…but I will remember him every time I bite into a Spicy Chicken Sandwich.
Tuesday January 8 1:35 PM ET
Wendy’s Founder Dave Thomas Dies of Cancer By Deborah Cohen
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Wendy’s International Inc. founder Dave Thomas, the smiling, down-to-earth everyman who personified the No. 3 U.S. hamburger chain through more than 10 years of self-effacing television commercials, has died at age 69, the company said on Tuesday.
Thomas died early Tuesday of liver cancer at his Florida home, the Dublin, Ohio-based company said. He had suffered from cancer for more than a decade, underwent heart bypass surgery in 1996 and had been on kidney dialysis treatment since last year.
Thomas retired as chairman of Wendy’s in 1982. Though he no longer actively managed the company, he had appeared in commercials for Wendy’s since 1989, when he became the official company spokesman. That began the string of well-known advertisements that featured him in humorous situations promoting the virtues of Wendy’s hamburgers, french fries and other simple fare.
“Dave was our patriarch, a great, big lovable man,” Wendy’s Chairman and Chief Executive Jack Schuessler said in a statement. “He had a passion for great-tasting hamburgers and devoted his life to serving customers great food and helping those less fortunate in his community.”
Thomas began his career in fast food in 1956 with a barbecue restaurant he opened with Phil Clauss, a former boss, in Knoxville, Tennessee. He moved into the fried chicken business after Clauss bought a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise from fast-food giant Colonel Harland Sanders. Thomas opened the first Wendy’s restaurant in 1969, naming it after his daughter.
Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1932, Thomas was adopted when he was six weeks old. Late in life he became an advocate for adoption, one of several causes he promoted to improve the lives of children, and in 1992 he created the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
“This fast-food icon was an everyday man’s entrepreneur and that was part of his charisma,” said Merrill Lynch restaurant analyst Peter Oakes. “He was an ambassador for the brand, for the industry and for adoption, and that’s what made him a great humanitarian.”
A HUMBLE START
Thomas got his first job at age 12 as a counterman at a Knoxville restaurant. At 15, he dropped out of school to work full-time, a decision he later said he regretted. Forty-five years later he received a high school equivalency diploma from Coconut Creek High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Thomas appeared in more than 800 Wendy’s ads and holds the Guinness Book of Records achievement for the longest TV campaign by a company founder. Those commercials, where Thomas appeared wearing his signature white short-sleeved shirt and red tie, often featured celebrities, including blues great B.B. King, Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi and soap opera star Susan Lucci.
In 1979, Thomas’ rags-to-riches story earned him the Horatio Alger Award from the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.
Thomas often said he felt lucky to have been born in the United States. “Only in America would a guy like me, from humble beginnings and without a high school diploma, become successful,” he once said.
Wendy’s, which operates about 6,000 Wendy’s restaurants in the United States, Canada and international markets, began franchising in the early 1970s and went public in 1976.
Thomas’ death marks the second major loss for the company in recent years. In 1999, Chief Executive and President Gordon Teter died, leaving current CEO Schuessler at the helm.