Just Plain Dave Put Genuine Beef In Life

LAKE SUCCESS | Friday, January 11, 2002

DAVE THOMAS'S career was based on the idea that you give customers a square deal and in so doing you make a solid profit. It's an old-fashioned American idea, really, and thank goodness it survives.

Dave Thomas founded a business, Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburger Restaurants, that was known for shaping hamburgers into squares. Yes, it made his product look different from the competition, big guys like McDonald's and Burger King. It was also a personal tribute to his beloved grandmother, who told him never to cut corners. In this way, he set an example for anyone who cared to pay attention. And many did (present company included).

Dave - nobody called him Mr. Thomas - died Tuesday, but his legacy of entrepreneurship lives on. He evidently listened to his grandmother and cut no corners as he built his business from a single restaurant in downtown Columbus, Ohio, into the country's third-largest burger chain. Less well known is the fact that before he worked with KFC and founded Wendy's, he also helped found Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips, which I now have the privilege of operating.

Thomas sold hamburgers - an awful lot of hamburgers - by getting in front of America on television for 13 years and being Dave: genuine, salt-of-the-earth, honest, and unpretentious. He became the best-known corporate spokesman in America, providing a face, a voice, and - especially - an American story to what had become a $7-billion international business.

When you saw his commercials, you didn't think of a corporation. You thought of Dave, the big guy in necktie and half sleeves behind the take-out window of his restaurant. You knew instantly the man stood behind everything he sold. You expected to see him in his restaurant early in the morning, mopping floors, long before employees clocked in. Later, he'd be grilling the hamburgers. Late that night, he'd still be there, cleaning up, the last one to leave.

Sure, these were television commercials. But this was Dave, too.

As someone who grew up in the restaurant industry - I helped my father, a restaurant supplier, run his business in Queens - I recognized Dave Thomas as someone who lived and breathed restaurants. Thomas also had a vision. It was obvious that restaurants were Thomas's life. He was an orphan, adopted as a baby. He lost his adoptive mother at age 5. He lost two stepmothers by age 10. His grandmother - she who cut no corners - took care of him during summers, and the rest of the year he lived with his widowed father. Thomas didn't graduate from high school. His dad was often on the road, searching for work. The two ate plenty of meals at restaurants. It's safe to say few of them were white table-cloth establishments.

Thomas saw how hard people worked at these restaurants and yet - and this says everything about the man - he decided to make restaurants his career. He saw how everyone pitched in and did what needed doing. People pulled together like family. Maybe, because he was an orphan, this meant something extra to him. Thomas talked in later years about seeing his boss, dressed in suit and tie, lug mop and pail over to a spill and clean it up. That's the restaurant business, but Dave obviously believed we're all in life together and we need to help one another. Nobody is too important to clean a spill, grill a burger or take an order from a customer. Dave was the real thing.

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Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips
1111 Marcus Ave., #M27
Lake Success, NY

Phone: (516)918-3300
Fax: (516)918-3301

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