I have a secret. At least I think it’s a secret. Maybe it’s more of a
crackpot under-appreciated theory. But here goes: I don’t think Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, invented the Frosty. There – my secret is out in the open.
First, I can just imagine a few people asking “What’s a Frosty?” It is now a (copyrighted) name for a “dairy dessert” that has been on the menu at Wendy’s (f/k/a Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers) since it opened in Columbus, Ohio in 1969.
If you try to look up the Frosty online, you will be treated to multiple stories of how Dave Thomas invented it for his debut menu at the first Wendy’s. But my secret for all of these decades has been that I know a little something about this that is not in the official histories.
The Frosty is the one thing that sets Wendy’s apart from pretty much every other fast food joint. It is a frozen dessert that is thicker than a milk shake, but not as thick as soft-serve ice cream. It is chocolate (ok, before the tag-along vanilla variety came out a few years ago) but it is not as chocolaty as chocolate ice cream or a chocolate shake. It is kind of half-chocolate. And don’t even think about a straw – a Frosty requires a spoon from start to finish.
We all know that food quality vairies quite a lot at fast food locations, even within a single chain. Wendy’s is no different. I have experienced near-nirvana at Wendy’s and have also experienced the kind of meal that would have old Dave Thomas hopping out of his grave if he knew what was happening in that particular place. But there is one hard rule to distinguish between a good Wendy’s experience and a bad Wendy’s experience – is the Frosty really frozen? Or is it all melty like the milkshakes you get elsewhere. Because the soft, melted, not-cold-enough Frosty is totally unacceptable.
I will admit to being a Frosty Boy and I am going to out Marianne as being a Frosty Girl. One of our favorite family stories was about the drive to the hospital for the delivery of our third kid. At that time there was a Wendy’s location between our house and our chosen maternity facility. Despite the increasing frequency of contractions, the request was made to stop at the drive-thru for a Frosty. Only when a request comes from a lady about to give birth, it’s not really a request. I have been chided for years about taking the opportunity to get a hamburger for myself – hey these events can take awhile. I needn’t have worried about that because Marianne set a birth speed record that evening. Could the Frosty have been the secret?
Anyway, back to my point. I have written before that I hail from Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Fort Wayne of my early 1960’s childhood (and of my mother’s mid 1950’s young-adulthood) is a lot different from what it is now. Chain restaurants were rare and meant things like Howard Johnson. It was the local joints that saw all the action, and one of those local places was Gardner’s drive-in.
Frank Gardner started the place downtown in 1935 and in later decades a couple of other locations were built. It was a fairly typical burgers/fries/malts kind of place for its era, with one exception – Something they called a Frosty.
The Gardner’s Frosty has been described as a frozen malt, but the ones I recall did not have that typical malt flavor. I think I would have remembered this because I am not a fan of malt in my ice cream.
But the last time I had one was probably before I was ten or eleven years old, at a place that looked more like this one. Anyway the Gardner’s Frosty was a unique treat that was served frozen in a paper cup and eaten with one of those little flat wooden paddles they called spoons. It was available nowhere else, and it was a must-order dessert on those rare times when Mom would take us to the place (which was a lot farther from our house than many other alternatives).
Did you know that Dave Thomas started his restaurant career in Fort Wayne, Indiana? In late 1940’s and early 1950’s he worked for a place called The Hobby House which became an early franchisee of something called Kentucky Fried Chicken. You may have heard of it. Anyway, that place was just a few blocks from – you guessed it – Gardner’s. I have no doubt that Dave Thomas enjoyed the occasional Gardner’s Frosty during his Fort Wayne years, before he headed to Columbus, Ohio to start a burger joint named after his daughter (and to get rich (er)).
I remember when Wendy’s first franchises came to Fort Wayne, probably around 1971 or 72. I remember loving the big, juicy square burger patties that stuck way out from the buns. And I remember being surprised to see – the Frosty. I had assumed at the time that a Frosty (unless it was Frostie) was a fairly common staple of the midwestern drive-in scene of my parents’ era. But in the ensuing years, I have stopped believing this because I have never come across them anywhere after my last meal at Gardner’s. Maybe readers from other parts of the country can weigh in here.
The source of the Frosty didn’t really matter at that time because Gardner’s went away some time after the mid 1960’s – I don’t recall it being a thing when I started driving in the second half of the 1970’s. And, of course, Wendy’s went the opposite direction.
Please do not take my little expose’ as being critical of Mr. Thomas. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it takes effort to reverse-engineer something you love and want to share. So I will not cast shade at Dave Thomas or Wendy’s because Wendy’s has steadfastly stuck by the Frosty. And as long as Wendy’s sticks by the Frosty, I will stick by Wendy’s. At least as long as I get good ones.
I will confess to one thing: Every time I order a Wendy’s Frosty, I have the little urge to look over my glasses at the poor kid behind the plexiglass shield that protects him from Covid and say “Just so you know, you guys didn’t actually invent these.” He will not understand. But you do.
2018 photo by famartin via Wikiedia Commons, depicting a Frosty created and presumably enjoyed in Virginia. Although it looks a little too soft to yours truly.
Photo of Gardner’s Drive-In c. 1953 by Nola Marquardt, via Findagrave.com
Photo of newer Gardner’s Drive-In c. 1960 from The Indiana Album