For better or worse, Indiana plays an important role in American fast food history. Burger Chef, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Wendy’s hamburger chain all have roots in the Hoosier state. Other fast food restaurants have deep Circle City roots that resonate in the minds of Indianapolis baby boomers as well. Steak ‘n Shake, Al Green’s, the two TeePee’s, Merrill’s High Decker, Knobby’s and Lums are just a few. What about Big Boy? Some will remember that both Al Green’s on the eastside and Laughners in Cumberland were once home to the venerable Big Boy franchise.
The idea for another fixture of roadside cuisine was hatched in Indiana, although its founder was not. Given up for adoption at just six weeks old by an unwed mother in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Dave Thomas had an itinerant, working-class childhood. While still an infant, Dave was adopted by a Michigan couple named Rex and Auleva Thomas. The adoption should have translated into a permanent home and a normal family life. However, when he was just five years old, Auleva died of rheumatic fever. From then on, Dave Thomas shuffled around the Midwest as his adopted father searched for work.
When his father settled in Fort Wayne in the early 1940s, young Dave tried his hand at a number of odd jobs. When he was only 12 years old, Dave got his first job delivering groceries. When that job didn’t pan out, he hired on as a soda jerk at Walgreens. That job ended when his boss discovered that Dave wasn’t 16 years old, the minimum required age for employment. At age 15, Dave was hired at the Hobby House restaurant. Located at 3204 North Anthony Blvd., the Ft. Wayne eatery specialized in pancakes in the morning, hamburgers at noon and barbecue at night.
As a child, the young orphan’s favorite thing to do was to eat at family restaurants. It wasn’t the food that attracted him, but rather the family atmosphere. Dave loved to watch the families eating, chatting, and sharing quality time together. These scenes influenced Dave at a young age and he resolved that he would some day own his own restaurant.
When his father left Fort Wayne, Thomas stayed, dropping out of high school and rooming at the YMCA to keep his job busing tables at the Hobby House. Thomas, born a couple days shy of Independence day of 1932, was patriotic to a fault. At the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, rather than waiting for the draft, 18-year-old Thomas volunteered for the U.S. Army. Having experience in food production and service, Thomas was sent to the Cook’s and Baker’s School at Fort Benning, Georgia. From there he went to Germany as a mess sergeant where he was responsible for the daily meals of 2,000 soldiers. After Staff Sergeant Thomas was discharged in October of 1953, he returned to Fort Wayne.
Legend claims that Dave’s old Hobby House boss, Phil Clauss, greeted his former cook at the door holding an apron in his outstretched hand. Shortly after resuming his old kitchen position in 1954, Dave met an 18-year-old waitress named Lorraine Buskirk. Within six months, the couple were married. With a $7,500 loan from the Clauss family, the couple bought a home and by June 1955 they welcomed their daughter Pam into the household. In time, the Thomas family would feature five children: sisters Pam, Melinda, Lori and Molly, and a son, Kenny.
As the chef at the Hobby House, Thomas helped the restaurant’s owner negotiate a deal with Harland Sanders to sell the Colonel’s secret recipe chicken (Sanders didn’t have his own chain of restaurants at that time). The Hobby House agreed to franchise the KFC product at their Fort Wayne location, and many others throughout the Midwest. In 1962, Sanders obtained a patent protecting his method of pressure frying chicken and trademarked the phrase “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good” the next year. Within two years of that union, Thomas was sent by the Clauss family to help turn around four failing KFC stores they owned in Columbus, Ohio. Thomas left Ft. Wayne for Columbus with his family and $40 in his pocket.
When he arrived in Columbus, Thomas found all four restaurants on the verge of collapse with their credit lines maxed out and credit scores ruined. Thomas fired all four managers and took over the daily operations himself. He streamlined the menu from over 100 items to just chicken, salads, desserts and beverages. He had to pay for all deliveries in cash and paid for radio spots with free buckets of chicken. Most importantly, he changed the restaurant’s name to “Col. Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken Take Home.” The 23-year-old Thomas and 65-year-old Sanders became fast friends.
The duo could not have been more different. When the two fast food icons first met, Sanders was traveling around the country dressed from head-to-toe in jet black: black tux and tails, black hat, shoes and carrying a black gold tipped cane. Thomas attire consisted of a more buttoned down look: dark slacks, oxford shirt and tie, clean shaven with a pair of black horn rimmed glasses. Sanders style was confrontational. He routinely cussed and sometimes got in public shoving matches and fistfights with antagonists. Dave Thomas was a nice guy who avoided confrontation.
Although born a Hoosier, Sanders was a real Kentucky Colonel twice over, given his first official commission by Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon in 1935 and re-commissioned by Governor Lawrence Wetherby in 1950. Thomas suggested that Sanders dress the part and soon the Colonel adopted the white suit, black string tie and horn rimmed glasses we associate KFC with to this day. He kept the cane and the crusty attitude though.
One thing is certain, Thomas’s union with the Colonel would ultimately change the face of fast food forever. It was Thomas who first suggested to the Colonel that he reduce the number of items on the menu to focus on one signature dish. Thomas devised KFC’s iconic striped red bucket signs and used the Colonel’s image in advertising campaigns. Thomas also suggested Sanders focus on TV commercials and star in them himself. By 1968 Thomas had increased sales in the four central Ohio KFC restaurants so much that he sold his share in them back to Sanders for more than $1.5 million.
