"Hey, it's him! It's Dave! Wow! Lookin' good, Dave! Can I have your autograph? Got any more of those photos of you and Wendy? Dave! Dave! Come over to our table Dave! Over here, Dave!"
Lunch at Wendy's, never particularly restful during the noon rush, was more chaotic than usual Tuesday at the 2240 S. 1300 East store when Mr. Average Guy himself, R. David Thomas, founder of the restaurant chain that bears his daughter's nickname, came to town to munch a Dave's Deluxe, press the flesh with the customers, spin some down-home business philosophy and drum up a little publicity for the local franchise.No doubt Michael Jackson would have caused a bigger stir, but Dave can hold his own in a room full of teenagers. No, he's not a rock star and, at 58, he's old enough to be their father, even grandfather, but Dave appears regularly in national television commercials and that's all it takes these days to be a bona fide celebrity.
But don't call him that. Despite the fact that he is recognized by most residents of the 50 states and 18 foreign countries where some 3,800 Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurants are located (and advertised) Thomas insists he's not a celebrity, "just a guy selling hamburgers."
Sure, and Colonel Sanders was just a guy selling fried chicken.
Actually, the comparison is apt. Before he launched Wendy's, Thomas was a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchiser and he gives credit to Utahn Leon "Pete" Harman, the colonel's first franchiser, for "teaching me how to fry chicken." He also praises the late Colonel Sanders as "one of the great influences in my life."
All of the Wendy's restaurants in Utah are owned by Phil Arlt, a Salt Laker who opened the first local Wendy's in 1977 at 562 E. 400 South. He now has 20 outlets from Logan to St. George with some 800 employees.
About 70 percent of the Wendy's around the globe are franchises with the remainder owned by the company. Thomas is the largest shareholder in the company and serves as chairman of the board.
Thomas' laid-back, down-home ways are not a put-on. He never knew his parents, and his adoptive mother died when he was only five. Moving around the country with his adoptive father, Thomas had - and lost - his first two jobs before he was 12. By the time he finished 10th grade he realized he was too tired to attend school and work long hours in restaurants at the same time.
He dropped out of high school but worked even harder at his jobs. By age 35 he was a millionaire and a recipient of the Horatio Alger award.
None of this seems to have gone to his head. "I don't take any of the fame stuff seriously," he said, "but I do believe in our products. If I didn't, I couldn't ask people to buy them."