How the Hobby House launched a fast food empire

Hobby House
Hobby House

The biggest story to hit Indiana’s food scene recently has been the New York Times’ celebration of the fried chicken in the southern part of the Hoosier state. “If you see a steeple in southeastern Indiana,” wrote Michael Ruhlman, “you can be pretty sure that fried chicken is nearby.”

But there is good chicken—and good chicken history—all over the state. You won’t find a better example than the Hobby House in Fort Wayne. 

Phil Clauss opened the Hobby House in 1948; his 155-seat restaurant served breakfast and lunch every day but Saturday. Over the front door, the Hobby House advertised “popular foods at popular prices.” 

Among Clauss’s employees was a fifteen-year-old (and future Wendy’s founder) named Dave Thomas, whose adoptive family had made the trek north from Knoxville, Tennessee. Thomas elected to stay even as the family prepared to move again. He dropped out of school to support himself, and he did not obtain his GED until 1993. Thomas considered the decision to leave school the worst of his life, and it turned him into an advocate for education—in addition to adoption—causes. 

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As Clauss took note of Thomas’s diligence in even the most routine tasks, like busing tables and washing dishes, Thomas rose through the ranks. Clauss eventually made Thomas manager of the Hobby House Ranch Restaurant at North Anthony Boulevard and Crescent Avenue. 

In a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up twist, the Hobby Ranch site is now home to a Wendy’s restaurant. Thomas visited that store—the 5,300th in the Wendy’s chain—in 1998. 

In 1954, a cowboy star named Kenne Duncan,  stopped by the Hobby House. c/o News Sentinel, via Classic Restaurants of Fort Wayne by Keith Elchert and Laura Weston (History Press, 2019. $21.99)

“Yep. It all started right here,” Thomas reminisced to a newspaper interviewer during that stop. “I used to live around the corner and this is also where the Colonel walked in and eventually became one of my mentors.”

That would be Colonel Harland David Sanders, who was growing his fried chicken empire of franchised KFCs. Thomas remained on the Colonel’s radar when in 1962 he accepted Clauss’s offer to take over four KFC franchises that Clauss owned and that were floundering in Columbus, Ohio. Thomas was promised a 45 percent stake if he was able to turn the stores around. His success was evident when he and a partner sold those stores back to KFC for $1.5 million in 1968. Thomas opened his first Wendy’s in Columbus a year later. 

Wendy’s grew to become the world’s third-largest hamburger chain. Legend has it that the signature square hamburgers got their shape as Thomas kept in mind the advice of his grandmother: “Don’t cut corners.” And Thomas became a television commercial staple through the late 1980s and 1990s as the folksy pitchman for the restaurants named for one of his daughters. He was estimated to have filmed more than eight hundred spots, a record for a company-founder/pitchman. In a previous Wendy’s advertisement campaign, Clara Peller introduced America to the well-remembered catchphrase, “Where’s the beef?” 

A former Hobby House patron shared her own insight into Thomas during his 1998 visit to his old stomping grounds. 

“The thing I most admire about him is that he still remembers who we are,” said Lorraine Shubert. “We’ve never been in one place together where he didn’t recognize us. He’s just a wonderful guy.” 

As for the Hobby House, its flagship downtown restaurant closed in August 1999. Its owners cited a recently enacted city ordinance that banned smoking in restaurants, which they said led to an almost immediate 20 percent drop in business. Phil Clauss’s daughter Carol continued her father’s restaurant tradition. After working at the Hobby House for years, she went on to open the Family & Friends Café in Time Corners. 

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This article was adapted from Classic Restaurants of Fort Wayne by Keith Elchert and Laura Weston (History Press, 2019. $21.99 )