Old Wendy’s restaurants: What was on the menu, what they looked like & how they got the name

Old Wendy's restaurants - Vintage fast food at Click Americana

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Wendy’s has been a top player on the American fast food scene since not long after their first restaurant opened back in 1969.

Established in Columbus, Ohio, it might seem paradoxical that a brand advertising itself as “old fashioned” has often been at the forefront of innovation. Yet, in many ways, that combination has always been a part of Wendy’s history.

The first Wendy's restaurant - Columbus, Ohio - Opened in 1969 and closed in 2007 (Photo from 2006 by Joe Ross via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)
The first Wendy’s restaurant – Columbus, Ohio (Photo: Joe Ross via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Was there a real Wendy?

Yes, there is a Wendy! The girl the restaurant chain is named after is the daughter of company founder Dave Thomas, and was born in 1961. Her real name was Melinda Lou Thomas, but when her young siblings couldn’t pronounce her name properly, they ended up calling her Wenda, which eventually became Wendy.

Wendy's logos - 1970s version and branding from 2013
Wendy’s red-headed girl logos – 1970s version and branding from 2013

She is also the girl in the Wendy’s logo! Of the cameo portrait it was based on (shown below), Melinda/Wendy told the Miami Herald in 1985, “It’s pretty hideous, in my opinion… It’s a little kid with buck teeth and freckles. I guess it looks all-American.”

The real Wendy - Wendy's restaurant namesake Melinda Lou Thomas and Dave Thomas portraits
The real Wendy – Wendy’s restaurant namesake Melinda Lou Thomas, and photos with her dad Dave Thomas

Getting the right look for that photo took a little work. Her mom sewed the white and blue striped dress (which would go on to become the style of the ‘hostess’ uniforms they used to make employees wear), and someone put pipe cleaners in her hair to make the pigtails stand up.

Wendy and hostesses at a party (1974)
Woman in a ‘Wendy’ costume and two hostesses at a party, wearing Wendy’s blue and white stripes (1974)

Wendy’s salads

It’s been a long time since the Wendy’s menu was pretty much limited to hamburgers. 1979’s big menu addition was a salad bar, then in 1992, the chain switched it up again, adding pre-made, portable salads (which eventually evolved into the entree salad options they offer today).

Wendy's salads: 90s pre-made salad options (1993)

The move helped make Wendy’s a destination for customers seeking lighter, healthier fare — and led to many of us feeling nostalgic for Wendy’s Taco Salad to this day!

The famous Wendy’s Frosty

The popular Frosty dessert, originally available only in chocolate, was joined by a vanilla Frosty version in 2006. The sweet, creamy concoction quickly became a must-have for many Wendy’s diners — often serving as a French fry dipping sauce (no one really knows how or why this surprising trend happened, though there are plenty of theories).

A vintage Wendy's Single hamburger and a Frosty (1974)

Is Wendy’s chili made from leftovers?

A nod to comfort food, Wendy’s chili recipe — which includes spices, kidney beans, onions, celery and leftover burger patties — has been a mainstay from the early days. It is an “old-fashioned” dish in that it makes good use of food that might have otherwise been wasted. 

As the company explained, that repurposing came about because they started out with fresh meat. “Dave knew his hamburgers would have a shorter shelf-life. He even asked himself, ‘What do you do with the leftover hamburger?’ The answer was simplecombine the beef we use for our hamburgers with a hearty helping of vegetables, chili beans and a dash of spice.”

Wendy's Chili Bowl ad in the Marion Star (Marion, Ohio) January 17, 1976
Wendy’s Chili Bowl ad in the Marion Star (Marion, Ohio) January 17, 1976

They invented the first drive-thru windows

Back in 1970, became a pioneer with the introduction of the very first drive-through window (although they called it a Pick-Up Window back in the day). This innovation epitomized the fast in fast food, and before long the concept was ubiquitous in the fast food market.

Wendy's fast food restaurant drive-up window (1974)

It was such a revolutionary concept, customers were offered instructions on how to go through the process: “Pull up to the menu board, order over the speaker… and seconds later drive to the Pick Up Window for your order.”

Vintage Wendy's pick-up window drive-thru ordering (1977)

Where’s the beef?

At the core of the brand are those distinctive square burgers… but beyond its signature product, Wendy’s has been anything but square. In the 1980s, it launched the “Where’s the Beef?” campaign.

Where's the beef - Vintage Wendy's restaurant ad with Clara Peller as the old yelling lady

With the spirited Clara Peller as the “Where’s the Beef lady” leading the charge, Wendy’s positioned itself not just as a contender, but — while taking a friendly jab at its competitors — as a challenger to conventional fast food standards.

YouTube video

Wendy’s Dave Thomas

The man behind Wendy’s, Dave Thomas, has also left a remarkable legacy. First, he learned the business from Col Harland Sanders — the Colonel of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.

