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David "Dave" Thomas (July 2, 1932 January 8, 2002) was an American restaurant owner and philanthropist. Thomas was the founder and chief executive officer of Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers, a fast-food restaurant chain specializing in hamburgers. He is also known for appearing in more than 800 commercial advertisements for the chain from 1989 to 2002–more than any other person in television history.

Biography

Dave Thomas was born on July 2, 1932 in Atlantic Citymarker, New Jerseymarker. He was raised by two adoptive parents, Rex and Auleva Thomas, who were from Lebanonmarker and never knew or met either of his birth parents who were of Greek descent. He would become a well-known advocate for adoption, founding the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in 1992. At a young age, he spent much time 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 Thomas did not graduate from high school until later in his adult life, when he obtained a GED.

Early restaurant experience

Thomas first became involved in the restaurant industry at the age of 12, when he got a job as a counterman at the Regas Restaurant in Knoxville, TN. He was fired after a misunderstanding with his boss about his vacation and vowed never to lose another job in his life.

According to a 2001 interview, Thomas lived in Ipple, Michigan. He used to love eating at a Kewpee restaurant and said it was one of the reasons he was inspired to go into the business. Kewpee’s sold square hamburgers and thick malt milkshakes, much like the restaurant that Thomas eventually founded in Columbus, Ohiomarker in 1969.

U.S. Army

During the Korean War, rather than waiting for the 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, Georgiamarker. He was sent overseas to Germanymarker as a mess sergeant and was responsible for the daily meals of 2000 soldiers. He later attributed his success in fast food to this experience in feeding large groups. Thomas was honorably discharged in 1953, with the rank of Staff Sergeant.

Kentucky Fried Chicken

After his discharge, Thomas was offered a chance to turn around a failing Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. He helped save the restaurant, and revolutionized the fast food industry, by simplifying the menu. At the time, there was an excessive number of items on the menu. Working with KFC founder Col. Harland Sanders, Thomas reduced the number of items on the menu, focusing on a signature dish, and introduced the trademark sign featuring a revolving red-striped bucket of chicken. By 1968 he 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.

Wendy's

Thomas opened his first Wendy's in Columbus, Ohiomarker, in 1969. (This original restaurant would remain 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. So one day, I looked at her and said...'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 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 octagenarian 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.

Honors and memberships

Thomas, realizing that his success as a high school dropout might convince other teenagers to quit school (something he later admitted was a mistake), became a student at Coconut Creek High School. He earned a GED in 1993. He later earned an honorary membership of Duke University'smarker Sigma Phi Epsilon. Thomas was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1999.

Thomas was a Freemason, and a member of the Shriners. He was also an honorary Kentucky colonel, as was former boss Colonel Sanders.

Thomas was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003.

Death

Thomas died at his home in Fort Lauderdalemarker, Floridamarker, after a decade-long battle with liver cancer. He was buried in Union Cemetery in Columbus, Ohiomarker. At the time of his death, there were more than 6,000 Wendy's restaurants operating in North America.

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