Wendy's king 'a great guy'

Thomas got his big break in 1962 when the owner of the Hobby House, Phil Clauss, offered him a 45 per cent stake in four failing KFC outlets Clauss owned if Thomas could turn them around. In 1968, Clauss sold them back to KFC at a profit and Thomas, who was then 35, pocketed his first million dollars. Thomas used the money to seed his first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant a year later.

The Toronto Star
January 9, 2002

Wendy's king 'a great guy'
Burger chain founder dies of cancer at 69
Dana Flavelle

DaveThomas.jpg

He was the orphan who became a multi-millionaire.

The high-school dropout whose dream of running a family-style restaurant grew into North America's third-largest burger chain.

R. David Thomas, owner of Wendy's International Inc. and, for more than a decade, the likeable, corny, pudgy star of Wendy's television commercials, died yesterday at his home in Florida of liver cancer. He was 69.

"It's a huge personal loss. He was very popular with everyone," said Ron Joyce, the Oakville-based businessman who became Wendy's largest shareholder when the burger chain bought out Tim Hortons Restaurants in 1995.

"He was a great guy. We're going to miss him very much," said Gus Masri, owner of a Wendy's franchise in Toronto. He met Thomas at the company's annual convention in Las Vegas six years ago. "He was just an average guy. A very funny guy."

Thomas leaves behind an $8 billion (U.S.)-a-year empire, his wife Dorothy, five children, 16 grandchildren and millions of heartbroken TV viewers who saw him in 800 different commercials since 1989.

The ads won't be shown for the next few days out of respect, said a spokesperson for the Canadian head office.

It wasn't Thomas' idea to be front and centre, but he would do anything to help the company, spokesperson Sharon Reid said. The ads were initially lambasted by ad industry critics. Too corny, they said.

But consumers couldn't get enough of them, and Thomas' personal appearances were credited with reviving the company's sagging fortunes in the late '80s.

Viewers connected with the man who came across as everyone's ideal dad. "I loved him," said Casandra Harding-Whatman, 27, an advertising salesperson in Toronto. "He was the reason I ate at Wendy's."

Thomas' own experience of family life was limited as a child.

Born July 2, 1932, in Atlantic City, N.J., he was adopted at 6 weeks of age by Rex and Auleva Thomas of Michigan. His adoptive mother died when Thomas was just 5, and he spent the next 10 years moving from city to city as his father searched for work.

Thomas landed his first job at age 12 working the counter at a Knoxville, Tenn., restaurant and fell in love with the business.

At 15, he found work at the Hobby House Restaurant in Fort Wayne, Ind. When his father pulled up stakes again, Thomas stayed behind, moved into a room at the local YMCA and quit high school to work.

Dropping out remained his biggest regret until he went back to school 45 years later, graduating from Coconut Creek High School in Fort Lauderdale, when he was named "most likely to succeed" by his classmates.

While working at the Hobby House, Thomas met Colonel Harland Sanders, owner of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain, who went on to become a big influence in his life.

Thomas got his big break in 1962 when the owner of the Hobby House, Phil Clauss, offered him a 45 per cent stake in four failing KFC outlets Clauss owned if Thomas could turn them around.

In 1968, Clauss sold them back to KFC at a profit and Thomas, who was then 35, pocketed his first million dollars. Thomas used the money to seed his first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant a year later.

Thomas differentiated his chain from the competition by emphasizing fresh, not frozen, beef patties shaped in squares. Baked potatoes and Frosties (frosted shakes) became signature items.

He named his restaurants after his second-youngest daughter (born Melinda Lou, a name her four siblings found too difficult to pronounce, hence the nickname Wendy) and modelled the logo — a red-headed girl with freckles and braids — after her.

Today, Wendy's Restaurants owns 5,700 burger outlets, including 339 in Canada, and more than 2,000 Tim Hortons.

In 1992, Thomas founded the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, in an effort to improve orphaned children's chances of finding a family.

"I know first-hand how important it is for every child to have a home and loving family," he once told a congressional committee.

"Without a family, I would not be where I am today."

With files from Associated Press


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