Competition | May 2017 | By Nicole Duncan

The Immeasurable Legacy of Dave Thomas

Dave Thomas may have called himself “just a hamburger cook,” but his legacy in quick service and the nonprofit world is anything but ordinary.
Dave Thomas made his name as the founder and face of Wendy’s, and later used that same familiarity to champion adoption. Wendy’s
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In 1999, Dave Thomas stood behind a podium at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. It was the same year his Columbus, Ohio–born concept turned 30, but he wasn’t there to discuss Wendy’s, fast food, or the economy. He had come to shine a spotlight on something far more personal. With no political agenda, no detailed policy plan, just a call to action, he discussed adoption.

“I’m no expert. I’m really just a hamburger cook who was adopted. I simply want to raise awareness to help these kids find permanent, loving homes,” Thomas said.

It was that same straightforward approach that had catapulted the Wendy’s brand to success and installed Thomas as one of the forefathers of the quick-service industry. By then, the winds of change were breezing into foodservice, but Thomas remained a part of the original guard—a group that included other fast-food innovators like Subway’s Fred DeLuca, Taco Bell’s Glen Bell, and Thomas’s late mentor, Harland “Colonel” Sanders.

Through a commitment to quality and Thomas’s ever-present guiding hand, Wendy’s had quickly caught up to the more established competitors. Whereas McDonald’s and Burger King bore little resemblance to their original concepts and little connection to their founders, Wendy’s had remained Wendy’s, with Thomas not only serving as the brand’s most prominent spokesperson, but also championing its core values over decades.

“Dave Thomas over his years left us a number of valuable lessons, including working hard, being honest, and taking care of the customer most of all. But one of the things he said—and he said it with an unbelievable belief—is to give back to your community,” says Joe Turner, a South Carolina–based franchisee who joined Wendy’s in 1980.

It has been 15 years since Thomas’s passing, and this year also marks the 25th anniversary of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption (DTFA). It also marks QSR’s 20th anniversary, a feat made possible in no small part to Thomas; in September 1997, the very first issue made a splash thanks to Thomas’s face gracing the cover.

For a restaurant veteran (and well-known TV icon) to agree to an interview with an unknown and untested publication was an immeasurable boon for QSR.

Our magazine’s own Thomas story is just one of many across the foodservice world that exemplifies what made him a force to be reckoned with. Whether it was keeping the Wendy’s brand true to its roots, using his celebrity to get children adopted, or just taking the time to chat with a fledgling publication, Thomas set the bar at a level the rest of us are still trying to reach.

Rethinking the fast-food formula

At a time when quick was king and growth came at a breakneck pace, Wendy’s was something of an outlier. Thomas didn’t open the first location until 1969—decades after competitors McDonald’s and Burger King had set up shop and started planting their fast-food flags across the country. Thomas, who was dissatisfied with the burger options in Columbus, decided to build his own concept that used fresh ingredients and served made-to-order meals rather than the standard pre-prepared patties.

“Dave felt that if there was one thing he wanted to be known for, it was bringing quality to the food,” says Denny Lynch, a 34-year Wendy’s veteran who served most recently as senior vice president of communications before retiring in 2014. Lynch says Thomas recognized what Ray Kroc had done for fast food in terms of cleanliness and what KFC’s Sanders had done for marketing with his larger-than-life persona. Like Kroc and Sanders, Thomas was ahead of his time. “As you look back now, 40 years later, the industry absolutely has embraced and adopted a lot of that [attention to quality].”

Bob Wright, executive vice president and chief operations officer at Wendy’s, echoes the sentiment. When it came to the basics, he says, Thomas was immovable. Whether it was evenly spreading out the pickles on the bun or taking a little extra time to speak with a crewmember, Thomas demonstrated how to take extra care in his own informal way.

“He never left a crewmember or manager or somebody in the field feeling like he didn’t care about them. He’d pause, he’d shake hands, he’d hold that grip for a second or two longer than a lot of people might,” Wright says.

