Most Likely to Succeed (1969)
A slice of Americana is the Wendy’s hamburger emporium with its mascot of a red-haired girl, pigtails bound with blue bows. Behind the fresh-faced child lies Wendy Thomas.
The fast-food chain originated as a twinkle in the eye of Dave Thomas, born in 1932 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to an unmarried mother. Rex and Auleva Thomas, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, adopted him when he was six weeks old. Auleva, passed away when Dave was five from rheumatic fever, and he lost two stepmothers before age ten. Rex travelled from city to city searching for jobs, and homes were dilapidated trailers. Father and son ate at diners, and, as Rex did not bother to converse, Dave observed the workings of the restaurant. He quipped, “Popeye wasn’t my hero. Wimpy was, because he loved hamburgers.” His only close relative, his maternal grandmother, gave him the advice, “Don’t cut corners.”
High school ended in the tenth grade, and after military service in Germany, Dave went into the fast-food business. A Kentucky Fried Chicken owner told him if he helped four floundering outlets turn a profit, he would reward Dave with a forty-five percent ownership. Through this arrangement, Dave met Colonel Harland Sanders. Equally thrilling, Dave ended up selling his KFC investment for $1.5 million. Equipped with the funds and his vision, (his hamburgers would be square, a tongue-in-cheek nod to his grandmother’s words “to never cut corners”), Dave launched his restaurant in Columbus, Ohio.
For the christening of his enterprise, Dave considered his five children’s names, “but calling it Pam’s or Kenny’s or Molly’s or Melinda’s or Lori’s didn’t have the right ring.” He then landed on his daughter Melinda Lou’s nickname that had originated when her siblings, unable to pronounce her name, called her Wanda, which eventually morphed into Wendy.
Dave instructed his wife, Lorraine, to style the eight-year-old Wendy’s red hair into piglets; for extra support, she inserted a pipe cleaner. After taking her picture, Dave declared he had the image for Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburgers. The original caption of the restaurant: “Quality is our recipe;” currently, the mascot’s ruffled collar spells out the word “mom.” Dave determined to eventually own five eateries so each of his children would have a secure future; today there are 6,000 Wendy’s. A wildly successful advertising campaign featured the octogenarian Clara Peller asking, “Where’s the beef?” which served as a dig against competitors’ smaller patties.
Dave admitted that he was not a perfect father and explained it was because he never had a role model. His son stated, “He doesn’t seem to know how to be with us. For him, home is a nice place to visit, but he doesn’t want to live here.” Shortly before Dave’s passing at age sixty-nine, he told Wendy he wished he had not named his restaurant after her as that had burdened her with a pressure her siblings did not shoulder. Wendy quipped that being the chain’s mascot helped when she needed a reservation. Another reason she did not mind is because Wendy’s ensured her a $100,000,000 fortune, an amount she could not have a beef with. Wendy graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in consumer behaviorism. She married Paul Morse with whom she had a daughter, McKenzie.
Dave regretted not finishing high school, and in 1983, he passed the G.E.D. exam. Coconut Creek High School in Fort Lauderdale made Thomas a member of its senior class; he and Lorraine were king and queen of the senior prom. Dave’s yearbook caption, “Most Likely to Succeed.”