The Real Wendy – In Her Own Words
Dave Thomas may have been our founder, but Wendy Thomas has been the face of the Wendy’s brand for all 50 years.
Read time: 1 min
Literally and, especially, figuratively since her father passed away in 2002. So, who better to cap off our 50 Years, 50 Stories series than the woman whose name and likeness we see every day?
My dad came home and said, “I’m going to start a restaurant and it’s going to be a hamburger restaurant.”
He wanted a character, because he worked for the Colonel at Kentucky Fried Chicken and knew how much that persona mattered. He said, “Wendy, pull your hair up in pigtails.” So, I did. He got his camera and took pictures of me and my sister and said, “Yep, it’s going to be Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburgers.”
That was it. There was no marketing research, no nothing. Just boom. That’s it.
We never thought of it like, this is going to be big.
When the first restaurant opened, I was in the third grade and got to skip school. My mom made my blue and white dress and she stuck my hair up in pigtails. And, boy, did I cry. It hurt. Then she stuck those pipe cleaners in there. We sat in front of the photographer for what felt like five or six hours.
Then my dad had a big store opening – he was really big into store openings. I got to wear my dress and they made this huge hamburger and, of course, when you’re young you’re like, how’d they do that with that big patty? Of course, it was just hamburgers all around it, but I got to take a bite out of it and I was just to-the-moon excited.
The first time I realized Wendy’s was a big deal was later in my college years.
That’s when my dad was on TV, but I just didn’t realize that everyone saw that. I understood the importance of marketing – that was my major – but I just always thought, well, not everyone will know. And then when everyone knew, I thought, wow, this is kind of big, isn’t it?
I went to University of Florida, so when I’d drive back to Columbus, I knew I could always stop at a Wendy’s and have my dad’s “home cooking” – and that’s when it really sunk in for me. I thought, this is really cool. It’s like being at home.
After college, when I was in South Carolina, my dad asked if I’d ever thought about being a Wendy’s franchisee.
I looked at my husband and said, “No – but okay. Really? We can do that?” And my dad said, “Yeah, here are the people you need to call. Work it out.” Seriously, that’s all he said. Work it out.
So, we made some calls. I really don’t know if my dad greased the skids on that, but Wendy’s did take my call. I’m sure everyone thought, “Oh, the Thomas kids got taken care of,” but it really wasn’t like that. I had to go to GE Capital and pretend I knew what I was doing with all the financing.
I had to get a loan, because my father wouldn’t help us out.
I wish! That would’ve been nice. But I was learning the hard way and I picked it up along the way, and I’m thankful he chose that path for us, because it made us really work hard and not have people assume “oh, this was handed to you.” He didn’t believe in that theory at all.
We became a franchisee in Dallas. When my dad would call, the first three questions would be, “How you doing? How are the kids? How are your sales?” That was usually the third question. And then he’d say, “Let me tell you how much cash you have.” Really, Dad?
My mother, Lorraine, was very instrumental in my dad’s success.
We probably don’t give her enough credit for having five children at home while my dad was always traveling. But my mom was a trooper and her doors were always open. My dad was just a people guy and so was my mom. They were country folks who loved people.
My dad would say, “Walk the hallways.”
“Meet someone new and ask them what they do. Tell them what you do. You never know who you’ll meet. We all have an important role here, whether you’re a franchisee, a supplier or you work at headquarters. We all have a role. And I just want to encourage you – push a little bit. Meet each other.”
In our own restaurants, my job is to have fun with our teams. That’s my role – to go in and make sure we’re doing the right thing. We talk about the grill – a lot – because we sell a lot of really great hamburgers.
And they’re called “hamburgers!” I’m really big on that.
I was trained by the master – my dad. He would really get upset about people saying we’re in the “burger” business. We would be in a lot of conversations, especially with the media, and they’d say, “Well now, Dave, how do you make your burger?” And he would just cut them right off and say, “Well, we’re not in the burger business – we’re in the hamburger business, because we don’t cut corners. That’s where our quality is.” To this day, we are in the hamburger business, because we’re all about fresh beef. So, I would just encourage you to please say hamburger. It’s not that hard.
Before my dad left us, we had a long conversation about him naming the restaurant Wendy’s.
It was the first time we’d ever had this conversation. He said, “You know what? I’m sorry.” I asked him what he meant. He explained, “I should’ve just named it after myself, because it put a lot of pressure on you.” I responded, “Yeah, it is a lot of pressure. I have to do the right thing.”
I have to do the right thing, because it’s the legacy I have to carry on. I want to do the right thing by him, because he worked really hard to start this. I know he’s been gone almost 20 years, but he’s still working.
(The name does have its advantages, though. Sometimes if I need a reservation, it helps!)
I’m as encouraged and motivated as ever by our brand.
I love this brand. I will always love this brand, but not because my name is on the buildings. I love our products. I love our hamburgers. I just love everything. Why wouldn’t I? It’s our business. Our family business.
For me, Wendy’s is my family.