Wright always made a point to be at his stores extra early when Thomas came to film a commercial because it afforded him the opportunity to share a coffee with him. “He was a jokester; he thought it was kind of funny to annoy the film crew and show up before he was supposed to,” he says. “It didn’t take me long to figure that out, so I’d show up … long before he would typically show up, and that’s how I got those coffees.”

For all his unassuming presence, Thomas did have a penchant for surprises. Turner recalls a time Thomas visited one of his South Carolina restaurants. After making a point to meet with the crewmembers, Thomas asked to position himself at the pick-up window. When a frazzled mother with a car full of children reached for her order, she saw none other than the face of Wendy’s himself.

That instinct to delight customers and connect with employees set the tone for the Wendy’s company, including its operators. When Turner first joined, the brand had a “wonderful family feeling,” he says, and every operator knew each other when they met for conventions.

David Karam, CEO of Sbarro, worked at Wendy’s at store No. 2 along with Thomas’s children and remains involved with the brand today; he’s chairman of the board of Cedar Enterprises, a Wendy’s franchisee. Karam, who notes Thomas was like a second father to him, says the founder’s strong business acumen was illustrated by his insights into what guests wanted, and his ability to stay focused on those critical factors.

Karam’s father was an early investor in Wendy’s and later became a franchisee. After college and an accounting job, Karam joined in the family business and got a first-hand look into Wendy’s thoughtful franchise system.

“The speed with which Wendy’s grew as a brand had a lot to do with [Thomas’s] innovative approach to franchise development,” Karam writes in an email. “Dave’s impact on the industry is profound. He understood and was ahead of his time in emphasizing fresh, high-quality ingredients and customer choice.”

Things obviously have since changed (in 2015, Wendy’s did $8.8 billion in domestic and numbered about 5,700 U.S. units), but that family-like sentiment remains. Beyond the people who counted themselves fortunate enough to meet Thomas, much of America felt like they knew him back in the ’90s. According to a company survey, 90 percent of Americans knew who he was—a statistic that has unlikely been attained, let alone surpassed, by any restaurant founders since then.

The idea of putting the soft-spoken, unpretentious Thomas in front of a camera for ads started as a lark in 1989 and turned into a mega success with the founder appearing in more than 800 ads. Wendy’s was even awarded a Guinness World Record for “Longest Running Television Advertising Campaign Starring a Company Founder” in 2000.

Indeed, those ads proved a game changer for Wendy’s. At the time, McDonald’s had Ronald and Co., Domino’s had the Noid, and KFC had a cartoon of Colonel Sanders—something Thomas once called a “mockery” of his good friend. Wendy’s, meanwhile, had the genuine article.

There was nothing remarkable about Thomas’s appearance. He wasn’t a fast-talking salesman or a larger-than-life figure a la Sanders with his distinctive goatee and all-white suit. Sure, celebrities like B.B. King and Kristi Yamaguchi joined him in a few commercials, but overall the ad campaign was an ongoing conversation between Thomas and viewers. It was a simple approach, but one that was highly effective.

“People would walk in our restaurant and say to us, ‘Is Dave here?’ The public felt like they knew him. It was incredible,” Turner says.

It didn’t take Thomas long to realize that he could parlay his TV familiarity, along with Wendy’s considerable resources, into a very personal cause.

Making unadoptable unacceptable

Thomas didn’t learn he was adopted until he was 13, and at the time, it wasn’t a topic he was keen to discuss. He had lost his adoptive mother, as well as two stepmothers, and his early years were transient, with his adoptive father moving them from state to state in search of work. At 15, Thomas stayed behind in Indiana when his father made yet another move. With steady employment at a restaurant, he dropped out of high school (a decision he regretted and later rectified by earning his GED in 1993).

While Thomas was not particularly close with his father and had a less-than-ideal childhood, he was always grateful for having been adopted. He said it gave him a sense of permanency that hundreds of thousands of children in foster care lacked.