In 1989, Dave starred in his first commercial, and ultimately appeared in more than 800 TV ads, turning his name into a household name, and making his face part of the nostalgia.

YouTube video

Beyond his notable success in the restaurant industry, Thomas was known for his activism around adoption. To that end, he created the Dave Thomas Foundation, which only added to his enduring impact.

DON’T MISS: Vintage 1970s restaurants: See vintage fast food, sit-down places & other retro eateries

In addition to pictures and ads from years ago, you can check out a 70s-era article about Wendy’s, how it was founded, and those early years.

Wendy’s is an old-fashioned success story (1976)

From The Cincinnati Post (Ohio) July 16, 1976

The first Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant in Greater Cincinnati opened on Kemper Road on December 22, 1973.

The popularity of Wendy’s featured specialty, which is prepared to order any one of 256 different ways, can be measured by the fact that today, barely two and one-half years later, there are 14 Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers stores throughout Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

Retro 70s Wendy's store and sign in the daytime

R. David Thomas, the man who started it all, believes that one of the main reasons for the success of Wendy’s is the group’s “fresh approach to the hamburger business.”

Every hamburger served by Wendy’s, whether inside one of the comfortable restaurants with their inviting turn-of-the-century decor, or through one of the convenient Pick Up Windows, is made to order, served hot from the grill on a warm bun, and prepared any one of 256 ways.

That trademark was marked at the beginning of this year when the 256th Wendy’s opened in Dolton, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. By the 4th of July, there were 360 Wendy’s in operation in 35 states and in Canada.

DON’T MISS! Old KFC: Colonel Sanders & the Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food chain’s history

Vintage Wendy's Chicago storefront (1974)

“That’s not bad for less than seven years in a business everyone said was already overcrowded back in 1969,” Dave Thomas said recently. That was the year Thomas opened his first Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio, with the promise of no waiting — “never more than a couple of minutes, anyway” — but also of no cooking or wrapping ahead of time, either.

While many Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers are operated by franchise owners, the 14 reaching down from Hamilton to Florence are wholly guided by the Columbus-headquartered parent company, which has never been tempted to leave Ohio.

70s Wendy's outfits and ads from 1974

Bob Barney, Wendy’s youthful president, who entered the restaurant business directly out of the University of Kentucky in Ashland and Lexington, picked up on Wendy’s emphasis on freshness.

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“Every one of our restaurants starts fresh every day with 100 percent pure, fresh beef. It’s never frozen. This beef is pattied right there in the kitchen, and every quarter-pound patty is served directly from the grill, on order. And,” he added, “by giving each customer a choice of eight different condiments, plus cheese, each hamburger can be ordered any one of 256 ways.”

Parlor beads and leaded glass Tiffany shades give an old-fashioned atmosphere - Wendys (1974)
Parlor beads and leaded glass Tiffany shades give an old-fashioned atmosphere – Wendys (1974)

Area Director Mike Gates was quick to add that sizes were not considered in arriving at this 256-ways formula. “We make our hamburgers in quarter-pound Single, half-pound Double and three quarter-pound Triple sizes,” he explained. Wendy’s also makes a rich, meaty chili.

“If a patty on the grill is ready and there’s a break in the rush of customers, that patty goes into the chili pot, which is prepared fresh daily based on our own recipe,” Gates said. “Every 69-cent bowl of chili has almost a quarter-pound of fresh beef in it.”

The third major menu item offered by every Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant is the Frosty, the company’s own fresh all-natural dairy dessert.

A square burger, Wendy's chili, and a Wendy's Frosty in 1974

Good food, relaxing surroundings, and convenient pick-up windows haven’t been alone in winning the loyalty of thousands of local hamburger lovers. “We’re very much a part of the communities served by our stores,” says Doug Larson, area supervisor.

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“Our 14 stores in Greater Cincinnati have 475 total employees,” Mike Gates noted. “Four hundred and thirty of these are high school and college students who are given intensive on-the-job training before ever going to work in a Wendy’s. We get them through the schools’ work-study programs, and often through referrals.

In Columbus, which is the site of Wendy’s Management Institute, Bob Barney, Wendy’s president, noted that seven of these student workers from the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky stores have chosen a restaurant career with Wendy’s, passed the demanding three-week Management Institute course, and are now managers and co-managers of Wendy’s restaurants.

Vintage Wendy's sign and storefront (1974)

Creating jobs is only one of the beneficial side effects of a successful company. The 14 local Wendy’s were among the prime movers behind this year’s successful Easter Seal campaign.

Not only did they feed the volunteers hamburgers, chili, and coffee throughout the period of the drive, but a real-life Wendy worked on camera with other volunteers, taking donations, and still found time to give away 4000 balloons to the young-at-heart of all ages. “We’ll be right up front in next year’s Easter Seal campaign as well.”

