World's First Wendy's (Gone)
Ohio is history's not-so-ancient Cradle of Fast Food, where many a restaurant chain traces its 20th century origins (BurgerBoy, Sisters Chicken and Biscuits, RAX, Bob Evans). Wendy's is on top of this triple-meat heap, operating restaurants around the world. While the saga told of other fast food giants often starts with a single local restaurant and a secret chicken or shake recipe, Wendy's, with its upscale square burgers, seemed conceived from the start as an infinitely expandable franchise.
Dave Thomas opened his first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers in downtown Columbus in November, 1969.
Before launching Wendy's, 35-year old Dave spent his career studying the fast food chain business from the inside out. He worked with Colonel Sanders at one point, and restored a handful of KFC outlets to profitability. His Wendy's concept broke new ground for the eat-and-run crowd -- though a little more expensive than the competition, its fresh 100% domestic ground beef burgers, made-to-order, quickly found a salivating share of the market.
Thomas named the business after his daughter Melinda "Wendy" Thomas (a nickname coined by her brothers and sisters).
Within a year, Thomas opened a second restaurant in Columbus, featuring what Wendy's claims in its corporate history was "the first modern-day, drive-thru window," added in 1971. Not the very first, but Wendy's crafted the formula for drive-thru operations that made it a staple in the fast food industry, convenient for soccer moms and frantic road trippers. Wendy's first franchisee signed up in 1972 in Indianapolis. By 1976 there were 500 restaurants. The salad bar, another milestone for a national chain, was added in 1979.
With such a heaping platter of culinary innovation, we griped in the early 1990s about the lack of historical exhibits in the original restaurant (there wasn't much more than a 1976 commemorative plaque).
Today Wendy's is in 34 countries with 5,000 US restaurants. Dave Thomas died January 8, 2002, but there's no danger he'll be forgotten --- at least not on one particular corner in downtown Columbus. The corporation has added many more items to its Home of the First Wendy's Restaurant. The walls of the dining room and ordering area are covered with displays, photographs, and artifacts.
It's still primarily a place to wolf down a hot lunch, but the exhibits are free for examination even if you aren't dining.
You can see the original hamburger test griddle, mounted on a plaque on the wall. The signature goofy dress worn by daughter Wendy is modeled on a mannequin.
A few displays remind visitors of Wendy's occasionally memorable ad campaigns. In 1984 "Where's the Beef?," a cranky little old lady captured America's attention; the phrase still lingers today as a substantive challenge in business and politics.
There's a photo of a young, 100% beefcake Arnold Schwarzenegger dressed in a Wendy's shirt and hat -- behind the counter in a 1979 ad.
Some items are the predictable leftovers corporations prefer to show off -- trophies and PR totems, such as the Olympic torch carried by Dave Thomas through Dublin, Ohio in 1996.
Then there are real gems, such as a Frosty cup and spoon used by actor Danny Thomas (no relation) at the grand opening, saved by him for 25 years before being donated. It's now enshrined under a glass dome labeled with a brass plaque.
Update: The original Wendy's closed its doors forever on March 2, 2007. The culprits? Fewer customers and the high cost to renovate. Wendy's corporate office reportedly delayed the closing for years. The artifacts and displays at the restaurant were packed up and moved to the company's headquarters in Dublin, Ohio. The store was later demolished; today a historical marker stands at the site.