“My father always believed in the saying, ‘You always have to give back.’ If your company is good to you, then it’s just part of the obligation of giving back to society,” says Wendy Thomas, the youngest of Thomas’s five children and Wendy’s namesake. Along with her siblings, Wendy Thomas remains a multiunit Wendy’s operator; she also serves on DTFA’s board of trustees.

Wendy Thomas calls the conditions under which the foundation was established “the perfect storm.” In 1990, then-President George H. W. Bush asked Thomas to serve as a special liaison for his initiative “Adoption Works… for Everyone.” Two years later, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption was established, with Wendy’s 3-Tour Challenge golf tournament kicking off fundraising efforts.

In its early years, the nonprofit focused on raising awareness around adoption and awarding grants to regional and national adoption organizations. Thomas himself was a strong proponent of adoption benefits, in which couples and individuals who adopted received the equivalent of maternity benefits. He brought the case before Congress, and in 1996, then-President Bill Clinton signed an adoption tax-credit bill into law.

“Fifty years ago, adoption was something that was quiet; we whispered about it,” says Rita Soronen, president and CEO of DTFA. In the beginning, the mission was to erase the stigma surrounding adoptions and reframing the focus. Rather than a cause for secrecy, “it’s a cause for celebration,” she adds.

Back in 1992, Thomas said if the foundation could get one girl and one boy adopted, it would be a success. In its 25-year history, DTFA has expanded exponentially. Awareness and education are still twin pillars, but the foundation now takes a far more active role with measurable results and evidence-based programs.

Soronen joined DTFA in 2001, when Thomas was still on the board. She says the only great sadness of her time with DTFA was not getting to spend more time with him. Still, his influence remains palpable. The walls of DTFA’s headquarters are decked with pictures of Thomas and the families that have been formed thanks to the organization, as well as a quote that was arguably Thomas’s most fervent remark on the issue of adoption. It has become something of a mantra for the foundation: “These children are not someone else’s responsibility; they are our responsibility.”

Wendy Thomas says her father’s vision was simple: to get more children adopted, especially those who have been in foster care far too long. She adds that he had the “get ’er done” determination to make it so.

“Time and time again, Dave would rather look forward to what could be versus what is,” says Lynch, who was one of the founding trustees of DTFA and has served as chairman of the board since 1992. “When we started, we had no understanding of adoption. We had no idea what we were doing. We were just some business folks that believed what Dave believed and agreed that the foster care system wasn’t working as efficiently as it should be.”

Lynch adds that one of Thomas’s greatest strengths was his ability to delegate responsibilities to those with expertise or skills beyond his own. Thomas himself remarked that it was key to have people running the foundation who understood the adoption landscape and nonprofit world far better than he did.

In short, he didn’t micromanage—something Soronen observed even in a fleeting exchange with Thomas early in her DTFA tenure.

“I met with him before my first board meeting … and I was terrified. I hadn’t spent any time with him, and he was absolutely this icon,” she says. “I just said, ‘Mr. Thomas, what would you like me to tell the board members tomorrow?’ He thought about it and he said, ‘Just tell them to get this job done.’”

From the very beginning, DTFA was intertwined with the Wendy’s brand. The foundation tapped the expertise of the chain’s marketing and ad team to drive the conversation around adoption. Every November, the restaurants would hang a poster of 50–60 children in foster care who were ready for adoption that very day. Eight years into DTFA and during his visit to the National Press Club, Thomas reported that roughly half of those featured children were adopted each year.

Before the age of social media, DTFA relied heavily on videos, in the form of PSAs and a network television holiday special “A Home for the Holidays,” spotlighting the families forged through foster adoption. Both these campaigns continue, but they are now supplemented with social media. It also offers a number of resources and guides to trim the red tape that can mire the adoption process.

Despite the foundation’s connection to Wendy’s, Thomas wanted it to be its own independent public entity, rather than a corporation or family-only organization. It is the charity of choice for the restaurant brand, but franchisees are under no obligation to participate. Still, many corporate employees, operators, third-party vendors, and customers choose to participate, Soronen says.