Last month Wendy’s, in conjunction with WCPO, sponsored the annual party boat outing on the Ohio River for hundreds of youngsters from five orphanages in southwestern Ohio. Literally launched by a group of Cincinnati businessmen, with WCPO providing TV personalities and baseball stars, and Wendy’s free lunches for all, this all-day river outing is now an annual affair to remember.

SEE MORE: Do you remember the old Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips fast food restaurants?

Downtown Wendy's location with a Tiffany canopy sign (1974)
Downtown Wendy’s location with a Tiffany canopy sign (1974)

It has been less than three years since that Wendy’s opened on Kemper Road, but a lot of growing has taken place.

“We opened three new restaurants this past year,” says area director Gates. “That represents a $1 million investment in Cheviot, Newport, and Fairfax. And, while it might not stir up any appetites, it’s nice to know that 50 percent and more of our bottom line net goes to taxes each year.

“Mr Thomas wanted to make hamburgers the way they should be made. It looks as if he had the right idea, and everyone benefits.”

YouTube video

Old Wendy’s dining room (1974)

Remember those glorious Wendy’s sunrooms and the old newspaper print table tops?

Old Wendy's dining room (1974)

Inside a 1970s Wendy’s fast food restaurant kitchen, serving up a bowl of Wendy’s chili

Inside a 1970s Wendy's fast food restaurant kitchen

Vintage Wendy’s button with Jonathan Winters – Bring the family pin (late 1970s)

Vintage Wendy's button with Jonathan Winters - Bring the family pin (late 1970s)

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Vintage ad for hot & juicy hamburgers 256 ways (1977)

Vintage Wendy's ad for hamburgers 256 ways (1977)

80s Wendy’s baked potato toppings (1983)

Hot stuffed baked potatoes were available with cheese, broccoli &  cheese, chili & cheese, sour cream & chives, bacon & cheese

80s Wendy's baked potato toppings from 1983 (2)

80s Wendy's baked potato toppings from 1983 (1)

Wendy’s Light Menu: Now you have a license to eat (1985)

Wendy’s new Light Menu. It’s a delicious menu of lower-calorie meals that lets you indulge yourself without feeling one ounce of guilt.

Taste our new pasta salad made with spinach and plain rotini noodles. Maybe you’d like ripe chunks of fruit like watermelon and cantaloupe. Or a large choice of fresh vegetables. You’ll find it all at our Garden Spot Salad Bar. Try a steaming hot baked potato. We even have a new lower-calorie multi-grain bun for our sandwiches.

So go ahead. Feast. Wendy’s Light Menu is your license to eat.

Wendy's Light Menu 1985

Retro 80s Wendy’s training video: Grill skills

This video (and the two below) were converted from old VHS tapes, and had been originally created to help teach Wendy’s employees how to handle various aspects of food and drink prep.

While they undoubtedly will bring back some memories for Gen Xers, they are so phenomenally cheesy and retro, they’ve found new life online amusing Gen Y and Gen Zers — two generations that weren’t even born when these blasts from the past were filmed. 

YouTube video

Cringe-worthy Wendy’s training video: Cold drinks

This rap-like rhyming song in this totally 80s video seems to be influenced by the girl-next-door looks of Debbie Gibson and the musical style of Paula Abdul’s Straight Up.

YouTube video

How to handle hot drinks at Wendy’s: Employee training video from the 80s/90s

“Hot drinks really get you goin’ — warms you up when you feel you’re slowin’.”

YouTube video

Wendy’s receipt with prices from 1986

Wendy's receipt with prices from 1986

Wendy’s salads: Fast food superbar (1987)

Wendys fast food salads superbar (1987)

Friday Fish Specials on the retro 80s menu (1989)

Old Wendy's Friday Fish Specials - retro 80s menu (1989)


1980s-style Wendy’s restaurant sign and logo design
1980s-style Wendy's restaurant sign and logo design
Based on a photo by Landewar Photography/Dreamstime.com

Wendy’s restaurant prices in 1990 – Alabama

Wendy's restaurant prices in 1990 - Alabama

1990s sports-themed ad: “This is a burger town, pretty boy”

1990s Wendy's restaurant burgers

Retro Wendy’s Taco Salad (1995)

Retro Wendy's taco salads (1995)

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Hamburger bliss: Wendy’s triple burger (1999)

This vintage ad ran in Sports Illustrated magazine, and was created to somehow appeal to men. “Take your hunger out back, kick it in the face and push it off a cliff.”

Wendy's burgers (1999)

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. Wendy’s is one of my favorite places to eat. Love the salads, burgers and of course the Frostys.

    I had Wendy’s for lunch today as a matter of fact.

    I miss the old Wendy’s but like the new.

  2. In the mid 80s through the early 90s, we ate at the Wendy’s SuperBar all the time. You could treat the family to a huge all-you-can-eat meal — and one that was reasonably healthy — for a few dollars. There was something there for everyone: dieters, vegetarians, and people who simply wanted something other than the usual fast food fare. Today you can still get baked potatoes and chili at Wendy’s, but the open bar is sadly long gone.

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