From High School Drop Out To Hero
There’s a lot of talk about what it takes to succeed in America. Within that talk are discussions on being born on the right side of the tracks, getting a good education, and never dropping out of high school. Statistics show that those born into a stable family and finish high school on time have a much higher probability of success compared to their counterparts. But what if I showed you the story of a man who was adopted, grew up relatively poor, dropped out of high school, and got fired from multiple jobs, who would find the inner tenacity and grit to form the third largest hamburger chain in the world?
Dave Thomas was loved, cheered, and stood tall as a role model to aspiring entrepreneurs and philanthropists worldwide. For this article, I will detail the inspirational story of Dave Thomas.
Never Cut Corners
Dave Thomas was born on Saturday, July 2, 1932 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Dave was adopted by Rex and Auleva Thomas soon after his birth and according to various accounts, Dave Thomas never met his birth mother. When Dave was just five years old, Auleva died near Kalamazoo, Michigan. When Rex left to seek work opportunities, Dave was sent to live with his adoptive grandmother Minnie Thomas in Maine. It was while living with Minnie that Dave says he was taught the value of customer service, respect, and the mantra of “never cut corners”, the latter of which would go on to explain why Dave’s eventual successful hamburger concept would be shaped in squares.
Finding His Passion
Between ages 12 and 21, Dave would eventually move back in with father as they relocated to Fort Wayne, Indiana. While in Fort Wayne, Dave would try his hand in various restaurant roles. Dave was fired from some of the positions due to management disputes, amongst other issues, but showed dedication to the restaurant industry and didn’t allow the temporary setback to deter his passion. Dave was so dedicated that he completely dropped out of high school to focus full-time on restaurant duties. In addition, when the Korean War started, Dave enlisted in the Army and served in a major food service role, helping to feed thousands of U.S. soldiers during that time period.
Two Eventual Fast Food Icons Emerge
When Dave returned home from serving in the Korean War in the mid-1950’s, he returned back to Hobby House, one of the restaurants he worked at previously in Fort Wayne. It was during this time that he ran into Colonel Sanders, who at the time was in the midst of trying to sell his KFC franchise across the country. Colonel Sanders eventually got the owners of Hobby House to franchise some of his chicken restaurants, which gave Dave the opportunity to work alongside The Colonel.
However, some of the franchises began to struggle with sales and The Colonel made Dave an offer that if he could help turn around the stores, he would be awarded equity interest.
By the late 1960’s, Dave had increased sales at the franchise stores and on the side, helped The Colonel increase KFC branding/marketing efforts. This success inspired Dave to finally branch out on his own with an innovative burger concept, selling back to The Colonel his KFC franchise ownership interest (reportedly around $1.5 million) and using the capital to help launch his own enterprise.
Wendy’s Is Born With Rapid Growth
At first, Dave struggled with what to name his burger concept and eventually settled in on the nickname of one of his daughters, Melinda Lou Thomas. Melinda’s nickname was “Wendy” because at the time (being only seven or eight years old) she struggled to pronounce her full name and was instead provided with the “Wendy” nickname. Dave decided to name his business “Wendy’s” and opened the first restaurant on Saturday, November 15, 1969 in Columbus, Ohio with the tagline “Quality Is Our Recipe”
From 1970 to 1982, the Wendy’s operations grew rapidly to over 1,000 units. This rapid growth was due in part to Dave revolutionizing the “Pick-Up Window” concept, using fresh meat for their burgers, introducing a full salad bar, introducing a 99 cents Super Value Menu, and revolutionizing the way franchises were sold by selling them in bulk to cities/regions, rather than as individual units.
Dave would go on to retire from Wendy’s in 1982, and during Dave’s absence the brand began experiencing various operational issues. The new leadership’s direction hurt the company’s branding, hurt its franchising direction, and created a new menu that wasn’t positively received from the public. All of these circumstances led to decreased sales across the board and a dramatic slowdown in franchising. As a result, the new leadership eventually caved in and urged Dave to return to the company in the late 1980s to save the brand and put it back on the growth track.
Super Dave Saves The Day
Dave’s first order of business was to visit franchisees suggesting that they acquire an “M.B.A.”, which in this case didn’t stand for Master of Business Administration, but instead stood for “mop bucket attitude”.
It was an attitude of putting the customers first and serving them eagerly as if your last dollar depended on it. It was a shift back in mindset to creating an operation that put the customers at the center of the decisions being made, including that of the menu listings.
In addition, Dave would begin his nationwide commercial campaigns that would eventually lead not to just putting the Wendy’s brand and operations back on the growth track, but to Dave becoming a beloved international role model and celebrity. Many of the successful commercials featured Dave himself, while others either solely or guest featured various entertainers, such as Clara Peller with the popular “Where’s The Beef?” campaign. Dave would continue to lead the Wendy’s brand from the late 1980’s until the time of his death on Tuesday, January 8, 2002. Today in 2018, Wendy’s has over 6,500 locations globally and is the third largest hamburger chain, trailing only McDonald’s and Burger King.
Dave’s legacy lives on, not just through the ultra-success of the Wendy’s brand, but also through Dave’s books, speeches, and motivational material on entrepreneurial success. In addition, Dave’s passion for both education and adoption still serves as a major community development tool to this day.
In 1993, despite having dropped out of high school prior, Dave went back to Coconut Creek High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to receive his G.E.D. and then went on to establish the Thomas Center at Duke University, along with the Enterprise Ambassador Program at Nova University. Both programs focuses on business related education.
Dave wanted to leave a legacy that would help foster kids find quality parents for adoption, so in 1992 he created The Dave Thomas Foundation For Adoption. Dave’s passion for adoption was also taken to Washington and sparked the creation of bills related to giving tax credits to parents who adopt foster children.
There’s No One To Stop You But Yourself
Dave was a visionary, a patriot, a leader, a role model, and an inspiration. The legacy of Dave Thomas will live on forever in the hearts and minds of every entrepreneur who opens a business with the goal of customer service and community development at the forefront. While Dave went through hardships early on in life, he didn’t allow his passion to be deterred along the way. Dave’s story is a testament to just how far tenacity can take you as an entrepreneur. In his own words, “You can do what you want to do. You can be what you want to be. There’s no one to stop you but yourself.”
This article was originally written on July 18, 2018 and updated on February 2, 2021.