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Building A Better Burger

How Dave Thomas turned a local restaurant into a very beefy business.

This story appears in the March 1996 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine.

Dave thomas' face is everywhere: billboards, TV commercials, life-sized posters in the window of every . It's the face that launched a hamburger chain, and built it into a $4.2 million dollar empire.

With more than 4,500 restaurants in the United States and 34 other countries, Wendy's repeatedly beats McDonald's as the number one burger joint in an annual survey by Restaurant & Institutions magazine. Burger aficionados consistently rate Wendy's high on the quality scale. And it's all due to Thomas' hard work, dedication and commitment to building a better restaurant.

"In 1940, at the age of eight, I dreamed that one day I would own the best restaurant in the world. All of the customers would love my food, and all of my employees would do everything they were supposed to do. But most important, everyone would think I was a good boss, and every day when I walked into the restaurant, people would be glad to see me," writes Thomas on the opening page of his autobiography, Dave's Way (Berkley Books).

Thomas candidly admits that achieving that dream was a study in survival. "Early on, I realized there is no easy way," says Thomas. "If you want something, you have to go out and work for it. The idea is to do something you love."

Ask him what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, and Thomas tells you straight out that anyone can be successful if he or she is dedicated to a service or product, has strong convictions and is willing to work hard to build experience. As the saying goes, however, it's easier said than done.

In The Beginning

Thomas was adopted by Rex and Olivia Thomas when he was six weeks old and christened Rex David Thomas. His adoptive mother died when he was five, and after his father divorced his second wife, Thomas began to get up close and personal with the restaurant business.

"We started going to restaurants for our meals," says Thomas. "It was then that I decided I wanted to own my own restaurant because I liked to eat, and I just thought restaurants were really neat, exciting places. By the age of nine, I had become a real expert on restaurants. I knew what customers expected and I knew what kind of service and quality was acceptable. I overheard complaints and compliments and I soaked it all in."

Thomas spent his teen years learning the grunt side of the restaurant business. When he was 15, his family moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he landed a job as a busboy at the Hobby House Restaurant. "By then, I was a veteran restaurant worker," Thomas chuckles.

At 18, he made another major career move: He enlisted in the army and enrolled in the cook and baker school to learn the skills of a master baker, as well as the rudiments of managing a mess hall that served 2,000 meals a day. He learned to negotiate with vendors and buy in quantity.

"It turned out to be a great learning experience," says Thomas. "I learned how to be an entrepreneur and it didn't cost me anything. It was like running my own business, without any of the risks."

When he finished his three-year army stint, he got back his job as a short order cook at the Hobby House. There he met and fell in love with a pretty waitress named Lorraine Buskirk. They married in 1954, when Thomas was 22 and Lorraine 19.

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