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Moment of Indiana History

Where’s the Beef? Dave Thomas In Fort Wayne, Indiana

Dave Thomas helped the owners of Fort Wayne's Hobby House negotiate a deal with Harlan Sanders that ultimately shaped the face of fast food in the US.

Note: the audio for this show will be available on September 6, 2010

Indiana occupies an important niche in fast food history. The now-defunct Burger Chef chain got its start as a hamburger stand in Indianapolis, and the Kentucky Colonel famous for his chicken was actually born and raised in the Hoosier State.

Another fixture of roadside cuisine was born in Indiana, although its founder was not. Given up for adoption by an unwed mother in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Dave Thomas had an itinerant, working-class childhood. When his father settled in Fort Wayne in the early 1940s, young Dave tried his hand at a number of odd jobs, finally hiring on at that city’s Hobby House restaurant.

When his family left Fort Wayne, Thomas stayed on, dropping out of high school and rooming at the YMCA to keep bussing tables at the Hobby House.  After serving in the Army in the early 50s, Thomas returned to Fort Wayne.  As the chef at the Hobby House, Thomas helped the restaurant’s owners negotiate a deal with Harlan Sanders that ultimately shaped the face of fast food in the US.

The Hobby House agreed to franchise the KFC product at their Fort Wayne location, and many others throughout the Midwest.

Thomas got to know Sanders, advising the Kentucky Colonel on menus and marketing. KFC’s iconic striped red bucket and the Colonel’s image in advertising campaigns are products of that partnership. Thomas turned around several failing Columbus, Ohio KFC franchises, ultimately selling his shares for millions back to Sanders himself.

Thomas put his profits into his own venture, opening the first Wendy’s in Columbus Ohio in 1969. More than six thousand franchises later, the chain’s success has been attributed to Thomas’ unpretentious “mop-bucket” attitude and innovative commercials—from “Where’s the Beef?”to 800-plus spots starring Thomas himself.

The founder of the market’s number-three position holder passed away in 2002 at the age of 69.

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