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Hundreds bid farewell to 1st Wendy's

A bicycle messenger and pedestrians walk by the first Wendy's restaurant, Thursday, March 1, 2007 in downtown Columbus, Ohio. They came in droves, regulars and first-timers, braving long lines and cold rain to order burgers, fries and milkshakes at the very first Wendy's restaurant, closing Friday, March 2, 2007 after 38 years downtown because of a long history of lagging sales. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

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.

Thomas named the restaurant after his 8-year-old daughter Melinda Lou, nicknamed Wendy by her siblings. The same week he opened his first store, the first McDonald's in Columbus celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Sirloin went for 97 cents a pound and a washer ran $178. You could still shop until 9 p.m. on Saturdays at the city's landmark department store, Lazarus, a few blocks away. That store closed three years ago, spurring its own outburst of nostalgia and disappointment.

Like a lot of people, insurance agent Gary Beim hadn't eaten at the first Wendy's for a while. But he stopped in for a cup of coffee and some reminiscing.

"I just wanted that moment of being here for that last time," Beim said.

Wendy's restored the restaurant in 1994 to its original fixtures, including multicolored Tiffany glass lamps, hanging plastic beads and tables with old-fashioned newspaper laminate surfaces.

The company plans to move the memorabilia to corporate headquarters in the suburb of Dublin.

Ken Thomas, 50, is president of a Wendy's franchise company with his four sisters. He has many memories of working at the first store and other branches, coming home each night smelling of onions and pickles.

"I don't want to see it happen," he said. But he's resigned to the closing because of the man who got it all started.

"No one knows my father as well as I do -- he was my best friend," Thomas said. "I can tell you right now that he knew, that sooner or later we're going to have to do something with No. 1 store."

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On the Net:

Wendy's: http://www.wendys.com/

Columbus: http://ci.columbus.oh.us/

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