Champion of Burgers and Family: The Dave Thomas Story

Champion of Burgers and Family: The Dave Thomas Story

The Wendy’s Franchise Founder Valued Service and Advocated for Adoption

Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy’s franchise, once said, “A family can count on each other, and that’s something that can’t be bought or sold. All the small stuff is swept aside when an obstacle is faced. It brings out the best of us. That old saying is true, we’re stronger when we stand together. I’m very grateful and proud to be part of the Thomas family.” As a champion of family, the experienced franchisor and franchise owner understood that a business can’t succeed without strong connections between everyone in the system. This belief guided him as he ran Wendy’s.

Famous for square-shaped burger patties and its iconic red-haired mascot, the popular fast-food chain is one of the world’s most successful and beloved franchises, expanding to thousands of locations around the world, the majority of which are franchised.

Here, we look into Thomas’ early life and philanthropy as well as the founding of the Wendy’s franchise.

Early Life 

Born Rex David Thomas on July 2, 1932, in Atlantic City, N.J., he was adopted at 6 months of age and experienced several tragedies throughout his childhood. For example, his adoptive mother died when he was 5 years old. By the time he was 10, he had lost two stepmothers, according to Despite these hardships, Thomas was hardworking and had several jobs as a preteen. At 15, he dropped out of school and worked full-time at the Hobby House Restaurant, where he met his mentor, Phil Clauss.

Wendy's franchise
Col. Harland Sanders was Thomas’ mentor during his time at KFC.

Like many fast-food founders before him, Thomas also joined the military, serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War as the manager of an enlisted men’s club. Upon returning home, Clauss, one of the first KFC franchisees, gave Thomas the opportunity to move to Columbus, Ohio, to turn around the failing restaurants. With mentorship from Col. Harland Sanders, Thomas became so successful that he sold the franchises back to the headquarters for $1.5 million by 1968.

Founding of the Wendy’s Franchise

Like most Americans, Thomas wanted a good burger. But he couldn’t find any in Columbus. This inspired him to establish the original Wendy’s restaurant, which opened in 1969 and was named after his daughter, Melinda Lou. In less than 10 years, the fast-food franchise expanded to 1,000 locations. After relinquishing command of the company’s daily operations in 1982, there were years of mistakes that impacted sales, prompting Thomas to become spokesman for the Wendy’s franchise and make a series of successful commercials. Having done over 800 commercials for the Wendy’s franchise, Thomas became so popular that a company survey conducted during the 1990s found that 90 percent of Americans knew who he was. 

Thomas’ Personal Life and Philanthropy

But he never let that popularity get to his head. In his personal life, he was a family man who was devoted to his wife, Lorraine, and their five children. As an adoptee himself, Thomas was also an avid supporter of adoption. After President George H.W. Bush named him a national spokesman on adoption issues, Thomas was inspired to create the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in 1992. 

The Wendy’s franchise raises funds for the national, nonprofit charity through activities such as selling Boo! Books during Halloween. Even proceeds from Thomas’ more serious books went to the nonprofit organization: his autobiography, Dave’s Way; his book on success called Well Done!; and a business book entitled Franchising for Dummies

Toward the end of his life, Thomas suffered from health issues, causing him to undergo quadruple bypass surgery and kidney dialysis. On Jan. 8, 2002, he died of liver cancer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at the age of 69. His legacy with the Wendy’s franchise can still be felt today. 

It’s easy to throw in the towel when things aren’t going your way. Nothing good comes without hard work. Be willing to invest the time and energy to achieve your goals.

The Dave Thomas Story

Wendy's franchise

If you take one thing from the Dave Thomas story, it’s to never give up. Thomas said it best: “It’s easy to throw in the towel when things aren’t going your way. Nothing good comes without hard work. Be willing to invest the time and energy to achieve your goals.” To put his money where his mouth is, he received his GED from Coconut Creek High School in Fort Lauderdale 45 years after dropping out.

No matter your upbringing or current circumstances, Thomas proves that the only one stopping you from achieving your goals is yourself. 

Photos: Wendy’s

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Haley Cafarella is a passionate journalist and writer for IFPG. In her role as content and marketing specialist, she creates original articles for FranchiseWire and Franchise Consultant Magazine. Her specialties include educational articles about buying a franchise and franchise consulting. She also reports on franchise professionals who were recently promoted or hired through FranchiseWire’s popular HireWire series.

Haley has contributed to a variety of regional publications, including Quo Vadis, New Brunswick Today, and the Trenton Monitor. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Rutgers University.
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