The Los Angeles Times
Dave Thomas, the folksy founder of Wendy”s Old-Fashioned Hamburgers who parlayed his discerning taste for good food and friendly service and an innate knack for talking to people from their television sets into one of the world”s most successful fast-food chains, died yesterday. He was 69.
Thomas, an adoptee who over the past decade waged an aggressive campaign to promote adoption in America, died in his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home of liver cancer, company spokesmen said. Thomas had been undergoing kidney dialysis since early last year and had quadruple heart bypass surgery five years ago after suffering a major heart attack.
Born in Atlantic City to unwed parents, Thomas was quickly adopted but lost his new mother to rheumatic fever when he was only 5. His construction-worker father introduced him to three successive stepmothers and a dozen homes before he was 15. Given those unusual beginnings, R. David Thomas seemed an unlikely candidate to become an internationally recognized restaurant tycoon.
Yet at his death he remained what Wendy”s chairman Jack Schuessler called “the heart and soul of our company” which has 6,000 restaurants around the world and, with its Canadian subsidiary Tim Hortons, has sales of more than $8 billion a year.
By the time the high-school dropout finally earned his high school equivalency diploma in 1993, his classmates had good reason to vote him “most likely to succeed.”
Two lessons from Thomas” peripatetic early lifestyle set him on his course, he said in three autobiographical books, the 1991 “Dave”s Way: A New Approach to Old-Fashioned Success,” the 1994 “Well Done: Dave”s Secret Recipe for Everyday Success” and the 2000 “Franchising for Dummies.”
First, his adoptive maternal grandmother Minnie Sinclair, the only relative who gave him any sense of security, taught him to value hard work as a pleasurable “constant companion.”
Second, his frequent visits to cheap eateries with his father made him decide, he wrote, “to own my own restaurant because I liked to eat, and I just thought restaurants were really neat, exciting places.”
Thomas worked odd jobs as a boy, delivering groceries, jerking sodas and then tending a restaurant counter. At 15, he began working as a busboy at the Hobby House restaurant in Fort Wayne, Ind., and when his dad decided to pull up stakes once again, Thomas declared himself emancipated and moved into the YMCA.
His boss, Phil Clauss, became a mentor and, after Thomas served as an Army cook in West Germany during the Korean War, promoted him to assistant manager of his newest restaurant. It was in Fort Wayne that Thomas met another mentor, Col. Harland Sanders, who stopped by to promote his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises.
Clauss acquired four of the KFC franchises in Columbus, Ohio, and when they did poorly sent Thomas to turn them around in exchange for 45 percent ownership. Thomas succeeded, and in 1968 sold his interest back to KFC for $1 million in stock.
A year later, he established his own company, opening the first Wendy”s in Columbus on Nov. 15, 1969. The name was the nickname of his then 8-year-old daughter Melinda Lou.