Dave’s Way

I was eating lunch at Wendy’s today, and it occurred to me to check Amazon and see if Dave Thomas’ book “Dave’s Way” is still available. It is, in both paperback and Kindle formats.

At some point around 1990 or 1991, the company that owned the Wendy’s franchise in Shelbyville, along with a lot of other restaurants in Middle Tennessee, had some financial trouble, and the Shelbyville Wendy’s closed down, not through any fault of its own. After some months, in 1992, it was announced that a different franchisee would reopen the restaurant.

I was still a young reporter, and I thought it would be fun to contact Wendy’s corporate offices and see if I could get an interview with Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas, who starred in the chain’s TV commercials. I really didn’t expect anything, but I figured the worst they could say was “no.”

Within a day, the head of Wendy’s PR, Denny Lynch, was on the phone. He said he was sending me a copy of Dave’s autobiography and would check on setting up an interview.

The good news was, he set up the interview very quickly. The bad news is that I wish I’d had a chance to receive the book before doing the interview; I’d have had a lot better questions. The book, autographed, arrived a day or two after I’d been on the phone with Dave. I enjoyed talking to Dave — although you could tell even over the phone that he was a lot more driven, a lot more of a Type A personality than the relaxed character he played on the TV ads. That wasn’t surprising, and it shouldn’t have been.

Anyway, “Dave’s Way” is a great read for a business autobiography.

The main things most people know about Dave Thomas, if they know anything at all, is that he was adopted — Wendy’s still promotes adoption, in part through annual sales of key ring tags which get you free Frostys — and that he named the restaurant after one of his children, his daughter Melinda. Melinda’s siblings had a hard time pronouncing her name when all of them were young, and it came out sounding more like “Wendy,” which stuck.

But there were a lot of other things I learned about Dave, mostly from the book:

  • Those of you who attended UT or who go to a lot of UT football games may know of the Regas Restaurant, now closed, but for many years a Knoxville landmark. It was also the first place Dave Thomas worked in food service, at the tender age of 12 (he lied and told them he was 16).
  • He ran a mess hall during his Army service, and learned lessons about how something as simple as a fresh coat of paint and a spruced-up appearance could improve diners’ perception and experience.
  • Dave played a key role in the development of Kentucky Fried Chicken before going on to found Wendy’s. Here’s how it happened:

Dave was working for a man named Phil Clauss who owned a chain of restaurants known as Hobby House. When Harland Sanders first began marketing KFC, he approached existing, traditional restaurants, including the Saddle Restaurant in Shelbyville, and those restaurants sold KFC as a menu item, alongside whatever other dishes they already specialized in. The Hobby House chain began carrying KFC, and Dave got to know Col. Sanders and even accompanied him on promotional appearances at one point. (The book has a wonderful photo of the two of them, side-by-side, both wearing the white suit for which the Colonel was famous.)

Dave was just an employee of the Hobby House chain, but his boss approached him with a proposition. Four of the restaurants in Columbus, Ohio, were performing very poorly. Clauss told Dave that if he would go and take personal charge of those restaurants and turn them around, Clauss would give Thomas the chance to buy a stake in those restaurants. Despite being advised against this by several people, including Col. Sanders, Thomas saw it as his best pathway to ownership and agreed.

He studied the restaurants’ operation and quickly realized that KFC was the biggest seller and the most profitable item. But the kitchens had to prepare a wide variety of menu items. So Dave took everything off the menu except KFC and a few side items that would normally go with fried chicken. He took down the “Hobby House” signs and put big “Kentucky Fried Chicken” signs on the restaurant. He tried, with some confusion at first, to explain to a signmaker that he wanted a revolving bucket of chicken on top of the sign, at an angle, so that it would, as Dave put it, “wobble.”

Basically, he converted his four Hobby House locations from full-menu restaurants into something like the KFC locations we know today. The restaurants turned around, and Clauss came through on his promise to give Dave Thomas a stake in them.

“Dave’s Way” portrays him as the first person to have created stand-alone KFC-branded restaurants, although I’ve seen some other accounts that credit a man in Utah. In any case, Dave was a pioneer.

Later, Harland Sanders sold KFC to businessmen John Y. Brown and Jack Massey. They wanted to build the chain, and — like many restaurant chains — they wanted a mix of franchises and corporate-owned locations. They ended up buying the four Indiana KFC restaurants from Clauss and Thomas for a huge amount of money, and it was that money which later allowed Dave to start his first Wendy’s. In the meantime, though, he worked for KFC and later for Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips, learning more about franchising and the restaurant business, and getting ideas for what he wanted to do, and to avoid, at Wendy’s.

By the time I spoke to Dave, he was no longer as involved in day-to-day operations; he was spending more time with his family and with his adoption foundation. He told a wonderful story in the book about Jim Near, who succeeded him as CEO. Wendy’s, like most fast-food chains, uses frozen french fries that have been partially-cooked at a factory (like the frozen french fries you buy at the supermarket). In-N-Out and Five Guys are famous for not doing this, but it’s pretty common elsewhere. Apparently, you are supposed to thaw, or “slack,” the fries before putting them into the hot oil to give them their golden-brown finish.

Dave and Jim Near were out and about one day and decided to stop at a Wendy’s on the way. They were immediately recognized, and the franchisee had them sit down and brought them their meals personally. Near looked at the franchisee and said, “Why aren’t you slacking your fries?” The franchisee became defensive, insisting that everything was being done exactly according to Wendy’s official procedures and manuals. But he returned a few minutes later, sheepish, and said he’d just learned that a newly-hired employee had been putting rock-hard french fries into the hot oil. How had the CEO known? Had he gotten complaints from a customer? Did he have a mole in the restaurant?

No. As soon as Jim Near and Dave Thomas had walked into the restaurant, the CEO had been able to hear the fryer, and he could tell right away that it was the sound of frozen french fries rather than the sound of thawed french fries. Dave told this story to compliment Near and illustrate the need for a CEO to understand even the finer, street-level details of an organization.

Anyway, “Dave’s Way” is a great book, both as autobiography and as a business how-to book. Dave put bullet points in each chapter with lessons he had learned and wanted to pass along. Since it’s still available, I can still recommend it.