Building A Better Burger

Convictions About Hamburgers

By 1969, Thomas had a clear vision of the kind of business he intended to build. Hamburgers were, and still are, Thomas' favorite meal, and he knew he could beat his competitors by offering a better burger.

"Some people have convictions about the making of fine silver. Others have convictions about how to run universities. I had convictions about hamburgers that came from my experiences as a kid," Thomas says.

"My burgers were going to be hot off the grill. No hamburger would be put on a bun until we had an order. Customers could choose their own toppings, rather than buy burgers with condiments already sitting on them." The burger meister also intended to offer meatier burgers containing less fat.

In 1969, Thomas finally made the big move and opened Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburger Restaurant in downtown Columbus at a cost of less than $90,000. The restaurant's logo featured a cute little pigtailed girl who was based on Thomas' eight-year old daughter, Melinda Lou, nicknamed Wendy.

Thomas' first Wendy's did well immediately, earning $300,000 in its first year, but he was determined to move cautiously. "I had no grand five-year plan," he says. "It was more like, 'Let's get on our feet before barreling ahead.' I wanted to make sure we had a viable product that would make money."

Early on, he learned to surround himself with the best people he could find. He hired people who loved the restaurant business as much as he did. It didn't hurt if they were passionate about hamburgers, either.

"If you hope to grow your business, you've got to learn to trust and support people," says Thomas. "If they don't perform, you go out and find people who can get the job done." He also kept a watchful eye on the competition, never second-guessing or underestimating them. "I looked at the competition and tried to figure out what they were doing better so we could improve our operations."

Thomas decided to test the franchising waters cautiously. He wanted to be certain that franchising worked, and that his concept could easily be franchised. He also wanted franchisees who understood the restaurant business and would be successful. If they did well, Thomas would do well and the Wendy's image would be strengthened. By his second year in business, potential franchisees were beating down his door. Four years after launching his company, Thomas sold his first franchise.

In 1970, Thomas opened another restaurant in Columbus, and sales reached above $600,000. By the end of 1974, total restaurant sales hit nearly $25 million. There were 100 Wendy's restaurants in 1975. About a decade later, Thomas celebrated the opening of his 3,000th restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

It's not that Thomas was lucky; luck played no part in his extraordinary ascension to entrepreneurial superstardom. Thomas credits listening and observing-and determination, dedication and hard work-for his success, skills he began honing as a teenager. Everyone he worked for served as his teacher. Their successes and failures taught young Thomas everything he needed to know about running a successful business.

"I learned to look at everyone's business style and philosophy," says Thomas. "I picked and chose compatible ideas and rejected the others. There are a lot of ways to get downtown and they're all right. It's just a question of picking the best path for you. It's the same way in business."

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This article was originally published in the March 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Building A Better Burger.

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