Frosty and an assortment of beverages. Wendy’s doesn’t have a signature sandwich but is instead best known for their square burger patties. Dave came up with the idea of using square patties after his visit to Kewpee Hamburgers in Kalamazoo, Michigan where they were used.
Following the opening of the first Wendy’s restaurant in 1969, he opened another one within a year in Columbus and other branches began appearing throughout the United States. On September 23, 1975, Wendy’s inaugurated its first branch in Hamilton, Canada and then throughout the rest of the world.
After its successes in the 1970s, Wendy’s restaurants began to struggle during the early 1980s due to stiff competition. To counter this, the company embarked on a new marketing and advertising campaign using Clara Peller, an elderly actress in their “Where’s the Beef?” commercial campaign. These commercials, aired in 1984, proved so successful that the expression “Where’s the beef?” became part of American pop culture.
In 1989 Dave Thomas himself began appearing in Wendy’s commercials. Thomas had actually resigned from his day to day work at Wendy’s in 1982, but was persuaded by the company president to take a more active role, which was how he ended up in their ads. Beginning in 1989 Dave began to appear in a series of Wendy’s commercials, extolling the virtues of their products. Later ads depicted Dave in a more folksy and self-deprecating manner which clicked with customers.
By the 1990s Dave had become a household name, as he had appeared in more than 800 commercials and these helped boost the popularity of Wendy’s restaurants to levels not seen since the “Where’s the beef?” commercials aired. A survey conducted by the company during the 1990s showed that 90% of Americans knew who he was.
Growth and Expansion
December 1995 has become a significant part of the history of Wendy’s when the company announced a merger with Tim Hortons, a fresh baked goods and coffee chain with more than 1,900 units, most of them in Canada, and on January 29, 2006, the company relocated its headquarters to Dublin, Ohio. Two years later in 2008, Wendy’s announced a merger with Triarc, the company that runs Arby’s Restaurant Group, which is the second biggest sandwich chain in the US. After Triarc bought Wendy’s, the name was changed to the Wendy’s/Arby’s Group. Three years after the merger, Wendy’s announced that the two companies would split and the company sold its stake in the Arby chain Roark Capital Group while keeping an 18.5% stake.
Today, Wendy’s is the third largest burger fast food chain in the world with more than 6,500 locations. The company currently has more than 57,000 employees with assets of more than $9.45 billion. Around 77% of its restaurants are franchised, and while most are in North America, they have franchises around the world as well. Wendy’s sets the standards for the menu, food quality, and exterior store appearance, but individual owners have the freedom to choose the hours of operations, staff salary, pricing and interior decoration.
Dave Thomas died of cancer on January 8, 2002, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the age 69 and was buried in Union Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. What is today one of the world’s most recognizable and successful fast food chains began as the dream of one simple man. As the history of Wendy’s shows, he was able to bring his vision to fruition, to the delight of millions of people around the world.