There is something very nostalgic about childhood food. We all have fond memories of restaurants we frequented as kids. When we think about what is a frosty, we have to look at Dave Thomas and what he found nostalgic from his childhood days.
Who Is Dave Thomas
Dave Thomas was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He was born to a young woman that he never knew. She gave him up for adoption at birth. When he was 6 weeks old, he was adopted by Rex and Auleva Thomas.
When he was 5 years old, his adoptive mother passed away. His father then bounced around the country looking for work. Dave spent some time near Kalamazoo, Michigan with his grandmother. He fondly remembers being taught the importance of service and treating others well. Naturally these were skills that served him well later in the restaurant industry.
At 12 years of age, Dave got his first job. He worked at Regas Restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee. He got in an argument with his boss and lost his job because of it. It was a formative experience in his life and he vowed to never lose another job. Interestingly enough, the owner of the Regas had a large autographed poster of Dave in the entrance to his restaurant. Apparently they mended that relationship!
When Dave was 15 years old, he was living in Fort Wayne, Indiana with his father. He was working at the Hobby House restaurant that was owned by the Clauss family. His father planned to move again to take another job. Instead of moving with him, Dave dropped out to continue working his job at a family restaurant in town. Later in life Dave felt that dropping out of school was the biggest mistake of his life. In 1993 he went back to school and got his GED. He became a fierce advocate for education and started the Dave Thomas Education Center which teaches GED classes to young adults.
Dave and Harlan Sanders
When the Korean War broke out, Dave was just 18. He decided to volunteer for the Army instead of waiting for the draft. This way he would have some degree of control over how he served. He was able to go to the Cook and Baker’s School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Dave was then sent to Germany as a mess sergeant. He would prepare daily meals for 2,000+ soldiers.
After he was discharged from the military, Dave went back to the Hobby House to work again with the Clauss family. This is when a guy named Harlan Sanders came to town. He was looking to sell his franchise concept for KFC to restaurateurs in the area. He approached the Clauss family and asked if they’d be interested. Initially they politely declined. However, the Colonel was persistent and eventually convinced them to give it a go.
The Clauss family franchised one KFC, and eventually added several more. During this time, Dave worked closely with Harlan Sanders on his restaurant concept and how he could make KFC more profitable. A few of his suggestions that were picked up were for Colonel to appear in more commercials. Also to reduce the size of the menu and have one signature product.
In the mid 1960s, Dave was sent by the Clauss family to help 4 of their struggling KFC franchises. He had such a tremendous impact on turning them around that in 1968 Harlan Sanders approached him to buy his share of the restaurants. Dave sold his share to Sanders for 1.5 million dollars. This was the perfect seed money for his next passion project that would open a year later.
Dave’s Inspiration for Wendy’s
There is a lot of speculation around where and when Dave had the idea for Wendy’s. Kewpee Hamburgers is a small burger chain that got its start in Flint, Michigan in 1923. They were famous for their square hamburger patties and their thick shakes. These menu staples kept people coming back for more. In an interview from 2001, Dave claimed Kewpee was the inspiration behind Wendy’s. He grew up as a youngster in Kalamazoo, Michigan eating at Kewpee. He translated that nostalgia into Wendy’s.
What is A Frosty? Dave Discovers Wendy’s
The first Wendy’s opened on November 15, 1969 in Columbus, Ohio. They sold their signature square patty and their thick frosty treat. Why square patties? From the research I’ve done it seems that it was equal parts nostalgia and a clever marketing trick. Dave grew up eating square burgers, but they also have corners that stick out from a round bun. This gives an appearance of a larger burger than what you are actually getting.
Of course we have to talk about a frosty! What is a frosty? It is that delicious treat that you enjoyed growing up that only Wendy’s had. For the longest time it was only in chocolate. In 2006, they added a vanilla flavor after many customer requests!
Their chocolate flavor is really a blend of chocolate and vanilla. This was done by design. Dave said he thought that a pure chocolate flavor would overwhelm the flavor of the burgers.
Wendy’s Early Years
Wendy’s started small and then went global. Dave kept it in Ohio until L.S. Hartzog signed a franchise agreement in 1972. This brought the chain to Indianapolis, Indiana. They continued to expand rapidly throughout the United States. By 1976 Wendy’s had 500 locations throughout the United States and Canada. They then expanded into Asia and Europe in the 1980s.
Marketing Through The Years
Wendy’s was late to the fast food game. As a result they continually struggled against McDonalds and Burger King. In the 1980s, sales slowed. Wendy’s quickly embraced some brilliant marketing. In 1984, they had the famous “where’s the beef” commercial.
Soon after that commercial, Dave took over as the face of the franchise. He was soft spoken and shy. However, it worked well. He appeared in over 800 commercials through the years. This was more than any other company founder in television history!
The Real Wendy
Where did the name “Wendy’s” come from? Dave took the name of his fourth child, Melinda Lou Thomas. As a kid, she had a hard time pronouncing her L’s and R’s. As a result, she went by her nickname Wendy. The real Wendy appeared in a few ads for the company between 2010-2012 talking about, “The Wendy’s Way,” of doing things. Through the years, she has owned many franchises and has stayed close to the company.
Where Are They Today??
Dave Thomas died on January 8, 2002 in Fort Lauterdale, Florida. At the time of his passing there were 6,000 Wendy’s locations worldwide.
In a crowded landscape of fast food restaurants, not much has changed for Wendy’s. They continue to rank third behind McDonald’s and Burger King in sales. However, they continue to shine with their brilliant marketing and social media campaigns.
Their fresh never frozen beef does pull you back to an earlier time. Back before hamburgers were mass produced. You can almost see a very young Dave Thomas sitting in a Kewpee Hamburgers in Kalamazoo, inhaling a square burger and polishing off a thick shake.
Wendy’s is always going to have a niche in the fast food market. They are constantly looking at their menu and trying to innovate. Just recently they rolled out breakfast to all US locations. They have a variety of biscuits, including a Baconator biscuit. I can’t think of a better way to start the day!
If breakfast isn’t your thing, you can always pull up a booth and enjoy one of their classic burgers with a thick frosty. Just how Dave would want it.
If You Liked Learning About What Is A Frosty, Subscribe To The Toasty Kettle Podcast Using These Links
If you use another pod catcher and you don’t see it here, let me know and I’ll try to get the show added wherever you like to listen to podcasts. Leave a note in the comments or send a message to [email protected]
Follow Me On Social Media
Know A Restaurant or Business I Should Interview??
The world is a very big place. If you have a restaurant contributing to food history in some way, I want to know about it. Complete the form here and we will make it happen!