The Man at the Top of the Food Chain: Dave Thomas is Born

Dave Thomas starred in 652 commercials for Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers, more than any other person in television history. But, he wasn’t just that friendly face you saw on TV with his white shirts and red ties; Thomas built his multi-billion dollar fast-food restaurant chain from the ground up, earning him a reputation as one of the most successful and loved entrepreneurs in American history.

Born on July 2, 1932 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Rex David Thomas was born out of wedlock and quickly given up for adoption. He would never know or meet his birth parents. Rex and Auleva Thomas, a young couple from Michigan, adopted him at six weeks old. When Thomas was five years old, Auleva died from rheumatic fever. Thomas’ father, a construction worker who would marry three more times, was left to care for his son alone. In search of work, the family spent Thomas’ early years moving from state to state.

Despite the loneliness, Thomas found comfort in the restaurants where he and his father would often dine, which showed him what family life was supposed to be like. Thomas also found comfort in his grandmother Minnie Sinclair, with whom he would spend his summers in Michigan. It was Sinclair whom Thomas would credit with teaching him life’s most important lessons. “The days I spent with my Grandmother Minnie Sinclair were the best times of my childhood, and she was the greatest influence in my young life,” recalled Thomas. “She knew what she wanted and went after it…the greatest lesson she taught me: Don’t cut corners on quality.”

When Thomas was 12 years old, he got his first job working as a counterman at a Knoxville restaurant. Three years later, he moved to Ft. Wayne, Indiana to work at the Hobby House Restaurant and, in what he would later claim to be the greatest mistake of his life, he dropped out of high school. He started working full-time as a busboy, then he worked the fountain and then on to the front of the kitchen. His father decided to move yet again, but Thomas chose to remain behind. At 15 years old, Thomas was living by himself at the YMCA and working full-time.

After three years of working at the Hobby House, Thomas joined the army. By volunteering instead of waiting for the draft for the Korean War, Thomas was able to choose his assignment. He asked to be placed in the Cook and Bakers School in Georgia. He was soon sent to Germany where he was in charge of feeding over 2,000 soldiers each day. In 1953, Thomas was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant.

Thomas returned to work at the Hobby House, where he would soon meet Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In 1962, against the advice of the Colonel, the Hobby House owner Phil Clauss purchased four KFC restaurants that were failing in Columbus, Ohio and assigned Thomas to the task of saving them. Thomas began reforming its menu and marketing strategy and in just four years, he had turned them into multi-million dollar operations.

With the successful experience of running someone else’s restaurant behind him, Thomas decided that it was time to finally realize his own dreams.

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