February 26, 2004

    Dave Thomas, founder and senior chairman of Wendy’s International, died Tuesday at his home in Fort Lauderdale. He was 69. The cause of death was reported to be liver cancer.

    Thomas was the founder of one of the most successful fast-food enterprises in the world. At the time of his death, the Wendy’s fast food chain numbered 6,000 restaurants across the world.

    In 1989, Thomas started producing and appearing in his now-well-known television commercials. In 1991, he had quipped, “As long as it works, I’ll continue to do the commercials. When it’s not working any longer, then I’m history.”

    Thomas also created the not-for-profit organization, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. An adopted child himself, Thomas said how important his family was to his success. Chief executive of Wendy’s Jack Schuessler described him as a man who “devoted his life to serving customers great food and helping those less fortunate in his community.”

    Dave Thomas was born July 2, 1932. He got his first restaurant job at the age of 12 working as a counterman in Knoxville. In 1956, he was employed with a barbecue restaurant. Col. Harland Sanders, on a promotional tour, stopped by the restaurant one day; around the same time, Thomas’ boss purchased a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.

    Six years after, Thomas relocated to Columbus to take charge of four KFC restaurants on the verge of failure. By 1968, he had sold them back to the founder, earning him $1.5 million at the age of 35. 

    Thomas opened his first restaurant, Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers, the year after, naming it after his daughter Melinda Lou, who was nicknamed Wendy by her siblings.

    Although company profits dropped during the middle of the ‘80s, the company began to rebound with Thomas’ commercials. He produced more than 800 ads, always making an appearance in his trademark white short-sleeved shirt and red tie. Attributing such ads to the company’s success, financial analyst Diane Mustain commented, “He’s given Wendy’s a corporate identity … a down-homey type image. The lack of sophistication is a real benefit for the company.”

    In 1996, Wendy’s acquired Tim Hortons, a Canadian-based coffee and bakery goods chain that has grown to over 2,000 stores. Combined with Wendy’s, the two franchises make over $8 billion annually in sales. Schuessler said of Thomas’ success, “He was never comfortable as a celebrity. He kept reminding us he was simply a hamburger cook.”