One recent day at lunchtime, my daughter put in a special request for sweet-potato french fries. She deserved a small pleasure, so I took the bag out of the freezer and poured some fries onto a baking sheet. They were covered in ice crystals. “Those need to be slaked,” I thought, “so they don’t turn out mushy.”
Slaked? Where did that thought come from? As I waited for the oven to preheat, I searched back. Remember…Remember…Oh, right, from an interview 10 years ago with Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas.
While I was editor of QSR magazine, I had the chance to interview Thomas on two occasions. The first came early in the summer of 1997, for the cover of the premier issue. Somehow, and I’ll never be sure quite how, I convinced one of America’s best-known faces to grant an interview to a new magazine that had only a great concept, an eager market, and a four-page media brochure to speak for it. I called, I wrote letters, I played up the Duke University connection (I’d gone to graduate and undergraduate schools there, he’d granted major endowments to the Fuqua School of Business). And somehow it worked. His secretary called, the appointment was set, and my office neighbors poked their heads in my door to ask what that loud “Woohoo!” was all about.
During that first interview, Thomas talked with me for more than an hour, though I’d asked for only 30 minutes. Unlike many other top quick-serve leaders I’d go on to interview for the magazine, he talked alone on the phone, with no media specialist or legal advisor on the line to monitor what he said. Speaking honestly and directly, he told me what he valued most in the kitchen—like taking a moment to shake the ice crystals off of the fries before plunging them into the hot oil. That’s what he called slaking, and he insisted that small detail made Wendy’s fries better than anyone else’s.
He cared about the food quality, clearly, and about treating employees and customers well, but it was obvious that the success of Wendy’s was important to him. “Profit,” he said, “is not a dirty word.” And he surrounded himself with a team and a franchise system sharp enough to produce not only a profit but also remarkably consistent year-over-year results.
The second time I got to speak with Dave Thomas, Wendy’s was in the midst of significant changes. It was early in the year 2000, and leadership at the Dublin, Ohio, headquarters was in flux after the sudden loss of chairman, CEO, and president Gordon Teter—this just four years after the unexpected death of CEO Jim Near. Thomas found himself suddenly back in the figurehead role, working daily on company matters and still staring in all the brand’s television commercials. The schedule, he said, was rigorous, but he was grateful for the strong foundation that Near and Teter had helped build.