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Fred's Views

Dave Thomas

Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's, died just a few days ago. He was 69 and suffered from liver cancer. I remember when he started Wendy's and when the first franchise appeared in our area, although I would not want to guess the date. I don't frequent "fast food" places much these days, although when the kids were kids, we had many meals at McDonald's. Wendy's offered more "adult" fare and my wife and I would sometimes have a meal there. These days, when we do visit a fast food place, it is most likely Arby's.

But Dave Thomas' death affects me more personally than most other celebrity deaths. I think it's because Dave Thomas wasn't just another pitch man on tv, Dave Thomas made you think of him almost as family. I have no idea what he was really like, but he came across as a somewhat shy, humble man able to laugh at life's foibles - even when the foible was on him. He is the man who is duped out of his lunch by being told to take an extra lap in the race car. He is the man who can flip a coin and have it land on its edge. He is the man who named his restaurant after his daughter, but (almost) never showed her on tv. (I believe there is a commercial featuring Wendy, possibly the "real" Wendy.) McDonald's has its Ronald, the clown, as a spokesman. Wendy's had Dave Thomas. Any comparisons I will leave up to you.

Down through the years many ads have featured the "real guy" as their spokesman. It may happen more frequently on local tv. We all have seen horrible commercials for new and used cars featuring the real owner or salesmen. Usually, they are annoying, and their occasional attempts at being "personal", even more annoying. There is a store somewhere around Buffalo, N.Y. called "Vidler's Five and Ten". The mere fact that an old "Five and Ten" still remains in business is nothing short of miraculous, but this store is run by two brothers (the Vidlers, in case you haven't been paying attention). For years they have made semi-regular appearances on tv promoting their store. Like Dave Thomas, they managed to make themselves welcomed and were not above poking fun at themselves. They are getting quite old now, but I still look forward to watching their ads. How often can you say that?

Then there's Colonel Saunders and his "Original Recipe". (Did you know that someone recently uncovered a recipe for chicken with eleven herbs and seasonings? When they innocently and graciously contacted KFC about it, they were promptly served an injunction [No that's nothing like "popcorn" chicken.]. It should have made old Harlan roll over in his grave.) The Colonel was a kindly old gentleman of the South, but he always appeared somewhat aloof. I don't think he would have laughed if he had been the butt of a joke.

And what about Orville Reddenbecker? He always wore a suit or a "popcorn vendor" uniform with a bow tie. He looked like a nerd. And he played up the part. He was friendly enough, but he was no Dave Thomas.

Lee Iacocca used to make commercials for Chrysler back when they were facing oblivion. I believe that Mr. Ford made a few commerc ials for his company. Dave Nichols first peddled "President's Choice" products for Loblaws and now peddles his own beer. For a while, the former owner of the New England Patriots used to hawk his Remington shavers. I forget his name. I'm sure there are others that you could name. While these men may have done a creditable job as pitch men, they were certainly no Dave Thomas.

To be fair, Dave was not above using other marketing tricks. After all, while everyone else was selling "round" burgers, Dave's burgers were square. And who else sold chili, or, for that matter, baked potatoes? (Yes, Arby's sells baked potatoes - that's one of the reasons we go there.) And Wendy's may have been the first to bring a salad bar into a fast food joint. It didn't last, but it was a pleasant change from the normal fare. But if you're looking for the true secret of Wendy's success, look no further than Dave, himself.

Do they say that the art of salesmanship is not to sell the product but to sell the good feelings associated with the product? (I don't know, I just thought it up. I'm just sure it's not original.) If that is the case, then I believe that Dave Thomas personified the art of salesmanship. He may have been promoting his latest "specialty" sandwich, but he was really selling himself. Who wouldn't want to share a meal with Dave Thomas? I mean, how many multi-millionaire CEO's do you know who could "take a ribbin' and keep on smilin'"? I bet if Bill Gates ever got a look at what I've said about him (or his company), he wouldn't just sit back and smile. And that Dave Thomas' grin. It's like he's thinking "You may have got me now, big fella, but I'll get you in the end. Just when you least expect it, I'll get you to buy just one more burger, and then another, and another, ..."

It's trite but no less true: with the passing of Dave Thomas we have lost another little slice of Americana. Dave Thomas, old friend, we'll miss you. Thanks for the smiles. The burgers were just a bonus.

Copyright © 2002 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.

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