COLUMBUS, Ohio — They came in droves, regulars and first-timers, children, parents and grandparents, to order burgers, fries and milkshakes at the first Wendy’s restaurant, closing Friday after 37 years downtown because of persistent lagging sales.
Some called the decision corporate greed. Others shrugged, saying they could understand a business decision.
“If Dave Thomas knew he would roll over in his grave,” said Drenna Burke, a broker’s assistant who works around the corner. She ate often at the dark brick restaurant with a distinctive blue-and-white aluminum trim and on Thursday was snapping pictures of Wendy’s paraphernalia, including toys, utensils and photos of Thomas from over the years.
“You can’t tell me that Wendy’s doesn’t make enough profit that they can continue to keep this open,” Burke said. “It’s all about greed and it’s all about money.”
Thomas, who died in 2002, opened the restaurant in a former steakhouse on a cold, snowy Saturday on Nov. 15, 1969. He was accompanied by actor Danny Thomas, a longtime friend, and later became nationally known as the company’s pitchman in television commercials for the nation’s third largest hamburger chain.
The same day, Apollo 12 astronauts were headed for the moon despite electrical problems in the spacecraft. The government was reporting the death of soldiers in Vietnam and newspapers reported war protests at home.
The restaurant fell victim to tight parking and sparse dinner or weekend business in a downtown that largely shuts down after 5 p.m. despite the city’s efforts to increase housing and entertainment options. The move eight years ago of the city’s popular science museum from across the street to bigger digs a mile away probably sealed the restaurant’s fate.
Norman Harris, 69, who often brought his children to the restaurant after a trip to the museum, stopped by Friday with his 13-year-old granddaughter for a last visit. “It’s a business decision I’m sure, but from a memorabilia standpoint, certainly we would like to see them keep it open,” he said.
The restaurant averaged only about half of the $1.4 million in annual business done by a typical Wendy’s store.
“We can tell when we come by at night there’s no business at all — there’s limited parking and obviously no drive-through,” said Jon Montzler, an attorney with the state who often lunched at the restaurant with his wife, Jennifer, and their two preschool sons.
Thomas’ son, Ken, said he sees both sides of the argument.
“My father taught me that profit’s really not a dirty word,” Thomas said Thursday, munching on a double burger with mustard, pickle and onions.
The blue-striped dress his mother sewed for his sister, the original Wendy, was hanging in a display case a few feet away.
“People say, ‘Well, we’re going to do it Dave’s way,”’ Thomas said, his eyes shining at times.
“Well, if you’re going to do it Dave’s way, then you need to close this restaurant.”
Huge crowds the last few days demonstrated the restaurant’s symbolic value. But one researcher said the closing, despite the nostalgia, wouldn’t affect Wendy’s International or its image.
“I don’t think anybody who’s going to grab a burger in Texas really cares whether or not the first Wendy’s is opened or closed,” said Scott Rothbort, a Seton Hall business professor.