Wendy's first restaurant opened on Nov. 15, 1969, and the iconic restaurant chain is getting ready to celebrate the anniversary.
Fifty years ago in Columbus, Ohio, Dave Thomas opened his first Wendy’s restaurant with humble ambitions.
“I think my dad’s vision was to have five restaurants,” said his daughter, Wendy Thomas, the restaurant’s namesake. “Because he had five kids, he figured each one of us could (manage) one of the restaurants.”
Dave Thomas, who for years was the face of the chain, died in 2002. Today his company has grown well beyond his original vision with more than 6,700 restaurants.
“If he was still here with us, he would be saying ‘this is pretty cool,’” Wendy Thomas said.
From the first restaurant, which opened on East Broad Street on Nov. 15, 1969, Wendy’s tried to differentiate itself. The second store, which opened in 1970, was the first to feature a modern pick-up window.
“Full customization, made-to-order, things that weren’t being delivered in the fast-food industry at the time. That’s how (Dave Thomas) founded the brand,” Wendy’s President and CEO Todd Penegor said in an interview at the company’s Dublin headquarters.
Customers of that first store, which closed in 2007, likely would recognize only the logo in the new stores. In contrast to the blocky style of the original location, today’s Wendy’s restaurants feature glass facades and glitzy interiors brimming with 21st century architectural flourishes and modern conveniences like Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs.
The script on the logo is softer but retains a similar typeface, and the cameo of founder Dave Thomas’ red-haired, pig-tailed daughter Wendy looks more or less the same. The chain’s culinary offerings have kept the burger staples but branched out.
“Wendy’s is a prime example of a company that is willing to take a risk,” said Richard Klein, a Cleveland State University urban studies professor. “But what’s so important is that they still offer the same fare they’ve always offered.”
The company has long promoted its commitment to quality. With so many fast-food choices for consumers, “where you can really set yourself apart is on quality,” Penegor said.
The company’s “fresh, never frozen” campaign has become ubiquitous.
“It sends a message that is easily recognizable, easy to remember, and speaks volumes,” said Bob Welcher, president of the Columbus-based Restaurant Consultants Inc.
“They helped establish the idea that a fast-food chain can target an audience looking for a higher quality burger,” said Jonathan Maze, executive editor of Restaurant Business Magazine. “They proved, for instance, that you can be both fast in a drive-thru and sell burgers made from fresh beef.”
The chain’s first slogan, “quality is our recipe,” can still be found on many of the restaurants, and the company’s marketing continues to focus on the “quality” part of the equation, said Joseph Goodman, associate professor of marketing at the Ohio State University.
“Any good marketing strategy is one that can be consistent over the years,” Goodman said. Even as they push fresh beef “what they’re saying is ‘you come here for the high quality.’ ”
That standard is also flexible enough to justify adding a variety of new food items.
“They put some items on their menu that their rivals didn’t really have, like the baked potato,” which was added to the menu in the ’80s, Maze said. “No other fast-food chain I know of offers a baked potato at scale.” Wendy’s was also the first fast-food restaurant to add a salad bar.
Modern restaurants must appeal to a broad section of consumers, and Wendy’s has done that through the years with items like deli sandwiches and specialty salads, Klein said.
“They produced (salads) with less fat, less salt and less saturated fats for people who are watching their weight,” he said. “They also have things like the baconator that are for people who are maybe not watching their weight.”
And few businesses use social media as well as Wendy’s, said John Barker, president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association.
The official Wendy’s Twitter feed has around 3.4 million followers, which is eclipsed only by the McDonald’s Twitter handle among fast-food chains. In contrast, Burger King has fewer than 2 million followers.
“We did a lot of work on what could the voice of Wendy’s be,” Penegor said.
In addition to promoting the company’s products, the feed constantly ribs competitors and alludes to current events. “Thinking about changing the Dave’s Single to the Dave’s Self-Partnered,” the handle tweeted in response to news that actor Emma Watson considers herself “self-partnered” rather than single. The handle often retweets or replies to Twitter users who speak highly of the brand and responds when other brands take swipes at the company.
“If you tweet at Wendy’s somebody is listening,” said Mary Schell, Wendy’s chief public affairs officer.
Branching out and trying new things hasn’t always reaped dividends. The salad bar was eventually scrapped — the restaurants now sell specialty salads — and while a breakfast menu was announced at some restaurants in 2007, breakfast never caught on nationwide. The chain is in the process of reintroducing breakfast.
Wendy’s has also sought to expand through acquisition. The company has owned Tim Horton’s and Baja Fresh Mexican Grill and merged with Triarc Cos., the parent company of Arby’s, in 2008, only to sell the Arby’s brand in 2011.
“Arby’s was mostly struggling while those two brands were together,” Maze said. “Then Wendy’s decided it really needed to focus” on itself.
Food sales at Arby’s stores have since rebounded, but Maze said Wendy’s managed to get a good deal on the sale of Arby’s.
Wendy’s was also at the center of a now-infamous hoax in 2005. A California woman that year claimed she found a finger in a bowl of chili, but was later outed as a fraudster attempting to extort the restaurant chain. The woman was eventually sentenced to nine years in prison, but Wendy’s announced that its sales took a hit as a result of the hoax.
Experts attributed much of the chain’s historic success to an expansion strategy that prevented runaway growth.
“In a 10-month span in the mid-70s, we built about 1,000 restaurants,” Penegor said. “That’s when the brand really took off.”
The chain maximized profits by opening new stores, but keeping them spread out enough to avoid competing with each other, said Scott Shane, a Case Western Reserve University professor of entrepreneurship.
When a franchise moves into a new region “you’re trying to get enough (locations) so that you can advertise across the area,” he said. But you don’t want the restaurants “so close together that they’re cannibalizing each other for business.”
Wendy’s is held up as an example of striking the right balance, Shane said.
Wendy Thomas owns a chain of Wendy’s franchises throughout Ohio and western Pennsylvania and is on the board of directors of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a nonprofit agency her father founded to find permanent homes for foster children.
The cause was personal for Dave Thomas, who was adopted after living in foster care as a child.
That foundation is the restaurant chain’s most important legacy, Wendy Thomas said.
Tens of thousands of children throughout the country are in foster care and “if we can bring awareness to these children, then we’re helping society,” Thomas said. “There are so many great causes out there, and we’re talking about kids who just need a chance.”
While the foundation is separate from the company, “it is our charity of choice,” Schell said.