The Tiny Burger Chain That Inspired The Creation Of Wendy's

You don't need us to tell you that Wendy's is popular. With over 5, 938 locations across the United States as of 2021 (via Statista), the restaurant that serves up square, "never-frozen" burgers has become a pillar of the American fast-food market. Much like any other fast-food juggernaut, Wendy's prides itself on a history seemingly rooted in the promise of hard work, values of service and innovation, and the insatiable American craving for beef.

As Wendy's notes on their company website, founder Dave Thomas opened the first Wendy's restaurant in Columbus, Ohio in 1969. In 1976, one of the first Wendy's commercials broke onto the airwaves, featuring an animated Wendy's girl and dancing hamburgers extolling the virtues of old-fashioned hamburgers. By the 1980s, Ohio History Central tells us that Wendy's was adding 500 restaurants a year to its roster — demonstrating that only 20 years into its existence, Wendy's place in the greasy history books of fast food was already secured.

 Of course, like any good businessman, Dave Thomas had drawn from his life to make Wendy's the symbol of old-fashioned burgers it is today. You may have heard, for example, the heartwarming story that both the name of the restaurant and its pig-tailed freckled mascot is based on Thomas's daughter Wendy, as The Sun notes. But while it was Thomas' own ingenuity that helped get Wendy's off the ground and into the arteries of customers across America, there's one more burger place that really helped start it all.

Kewpee Hamburgers inspired a young Dave Thomas

Kewpee Hamburgers? If you haven't heard of it until now, you're not alone. Kewpee, much like the original Wendy's, is considered a staple in the state of Ohio and isn't really well-known outside of a very few select areas. But their influence was enough that this somewhat obscure piece of Ohio history supposedly left an impact on a young Dave Thomas.

As Atlas Obscura tells us, Kewpee Hamburgers got its start back in the 1920s in Flint, Michigan under the name of "Kewpee Hotels Hamburgs." Eventually, the chain that would become known as Kewpee Hamburgers began to grow; by the 1940s, it had nearly 400 locations. World War II, however, forced a majority of Kewpee restaurants to close, as the intense focus on the war effort meant that there was less beef on the homefront — and thus a lack of burgers. The few Kewpee restaurants that survive today are located in and around the area of Lima, Ohio (via Kewpee Hamburgers).

But where does Dave Thomas come into this story? According to Midwest Guest, there's a sort of "urban legend" that a young Dave Thomas, while growing up in the area of Kalamazoo, Michigan, would frequent the local Kewpee restaurant and the chain's food and service inspired him later in life to create Wendy's. While Wendy's nor Kewpee has ever made mention if such a claim is true, both Wendy's and Kewpee are known for square hamburgers and thick shakes on their menu — perhaps a "happy coincidence?"