Wendy’s Founder, History Maker, Woodlands Past Owner, Friend
Told through the eyes of Ken McCarthy – President, Woodlands Country Club
The Woodlands Trade
Dave Thomas enjoyed The Woodlands so much that he bought it, or rather traded for it.
Dave acquired The Woodlands in 1987 after trading it to Ron Scherer for his 91′ Broward yacht. He had owned his yacht for approximately 2 years and had travelled the Bahamas, Cozumel, the Great Lakes and the Northeast. He was ready for a change.
Dave owned the Club from 1987 to 1999 when he sold it to Granite Golf. He reacquired the Club in 2003 til his death.
After arriving in Columbia Dave immediately started a charity golf tournament that contributed some $600,000 to mostly Children’s Charities such as Epworth Children’s Home and Carolina Children’s Home from 1989 to 1998. The President had appointed him to the position of National Spokesman for Adoption, a role that he valued greatly after his own upbringing.
Dave invited guests such as Davis Love III, Glenn Campbell, Johnny Bench and Chi Chi Rodriguez, along with Senators, Governors, and The Woodlands members. He valued his time in Columbia and his relationship with the members. His time away from the cameras and Wendy’s commercials was spent mostly relaxing on the course at The Woodlands.
Dave is missed by his friends and family and by the children who benefited from his philanthropy.
Dave Thomas was born on July 2, 1932 in Atlantic City, New Jersey to a young unmarried woman he never knew. He was adopted at 6 weeks by Rex and Auleva Thomas, and as an adult would become a well-known advocate for adoption, founding the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. After his adoptive mother’s death when he was 5, his father moved around the country seeking work. Dave spent time in Michigan with his grandmother, Minnie Sinclair, whom he credited with teaching him the importance of service and treating others well and with respect, lessons that helped him in his future business life.
At 12 Thomas got his first job at The Regas, a restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee, then lost it in a dispute with his boss. However, there was a large autographed poster-photo of Thomas just inside the entrance of The Regas until the business closed down in 2009. He vowed never to lose another job. Moving with his father, by 15 he was working in Fort Wayne, Indiana at the Hobby House Restaurant owned by the Clauss family. When his father prepared to move again, Dave decided to stay in Fort Wayne, dropping out of high school to work full-time at the restaurant. Thomas, who considered ending his schooling the greatest mistake of his life, did not graduate from high school until 1993 when he obtained a GED. Dave Thomas became an education advocate and founded the Dave Thomas Education Center in Coconut Creek, Florida, which offers GED classes to young adults.
At the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, rather than waiting for the draft, he volunteered for the U.S. Army to have some choice in assignments. Having food production and service experience, Thomas requested the Cook’s and Baker’s School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was sent overseas to Germany as a mess sergeant and was responsible for the daily meals of 2000 soldiers, rising to the rank of Staff Sergeant. After his discharge in 1953, Thomas returned to Fort Wayne and the Hobby House.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
In the mid-1950s, Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Col. Harland Sanders came to Fort Wayne to find restaurateurs with established businesses in order to try to sell KFC franchises to them.
At first, Thomas, who was the head cook at the restaurant, and the Clausses declined Sanders’ offer, but the Colonel persisted and the Clauss family franchised their restaurant with KFC and later also owned many other KFC franchises in the Midwest. During this time, Thomas worked with Sanders on many projects to make KFC more profitable and to give it brand recognition. Among other things Thomas suggested to Sanders that were implemented; KFC’s signature chicken bucket (to keep the chicken crisp), reduce the number of items on the menu, focus on a signature dish. Thomas also suggested Sanders make commercials that he appear in himself. Thomas was sent by the Clauss family in the mid-1960s to help turn around four ailing KFC stores they owned in Columbus, Ohio.
By 1968 Thomas had increased sales in the four fried chicken restaurants so much that he sold his share in them back to Sanders for more than $1.5 million. This experience would prove invaluable to Thomas when he began Wendy’s about a year later.
Thomas opened his first Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio, November 15, 1969. (This original restaurant remained operational until March 2, 2007, when it was closed due to lagging sales.) Thomas named the restaurant after his eight-year-old daughter Melinda Lou, whose nickname was “Wendy”, stemming from the child’s inability to say her own name at a young age. According to Bio TV, Dave claims himself that people nicknamed his daughter “Wenda. Not Wendy, but Wenda. ‘I’m going to call it Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers’.”
In 1982, Thomas resigned from his day-to-day operations at Wendy’s. However, by 1985, several company business decisions, including an awkward new breakfast menu and loss in brand awareness due to fizzled marketing efforts, caused the company’s new president to urge Thomas back into a more active role with Wendy’s. Thomas began to visit franchises and espouse his hardworking, so-called “mop-bucket attitude.” In 1989, he took on a significant role as the TV spokesman in a series of commercials for the brand. Thomas was not a natural actor, and initially, his performances were criticized as stiff and ineffective by advertising critics.
By 1990, after efforts by Wendy’s agency, Backer Spielvolgel Bates, to get humor into the campaign, a decision was made to portray Thomas in a more self-deprecating and folksy manner, which proved much more popular with test audiences. Consumer brand awareness of Wendy’s eventually regained levels it had not achieved since octogenarian Clara Peller’s wildly popular “Where’s the beef?” campaign of 1984.
With his natural self-effacing style and his relaxed manner, Thomas quickly became a household name. A company survey during the 1990s, a decade during which Thomas starred in every Wendy’s commercial that aired, found that 90% of Americans knew who Thomas was. After more than 800 commercials, it was clear that Thomas played a major role in Wendy’s status as the country’s third most popular burger restaurant.