Pssst. Wanna Hear My Secret About The Frosty?

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.

Photo Credits:

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

15 thoughts on “Pssst. Wanna Hear My Secret About The Frosty?

  1. A few thoughts burble to the surface. In the mid-2000s, dad became close friends with Richard Clauss, owner of the Hobby House through the mid-80s when he retired in his forties to become a master woodworker and gunsmith. He was extremely talented and probably the nicest man imaginable. He died last year.

    Every time I’ve eaten at Wendy’s in Canada I’ve noticed a marked difference in taste from the domestic variety. Not a good or bad change, but four or five over twenty years has confirmed it. Different supplier, I’m sure. Maybe the raw mixture is grass fed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm, I have been limited to the domestic versions. I will gripe a bit about the way they changed from dill pickles to bread & butter pickles on their burgers a few years ago – it sounds like a minor thing, but it isn’t.

      When I was very young in the early 1960s I remember the Hobby House’s offshoot – the Hobby Ranch House on North Anthony Blvd. That was where we would make an occasional foray for fried chicken in those red and white cardboard buckets. Knowing what I know now, I believe that Dave Thomas was running that operation, as he was quite influential in the early KFC organization when the Colonel was still active. And the first Fort Wayne Wendy’s I remember was about a block or less north on North Anthony.

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  2. I can not offer a comment on whether a Canadian Wendy’s is different from a US Wendy’s, as I’ve never eaten at either, but I did notice Irish McDonalds milkshakes were much different than the Canadian ones, as the cows were grass fed year round. Wendy’s here requires a left hand turn across a busy 4 lane road, (and we all know how those left hand turns lead to car accidents), whereas MacDonald’s with it’s right hand turn is the safer bet. But now I’m curious to see what a Frosty tastes like, so I might just have to drive around the corner.

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  3. Good for Dave! Quite an adaptor of good ideas, from the square burger patty to the Frosty.
    I do enjoy a Frosty every few years, and I really enjoy the first half of them. The second half I share or leave, they’re just too darn big.

    Our family is more McDonalds-y for such things, mostly because it’s a lot closer. Bit of a family tradition to go for McDonalds hot fudge sundaes, and they are a more manageable size.

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    • Mcd is much more convenient to us too, and you are right about the size of the sundaes.

      And Frosty sizes seem to have gotten bigger over the years – like everything else. The old Gardner frosty was fairly petite.

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  4. Of the fast-food joints, Wendy’s is definitely my favorite. However, my personal barometer isn’t a Frosty (of which I’ve had two since roughly 1985) but, rather, their sweet tea. You mentioned regional differences and that is very much the case with their sweet tea.

    Dave also deserves credit for having been such a big advocate of adoption. While I know he was adopted, he was always in the back of my mind when Mrs. Jason and I were talking adoption around ten years ago.

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    • I will confess that while I like sweet tea, I prefer a half and half mix for half-sweet tea. My other confession is that I can’t usually make myself pay for either soft drinks or tea when dining out. Forgoing the sugary stuff for ice water is one of my few good dietary habits, and one of the rare ones that costs less than the bad dietary habits.

      I have always understood that Dave Thomas was one of those guys who was brilliant at what he did and an all around good guy besides.

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  5. Ha ha – and if Dave Thomas were alive, he’d protest and say he never crossed Gardner’s premises back in the day and DT’s version has no malt in it. I’m no fan of malt either. I laughed at your line “Because the soft, melted, not-cold-enough Frosty is totally unacceptable.” I “get” that as it has to be such consistency that you almost get a brain freeze if you try to stick a straw in to enjoy it instead of a spoon. Using a straw means you have to wait 45 minutes to drink it. I’ve not had a Frosty in a while – it was a treat my late mom and I would get and then take it down to the River to watch the freighters go by. We did this many times in the Summer if we were out on errands or were out in the car. Disclaimer: we never had a meal at Wendy’s, just this frozen treat and I’ve never tried the vanilla type … always a purist. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s it, I dedicate my next Frosty to your Mom – one diehard Frosty fan to another! 🙂 And I’m with you – as much as I love vanilla as a flavor, I have never tried the vanilla Frosty. And I normally prefer vanilla over chocolate in ice cream-related things. The half-chocolate of the original is just right for me.

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      • Well Mom would like that JP – we enjoyed many a Frosty together. You have to be a purist about some things. I don’t like when companies feel the need to tweak their signature products, whether it is food or any other item. I used to enjoy KFC and it’s been a few years since I had any, but they changed the extra crispy to a very spicy batter and I found it was not as crispy either, in fact – soggier and I am not a picky eater.

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