24. Dave Thomas, Fast Food, and Continued Opportunity in Ohio
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24 HIO IS famed for its many great industries, ranging from airplanes to automobiles to hamburgers. Yes, hamburgers. In the Buckeye State, White Castle staked its claim in the early 1930s, when founder Billy Ingram moved his chain’s headquarters to Columbus. Many years later, Wendy’s R. David Thomas built the world’s third largest fast food hamburger chain, starting with his first restaurant on Broad Street in Columbus. A transplant to Ohio, Thomas boldly defied pessimistic analysts who predicted failure in 1969 when Thomas entered the already saturated quick service restaurant arena. Believing that consumers would pay a premium price for higher quality food, Thomas shocked industry experts by soon outpacing most of his competitors. With a simple plan offering superior quality food and service, within a decade Wendy’s International successfully expanded to include thousands of franchised outlets across the country and around the world. By keeping his corporate headquarters in the Columbus area, Thomas solidified that city’s reputation as the nation’s “First City of Fast Food.” Dave Thomas began life in an unlikely position to ever achieve wealth and prestige. Born to a woman living in a home for unwed mothers in Atlantic City in 1932, he was adopted six months later by Auleva and Rex Thomas, a working-class couple of modest means. Hardship continued for young Dave, with Auleva dying when he was five and then living a transient, often hardscrabble life with his adoptive father. For a few years after Auleva’s death from rheumatic fever, her mother, Minnie Sinclair, lovingly nurtured young Dave in her Kalamazoo, Michigan, home, providing him with stability and a sense 311 Dave Thomas, Fast Food, and Continued Opportunity in Ohio O H. G. PARSA AND DAVID GERALD HOGAN  vantne_3rd_chap24.qxd 11/10/2003 3:36 PM Page 311 312 BUILDERS OF OHIO of security. A strong-willed and devout woman raised in the Kentucky hills, Minnie taught Dave that “if you worked hard, you made things happen.” Though of modest means, every Saturday she drove her adoptive grandson to downtown Kalamazoo, eating together at the five-and-dime store lunch counter, munching on candy, and buying him a small but cherished toy. Minnie also introduced Dave to restaurant life, sometimes taking him with her to the establishment where she worked as a cook and dishwasher. This joy and stability proved to be short-lived, however, when Rex, discontented with his job as a mechanic, sought employment as a laborer in Indiana. The Thomases moved to a new town, away from Minnie. A stern, authoritarian parent, Rex provided Dave with food and shelter but demonstrated little love or affection. He soon remarried , this time to a woman named Marie, who proved to be a cold stepmother, always ready to discipline young Dave. Rex and Marie divorced after two and a half years of marriage, once again leaving Rex and Dave alone. Now living together in a Detroit rooming FIG. 20 Dave Thomas. Courtesy of The Ohio State University Archives. vantne_3rd_chap24.qxd 11/10/2003 3:36 PM Page 312 313 DAVE THOMAS house, they ate daily at local restaurants and small neighborhood bars. One of their favorite stops was a hamburger stand that fried heaping mounds of onions on top of the burgers and served rich milk shakes that were too thick to drink with a straw. Years later, Thomas credited his early exposure to so many restaurants as his motivation for entering the business, and his love for those burgers and shakes as the inspiration for Wendy’s menu staples. Living a transient existence, the Thomases moved to Evansville, Indiana, at the start of World War II, where Rex found work in a shipyard and remarried. Rex’s third wife, Viola, had two daughters from a previous marriage. Though he never grew very close to his new stepmother and stepsisters, Dave found this new family environment preferable to life with Marie or living in a rooming house with Rex. Nevertheless, Dave felt that he held a second-class position behind Viola’s daughters. As a way to avoid being at home and as a means of earning money, he began working at age ten at a gasoline station in Princeton, Indiana. Tiring of this job, Dave then worked as a newspaper boy, a golf caddy, and a bowling alley pin setter. Wanting a job working in a restaurant, Dave applied to several local ones who all told him that he was far too young. Just...


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