As the spokesperson for Wendy's, Dave Thomas was known the world over as the beloved founder of the popular quick-service chain. An innovative businessman, he built an image for his company of quality food without pretense or cost-cutting through stingy portions or less-than-the-best ingredients. He was responsible for putting a human face on the Wendy's brand and as a result saw sales skyrocket.
Thomas was featured for nearly 13 years in more than 800 commercials, which the Guinness Book of World Records recognized as the "Longest Running Television Advertising Campaign Starring a Company Founder." The unique approach of this form of advertising, featuring a simple, honest message, helped differentiate the company from the promotional frenzy dominant in the field. He had a commitment to quality food, which was highlighted in his advertising style and from which he never wavered. He was enlightened about brand building and entrusted his creative teams to devise innovative ways to promote the product while still maintaining the charm and honest integrity associated with the Wendy's brand.
His humble beginnings gave no hint at his rise to business success. Adopted at six weeks old by Rex and Auleva Thomas, his adoptive mother died when he was five. His early years were then spent traveling as his father Rex searched for employment. At age 12 he fell in love with the restaurant business as a counterman at a Knoxville restaurant, and he later found work with the Hobby House Restaurant in Ft. Wayne. He made the decision to drop out of high school, which he later considered his greatest mistake. He returned to school 45 years later to earn his GED, and was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" by the Coconut Creek High School, Ft. Lauderdale, graduating class of 1993.
One of the greatest influences on his life was Colonel Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). In 1962, Thomas turned around four failing KFC restaurants using his business savvy and determination. When he sold the restaurants back to the company, he became a millionaire at age 35. In 1969 he fulfilled his dream of owning his own hamburger restaurant, and opened his first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant in Columbus, Ohio.
Thomas proved himself an innovative restaurateur. He devised a method to prepare fresh, made-to-order hamburgers and also created the modern-day pick-up window. Wendy's was also the first fast-food franchise to feature a salad bar and baked potatoes nationwide.
Thomas is also remembered for his philanthropic work, especially regarding adoption. He tirelessly worked for public awareness of the need for permanent homes for foster children. In 1992 he established the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. His other accomplishments for the cause included the creation of an adoption postage stamp, filming of numerous public-service announcements and advocacy for congressional and state legislation culminating in the Adoption and Safe Families Act.