“It would not have happened one, without Dave Thomas, and two, without the enduring commitment of Wendy’s—its customers and its franchisees and its partners, who unconditionally commit to this notion that every child deserves a safe, loving, and permanent home,” she adds.

Turner has served on the DTFA board for about 17 years, but was involved with the foundation since its inception—a decision he and a number of other operators gladly made early on. Wright, who now serves on the board, also recalls such enthusiasm during his early years with the brand. People at the management level would make $100 donations every month while others would deduct 50 cents from every paycheck to benefit DTFA. He’s also seen franchisees donate hundreds of thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to the foundation during special auctions.

Wright adds that customers were eager to participate—even if it was just dropping a few cents into coin collection boxes by the register. DTFA still has a presence in the stores today, whether it’s through signage on the walls or adoption-focused infographics on Frosty cups.

“If you’ve got a cause that people believe in and you allow them all to be a part of it, then there’s significant power in that,” Wright says.

DTFA’s reach has also grown exponentially. In 2004, under Soronen’s leadership, the foundation launched Wendy’s Wonderful Kids to take its grant endeavors to the next level. Through this program, agencies are funded for the specific purpose of hiring adoption specialists to target children who have been in foster care the longest. It also helps the often-overlooked segment of older children and teens who are about to pass adoptive age.

“Once they put in the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiters, that really changed the whole model, because it moved the kids—finding them a home—a lot quicker,’” Wendy Thomas says. “I think as my dad would say, ‘It was a no-brainer,’ but it’s working really well. We’ve just got to continue to keep marching ahead.”

To date, more than 6,000 children have found permanent homes through Wendy’s Wonderful Kids. But as Wendy Thomas says, DTFA has big plans to continue forward and even has an ambitious, new program in the works.

Still under the umbrella of Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, this new initiative will not only ramp up its work with older children, but also scale its pipeline of adoption specialists. Wendy’s Wonderful Kids operates in all 50 states, as well as six provinces in Canada, but few have enough recruiters to meet demand.

After a couple of years spent perfecting a strategy, the plan kicked off in January with an infusion of $35 million from Blue Meridian Partners, a capital investment arm of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which targets low-income youths. The new initiative’s ultimate goal is to grow Wendy’s Wonderful Kids to a proportional ratio in every state by 2028.

It’s no small undertaking, but Soronen and Wendy Thomas seem galvanized by the opportunity to take the foundation’s work to the next level.“‘Unadoptable is unacceptable’—it’s a great rallying cry for us, but we also remember that was what Dave said. It wasn’t a fashionable statement; it was that his heart’s desire and his belief was we can solve this problem,” Wright says. “I’m always a little careful about saying what I think Dave … would say because he’d often surprise us with what he’d say, but I really do believe he’d be really proud of the work the foundation is doing today.”

A steadfast inheritance

For such a public figure, Thomas remained a private person who seemed untouched by fame and fortune. In his commercials, he kept the focus on Wendy’s offerings and high-quality standards. In his testimonies on adoption and videos for DTFA, he skimmed over his own origin story, preferring instead to dive into the stories of boys and girls in foster care.

His background—both professionally and personally—imbued him with a special perspective in building a quick-service giant and advocating for forgotten children. He utilized those experiences to promote his business and his foundation, but he didn’t promote himself.

It was a rare quality, even before the rise of celebrity chefs and self-aggrandizing social media. His nature may have leaned on the subtle side, but his impact was acute. Whether it was a painstaking approach to building a better burger, a warmth with customers and franchisees, or a passion for the voiceless children waiting for a place to call home, Thomas inspired a new generation who have become leaders in their own right.

Turner, who knew Thomas for more than two decades, finds it difficult to sum up his legacy in a single point or two. Mostly, he knows the industry—and the greater world—was better because of him.

“He was a gift, and the best part about it is he didn’t know he was a gift. He just worked hard, all the way to the very end,” Turner says.

This story originally appeared in QSR's May 2017 issue with the title "The Founder and the Foundation."