By now, Thomas was a millionaire and effectively retired. But the restaurant business was in Dave Thomas’ blood. He re-visted his dream to open his own restaurant chain. He reluctantly agreed to help turn around the under-achieving Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips chain but it wasn’t long before he lost interest. Dave Thomas decided that what the world truly needed was a better hamburger. Dave believed that customers wanted was a bigger patty made from fresh beef, served in nicer surroundings than what was being offered at McDonald’s, Burger King or Burger Chef.
Thomas vacated his stewardship of Arthur Treacher’s and decided to invest his life’s savings in his own venture. On November 15, 1969, he opened the very first Wendy’s restaurant in a rented Broad Street building across the street from the popular Center of Science andf Industry Museum in Columbus, Ohio. Dave named the restaurant after his eight-year-old daughter Melinda Lou. At a young age, the child could not pronounce her own name so the family gave her the nickname “Wendy.” Thomas chose the logo of a red haired girl with pigtails and freckles eating a hamburger. Dave’s penchant for nostalgia kicked in when he settled on the name “Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers.”
In November of 1969 Apollo 12 astronauts Charles Conrad and Alan Bean were walking in the moon, Jim Morrison & Janis Joplin were arrested for public intoxication, Alcatraz Island was seized by Native American Indian protesters, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were performing dueling tests of nuclear weapons, news of the Vietnam My Lai massacre by American troops was hitting the airwaves and America was handcuffed by protests over the Vietnam War.
In fact, on the very day that Wendy’s opened, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee staged what is believed to be the largest antiwar protest in U.S. history when half a million people attended a peaceful demonstration in Washington, DC. The rally featured speeches by antiwar politicians Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. It also included musical performances by Peter, Paul and Mary, Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who led the crowd in the singing of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” Dave Thomas believed that what America needed most was a reminder of the good old days.
Those first Wendy’s restaurant dining rooms were adorned with wallpaper featuring headlines from the past, illuminated by stained glass Tiffany lights and featured formica tables covered with stories about the creation of subways, railroads, horseless carriages and the Wright Brothers’ new flying machine. The chairs were bentwood and the floor was carpeted. Who ever heard of carpet in a fast food restaurant? The menu was simple: Hamburgers (singles, doubles, triples), french fries, chili, assorted soft drinks and a funky new dessert that was part ice cream/part milkshake called a Frosty. Wendy’s hook was that the hamburger patty overlapped the bun and was 100% fresh ground beef made to order on the spot.
The restaurant was a smash from the very first day. Eight-year-old Melinda Thomas greeted guests (who were lined up around the block) dressed as Wendy, her hair painted red and tied in pigtails bound by blue ribbons to match her blue and white dress. Demand was high and within six weeks the restaurant was making money. He opened his second Wendy’s a year later on the outskirts of Columbus. The following year, he opened two more locations in the downtown “food dessert” areas of Columbus. The concept worked and the franchise flourished.
Like his mentor and friend Col. Sanders, Dave Thomas became the face of the Wendy’s brand in those first years. His everyman image and unashamed square personality were alluded to in the TV spots and helped to cement his image as one of the most trusted American corporate spokespersons of all time. With his natural self-effacing style and relaxed manner, Thomas quickly became a household name. A company survey during the 1990s, a decade when 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. Dave’s ideas helped revolutionize fast food restaurant menus all over the world. To this day, the staple of most fast food restaurants is their overly simplistic menus, focusing on a handful of signature meals.
Thomas never forgot where he came from. Aside from a multitude of charity ventures, Thomas’s lasting legacy is The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1992 dedicated to finding adoptive homes for children waiting in North America’s foster care system. The Columbus, Ohio foundation’s signature program is called Wendy’s Wonderful Kids and it has helped more than 3,600 children find their forever families. Wendy’s supports the Foundation’s efforts with in-store donation canisters, a Father’s Day Frosty campaign and Halloween Coupon books. Thomas’ daughter Melinda (Wendy) serves on the foundation’s board of trustees.
At the time of the adoption program’s founding, Thomas discovered that he had cancer. He would battle a tumor for ten years, before it metastasized to his liver. He died on January 8, 2002 at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the age of 69. Thomas is buried in Union Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. At the time of his death, there were more than 6,000 Wendy’s restaurants operating in North America. And the idea started right here in Indiana.
If you want to learn more about Wendy’s, Burger Chef, White Castle and other Hoosier fast food restaurants, you can tune in to Hoosier History Live with host Nelson Price this Saturday, Aug. 27, on WICR 88.7 FM from noon to 1:00 p.m. Or you can listen to the podcast at WICR online. I will be joining Nelson along with Mark Dollase, Indiana Landmarks vice president, to talk about the history of fast food in Indianapolis and the Hoosier state. Mark will be updating us on the efforts to save and preserve one of the last surviving examples of the White Castle high tower restaurants (built in 1927) at 660 Fort Wayne Ave. in Indianapolis. So dream up your fast food questions, take a shot at winning a prize by answering Nelson’s trivia question of the day and give me a shout this Saturday!
Al Hunter is the author of the “Haunted Indianapolis” and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His newest book is “Bumps in the Night. Stories from the Weekly View.” Contact Al directly at Huntvault@aol.com or become a friend on Facebook