Born Rex David (Dave) Thomas on July 2, 1932, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, he never knew the unmarried women who was his biological mother. Thomas was adopted by Rex and Auleva Thomas when he was extremely young. Dave Thomas’ adopted mother died when he was five years old. After his mother’s death, Thomas’ adopted father started to move around the country seeking any kind of work he could find. Thomas spent his early childhood in Kalamazoo, Michigan with his grandmother. His grandmother was very influential in his life, teaching him how to treat others well and with respect. It was these human traits that had a large impact on how he dealt with his businesses later in life.
At the age of 12, Thomas received his first job at the Regas Restaurant in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. Dave Thomas lost this job when he got into a dispute with his boss. Decades later, that restaurant had an autographed picture of Thomas just inside the front door.
At the age of 15, Thomas got his second restaurant job working for the Clauss family at the Hobby House in Fort Wayne, Indiana. When Thomas’ father was ready to move again, Thomas stayed in Fort Wayne and dropped out of high school to continue working at the restaurant full time. Later in life, Thomas said “Ending my schooling was the greatest mistake of my life.” Throughout the rest of his life, Thomas became a huge advocate for education. He even founded the Dave Thomas Education Center in Coconut Creek, Florida.
When the Korean War started, Thomas volunteered for the U.S. Army so that he could have some say in what assignments he was given. Thomas requested to attend the Cook and Bakers School in Fort Benning, Georgia. After his training, he was sent to Germany as Mess Sergeant and was responsible for 2000 solders. During his time in the military, Thomas rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant and was discharged in 1953, to return to Fort Wayne.
In the mid 1950s, Colonel Sanders came to Fort Wayne to find restaurants to sell his chicken. Sanders stopped by the Hobby House to try to convince the Clauss family to sell his chicken at their restaurant. At first, Thomas (head cook at the time) and the Clauss Family declined the offer. However, Sanders persisted and eventually Thomas and the Clauss family decided to franchise their restaurant with KFC. The Clauss family eventually owned several KFCs in the Midwest. During this time period, Thomas worked closely with Sanders to make KFCs more profitable and give KFC more brand recognition. Some of the things that Thomas recommended to Sanders included: 1) reducing the number of items on KCFs menu, 2) focusing on a signature dish and 3) for Sanders to start appearing in commercials.
Phil Clauss owned a few KCF restaurants in Columbus, Ohio. He offered Thomas the opportunity to move to Columbus and turn around the struggling franchises. Thomas decided that since the Colonel Sander’s chicken was so successful at the Hobby House, he could sell it, as well, in Columbus. After a few years, Thomas had increased sales so much at the KFC locations in Columbus that Thomas sold his shares back to Colonel Sanders for 1.5 million dollars.
With the money he received from selling his KFC shares, Thomas decided to open up a burger restaurant in Columbus. On November 15, 1969, Thomas opened his first Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio. The original restaurant stayed opened until 2007, when it closed due to slow sales. Thomas named the restaurant after his eight-year-old daughter, Melinda Lou, who was nicknamed Wendy. The restaurant quickly became a success, allowing him to open over 1000 restaurants in the first 10 years of business.
In 1982, Thomas retired from the day-to-day operations at the restaurants. In 1985, the Wendy’s brand started to struggle due to some bad decisions. The company’s new president urged Thomas to start taking a larger role in the day-to-day operations again. Thomas began to visit different franchises and installed a “mop bucket attitude.”
In 1989, Thomas started to take a more active role in commercials. In his early commercials Thomas was criticized for being “stiff and ineffective.” In 1990, Wendy’s started to change its advertising strategy to portray Thomas in a more self-deprecating and folksy manner. This advertising campaign proved to be more successful than the previous one and the Wendy’s franchise reached new heights. Dave Thomas passed away on January 8, 2002, at the age of 69. Even though Dave Thomas has passed away, his impact through his charity organizations that he started will continue to live on in the thousands of children that are helped yearly.